No Man’s Land – Kevin Sullivan

Review by David Fredericks.

Many of us know the general gist of the story of QF72—the Qantas Airbus A330 that made an emergency landing at RAAF Learmonth during its scheduled flight between Singapore and Perth on 7 October 2008. We may remember the reports from the press at the time of the incident which involved the sudden onset of uncommanded aircraft manoeuvres at 37,000 feet, twice violently pitching the aircraft nose-down towards the Indian Ocean and leading to more than 100 of the 315 people on board being injured, some seriously. 

We may have seen the more recent Australian ‘60 Minutes’ or ‘Sunday’ television programs that explained how the crew of QF72 faced the challenges of responding to these unexpected pitch-down manoeuvres; manoeuvres that could not be readily comprehended in flight from the modern instrumentation on the flight deck nor the numerous automated audible warnings to the crew.  Then there is the 2018 episode from the ‘Air Crash Investigations’ series that dissected the incident and its causes, placing the blame firmly at the feet of the aircraft’s software automation and the demands upon the crew to respond with actions they were never trained for, nor had been anticipated by the aircraft’s manufacturer.

While I have known of this incident since 2008, it was only after a recent contact with Kevin Sullivan on another matter that I found out he was also the captain of QF72, aka ‘Captain Kev’. I was seeking to find out more about Kev’s time as a United States Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot on exchange with the Royal Australian Air Force in the 1980s where he flew the Mirage IIIO. I wanted to know how his time with both the USN and the RAAF had shaped his post-military life. I hadn’t expected to find out how he called on his military training while dealing with the dramatic in-flight chaos on QF72. Kev told me about his book, and so I just had to read it.

Within the 300 plus pages of No Man’s LandKevin Sullivan goes into great detail of the events of this fateful day in his life and his career as a commercial airline pilot, providing a minute-by-minute-recounting of what unfolded during the flight. At 12.39 pm, QF72 was cruising serenely at 37,000 feet en route to Perth. Barely ten minutes later, following the two uncommanded violent pitch downs, the crew were declaring a MAYDAY. By 13.42pm the Airbus was safely on the ground at Learmonth, with 119 injured passengers and crew. The story of the events of those 63 minutes is both dramatic and alarming and reveals both the outstanding professionalism of modern commercial pilots as well as their exemplary display of teamwork as a crew. 

But this book is more than just ‘Captain Kev’ re-telling the story of QF72’s eventful flight—he also explores the challenges of, and risks inherent in, the ongoing drive to increased automation of modern commercial aircraft. He raises significant concerns about how this automation is relinquishing control of the aircraft from the human to the computer, to the point that pilots simply do not have the knowledge or training on the inner workings of these systems to be able to effectively respond to all unanticipated, aircraft automation-dictated events. He describes the emergence of the ‘startle factor’ on the ability of aircrew to effectively react to such events, invariably hampered by limited detailed understanding of the system software intricacies coupled with an overloading of aircraft-generated information. In the case of QF72, this information was also grossly incorrect and misleading to the crew and the systems themselves. 

Some may compare this book to Richard de Crespigny’s book QF32 and the well-reported Qantas Airbus A380 accident off Singapore in 2010. QF32 is also a great read, but what differentiates No Man’s Land is how Kevin’s story does not end with the safe landing of QF72 at RAAF Learmonth. He describes the impact of that one in-flight incident off the northwest coast of Australia upon his career as a pilot and how, long after, it still affects him. 

Kevin relates his personal challenges dealing with PTSD stemming from this major incident and openly describes his battles in coming to terms with it on his lifelong career as a highly accomplished pilot. While Kevin does in time return to flying, having been cleared by medical specialists and Qantas, he readily acknowledges he is never the same after QF72. He relates how even moderate in-flight turbulence while again captaining the Airbus A330 created anxiety that he never previously experienced. Kevin describes how he identified his own ‘triggers’ and how honestly facing up to having PTSD led him to eventually stop flying.

This book is for everyone—not just those wanting to explore the intricacies of increased complexity and automation has on modern commercial flying, but also those interested in the challenges of living everyday with PTSD, anxiety and depression. 

ISBN 978-0-73333-974-5

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