The pilot of a Qantas flight in which the computer systems went "psycho" and threw the plane into two sudden nose dives says he felt like his aircraft was a handgrenade waiting to go off.

Pilot Kevin Sullivan was in charge of infamous flight QF72 in 2008, when its computer systems experienced a major failure that has still not been fully explained by investigators.

Ten years on, he fears similar terrifying incidents and crashes are possible because pilots are not trained to deal with such emergencies.

His flight on the then state-of-the-art A330 from Singapore to Perth, was carrying 315 passengers and crew, including three New Zealanders, when a string of warnings erupted before the plane made two nosedives within a 5-minute period.

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The plane's captain Kevin Sullivan spoke with Mike Hosking today. Photo / Supplied
The plane's captain Kevin Sullivan spoke with Mike Hosking today. Photo / Supplied

Panic broke out in the cabin as 119 passengers and crew were injured and left fearing for their lives in one of Australia's most terrifying mid-air emergencies.

It was 50 minutes before Sullivan could make an emergency landing near the small West Australian desert town of Exmouth.

"I describe it as: basically for those 50 minutes, I pulled the pin on a hand grenade and I was sitting on it and wating for it go off," he told Newstalk ZB host Mike Hosking today.

Now detailed in an episode of television show Air Crash Investigation, the flight had earlier left Singapore's Changi Airport without incident on October 7, 2008.

It was cruising without problem over the Indian Ocean when bedlam broke loose.

First, one of the plane's autopilot systems disconnected, with Sullivan, a former US Navy Top Gun fighter pilot, forced to take control.

Flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava still lives with the physical pain, as well as the emotional pain, of the incident.
Flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava still lives with the physical pain, as well as the emotional pain, of the incident.

Next a series of warning messages lit up, "saturating the flight deck" with noise.

Sullivan and his co-pilots could not make sense of how warnings for stall and overspeed could be going off at the same time.

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"Basically, the aeroplane is thinking I'm at minimum speed and at maximum speed simultaneously," he said.

"Now I can see outside that was not the case because nothing's changed, but in the electronic brain of the flight control computers, it was under threat and unbeknownst to me, it was going to take action."

The jet suddenly plunged nose-first towards the ocean. Sullivan tried to override, but the computer systems locked the controls.

"At that point, I'm in a pretty helpless situation, I'm a passenger like everybody else," he said.

Damage in the cabin. Photo / Australian Transport Safety Bureau
Damage in the cabin. Photo / Australian Transport Safety Bureau

North Shore grandfather Fuzzy Maiava, and Auckland women Jenaya McKay and Sam Perkins were flight attendants on the flight.

Maiava spoke to the Herald in 2014 about his ongoing struggle with injuries and his quest for compensation and recently told the Air Crash Investigations programme he was in the back of the plane heating food when it plunged 200m in 20 seconds.

"Next minute, bang. I must have hit the ceiling because it knocked me out," he said.

In the cockpit, Sullivan could only let go of the controls and wait for the computer system to give him back control of the aircraft.

"You have no time for yelling, no time for panic," he said this morning.

"I did utter a few nasty slurs at the Airbus and flight control computers, but we are trying to regain control of the aircraft, trying to figure out what's going on."

Fuzzy Maiava spoke with the Herald in 2014. Photo / File
Fuzzy Maiava spoke with the Herald in 2014. Photo / File

"My co-pilot and I were talking very calmly and sounded like we were sitting on the park bench feeding the pigeons."

But despite their calm, the problems they experienced were never fully explained by investigators.

Airbus later made changes to A330 aircraft to ensure a similar error in the future didn't trigger another terrifying nose dive.

But the problems from 10 years ago have recently had eerily similar parallels to fatal crashes involving Boeing 737 Max aircraft.

Sullivan told Hosking he worried that pilots were still not trained in ways to deal with unexplained failures by flight control computers.

"If they fail for the wrong reasons, we don't really practise that," he said.

Ceiling panels had become damaged. Photo / Australian Transport Safety Bureau
Ceiling panels had become damaged. Photo / Australian Transport Safety Bureau

Similarly pilots that had run into recent troubles with the Boeing 737 Max "really didn't know much about that system until it activated".

"It's as if the automation will never fail, it will only activate when it's needed, so let's not talk about it," he said.

"But I'm saying, 'well I've seen it fail and we've seeing it fail with the [Boeing] Max aircraft as well'."

He said being a pilot was still a "noble profession".

"But with the increase in automation, it is almost as if the manufacturers are trying to squeeze the pilots out of the flight deck."

Despite landing safely, Sullivan went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress and reported himself to Qantas as being medically unfit for the job, sending him into an early retirement.

"Eventually, my passion for flying became death by a thousand cuts," he said.

Maiava also reported ongoing suffering from his mental and physical injuries but told the Air Crash Investigations episode Sullivan had been heroic.

"The guy is amazing. Kevin is the reason why we're sitting here today to tell the story."