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Watchdogs investigate Boeing plane’s nosedive on flight to New Zealand

by Staff

Airline watchdogs were on Tuesday investigating why a Boeing-made LATAM plane bound for New Zealand suddenly lost altitude mid-flight, dropping violently and injuring dozens of terrified travellers.

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Passengers said the Boeing 787 Dreamliner plunged earthward while en route from Sydney to Auckland on Monday evening, slinging unrestrained travellers out of their seats and smashing some into the roof of the cabin.

Chile-based LATAM Airlines said Tuesday it was working with authorities to pinpoint the unspecified “technical event” that caused flight LA800 to experience “a strong movement”.

It is the latest in a string of safety incidents to plague US airplane manufacturer Boeing.

“It was just a split second,” said Auckland-based chef Lucas Ellwood, who was one of 263 passengers and nine cabin crew aboard. 

“The crashing of people into the roof caused the tiling to be dislodged,” he told AFP on Tuesday. 

“The guy behind me was in the toilet when it happened, the poor guy. He told me he went through the roof,” he added. 

On the ground, emergency crews were notified shortly before the flight landed and a phalanx of more than a dozen ambulances and other medical vehicles rushed to the scene.

Paramedics said they treated about 50 patients. Four people remained in hospital as of Tuesday morning, Health officials told AFP.

LATAM said in a statement that “only one passenger and one crew member have injuries that require additional care but are not life-threatening.”

The flight arrived on time, the airline added.

‘Black swan event’ 

The Chilean General Directorate of Civil Aeronautics said New Zealand air safety investigators will lead the probe into the incident, with Chilean help. 

Air accident safety investigator Joe Hattley told AFP that technical problems were rare in modern aircraft. 

“That flight record will be key to understanding this event. It will tell investigators if it was an atmospheric event or a technical problem with the aircraft,” said Hattley, who also teaches at the University of New South Wales in Australia. 

“These kinds of events highlight the absolute need for passengers to keep their seatbelts fastened.”

Brian Jokat, who was on board, said he saw a passenger strike the roof of the plane before falling back down and hitting his ribs on an armrest.

“He was on the roof of the plane on his back, looking down on me. It was like ‘The Exorcist’,” Jokat told national broadcaster Radio New Zealand. 

Jokat said that after the plane landed, the pilot came to the back of the cabin. 

“I asked him ‘what happened?’ and he said to me ‘I lost my instrumentation briefly and then it just came back all of a sudden’,” Jokat said.

Ashok Poduval, a commercial airline pilot for 15 years and now chief executive of the Massey University School of Aviation, said the incident appeared to be an ultra-rare “black swan event”. 

“A malfunction of the autopilot or unexpected clear-air turbulence are some of the possibilities that could cause an upset of this nature,” he said, adding that only the investigation could tell for sure.

“They will be examining the digital flight data recorders, the cockpit voice recorders, they will be interviewing the pilots before they come to any conclusion.”

Data from airline tracker FlightAware showed the plane began losing altitude about two hours into the three-hour flight. But it was unclear if this was part of its descent into Auckland.

Safety issues 

US manufacturer Boeing has suffered a series of safety issues in recent years, including the fatal Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes of 737 MAX planes in 2018 and 2019 that killed more than 350 people.

“We are working to gather more information about the flight and will provide any support needed by our customer,” Boeing said in a statement sent to AFP.

“Boeing stands ready to support investigation-related activities as requested,” the company added later.

The manufacturer is still reeling from a near-catastrophic incident in January when a fuselage panel on a Boeing 737 MAX 9 Alaska Airlines jet blew off mid-flight in the United States.

Last week, a Boeing 777 jetliner bound for Japan had to make an emergency landing shortly after takeoff from San Francisco when a wheel fell off and plunged into an airport parking lot, damaging several cars.

US regulators earlier this month gave Boeing 90 days to come up with a plan addressing quality control issues, with the Federal Aviation Administration chief saying the company must “commit to real and profound improvements”.

Since the start of the year, Boeing’s share price has dropped 25 percent. 

“Boeing has some controlled issues in production, but generally most aircraft are good and reliable,” said Upstream Aviation consultant Tim Collins.

He said Boeing made up about 50 percent of the global jet fleet. 

“While some people might think twice about Boeing’s reputation, the same would happen if an Airbus crashed tomorrow.”


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