back to article Laptops to blame for Qantas jet plunge?

Passengers are being questioned over whether they were using electronic equipment just before their Qantas A330-300 plunged out-of-control over Western Australia. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has said an "irregularity" in one of the aircraft's computers may have caused the dramatic altitude change that threw …


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  1. Jodo Kast
    Thumb Up

    No shielding on that equipment?

    I find this absurd.

    I think they should prove it before blaming stupid things.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    I thought

    my flight sim was very realistic

  3. P.Nutt

    Sounds fishy to me

    Afterall how many laptops, PSP's, cd players, walkmans, ipods etc are used every day on nearly every flight world-wide without problems? Sounds more like someone either in the ATSB or Qantas (not sure which...anyone got a source on the original comment) is trying to shift blame - Just like the claim that a mobile phone (or whatever) in Gordon's Brown car caused the BA 777 accident........

    Mine is the one with the laptop with Airbus listed under hardware devices.

  4. Hollerith

    I would love to be the one...

    ... who screwed out of some sweating junior executive that his billet-doux to sexy Olga nearly killed him and the rest of the plane. Or the chap whose business emails just had, had, had to be sent, because he sits on the right hand of God.

    And then ban him from flying until the next Ice Age (admittedly not that far away).

  5. Paul Murphy

    Reminds me of a cartoon ...

    ah ha:

    the 'gross' bit is German for 'big' - don't panic.


  6. Helen-LG

    Is it just me..

    or have there been a lot of plane problems recently.. Seems to be more than usual. Or maybe I'm just more aware of them because I've flown quite a bit this year..?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    There's been a string of QANTAS incidents in the press over the last few months. I remember reading a few years ago about QANTAS initiatives to "streamline" maintenance and cut costs in the process .... of course whenever I see "maintenance" and "cut costs" in the same sentence I say to myself that it's only a matter of time before that kind of folly produces a tragedy or two. (Not related to airlines, but in every study of maintenance effectiveness I've seen so far, there are always improvements to be had and efficiencies gained, but never have overall costs been reduced - for every item that's over-serviced, there's another that's under-serviced). Maybe these incidents are the peak, and reliability will improve from here, or maybe organisational inertia will continue to produce further incidents, perhaps more serious. Time will tell.

  8. Doc Technical

    What application was he running?

    "Last July, it was claimed that a passenger clicking a wireless mouse during a flight sent a Qantas jumbo jet off course on a three-degree bank."

    One can only hope it was a flight-sim.

  9. Simon

    Laptop interference...

    I was just wondering, just how hard is it to shield these critical systems from going tits up because someone clicks a wireless mouse.

    I know it's a totally different thing but i have all sorts of thing on at my house and it never interfears with my TV, my microwave has never turned on by itself and the hoover's never tried to kill me. So surely if consumer electronics can be robust enough to withstand the click of a mouse, surely a Jumbo Jet would be alright!?

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Mouse click

    As for the mouse click causing the RH bank, was it a right click, left click or double click?

  11. Graham Newton

    Passenger with laptop question

    Did you see a dialog box with the following ?

    New hardware found: A330-300

    Install driver yes no ?

  12. Simon
    Thumb Down


    If the powers that be are forcing us to declare such dangerous implements as nail clippers and cocktail sticks before boarding it seems ridiculous to think we'd be allowed to have phones and game-boys (and be trusted to turn them off when so asked) if there was the remotest possibility of them having any effect on the aircraft whatsoever.

  13. Tom

    Maybe this is just a little too obvious...

    but if aircraft avionics are so badly affected by rogue transmissions from inside the plane then surely installing faraday mesh around such electronics would be a very simple and easy way to stop such signals causing problems?

    I admit, my day job does not involve designing aircraft.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Power of Three

    Err doesn't the Airbus have 3 computers and if one has a bad idea the other two catch and override this?

    I also would say the damn things have been running so long with NO problems from laptops or gadgets it's extremely unlikely they have nay affect. Sounds more like Quantas trying to blame a faulty part or bad maintenance on the passenger gadget gremlin. Rubbish

  15. Mark Craig
    Paris Hilton

    Surely not THAT sensitive?

    I find it hard to believe that such safety-critical electronics are so susceptible to interference from low-powered everyday gadgetry.

    Surely systems that are immune to the increased cosmic radiation they encounter at high altitude and other such airborne electromagnetism cannot be disrupted by a bloody laptop mouse?

    Paris because she's prone to interference too.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A 330 problem

    Before I retired I logged over 2000 hours as an A 320 captain for a major US airline. The A 320 has pretty much the same flight control system as the A 330.

    I think there is more going on here than someone surfing over Indonesia. The way the flight control systems are designed in these fly-by-wire airplanes, if one computer starts doing strange things it's voted out of the loop by the others in that circuit. The pilots would receive a warning of degradation but the system would still function normally enough so that the passengers wouldn't feel any difference. For an altitude excursion of 300' and then a hard over signal to get processed there's got to be something more interesting going on. I'm sure Airbus and Boeing will be very interested to find out what caused this.

  17. alan

    This is total idiocy

    regarding wireless mouse guy.....

    considering the range of run of the mill wireless mice, the laptop guy must have been sitting right next to the autopilot computer in question when he apparently caused the aircraft to turn.

    And the autopilot must have had his usb dongle attatched.

    And he must have clicked on "Turn". And then "Apply". And then "I will restart my computer later (not recommended)" when windoze detected the wireless mouse that obviously works fine even though the os has decided that it doesnt and as a result the system needs to be restarted.

    The blame for these quirks should be placed squarely on the airline / computer manufacturer. Its a pathetic excuse for malfunctioning software / drunk pilot.

    When you think about how many different types of radio waves / infrared stuff / bebo extracts that we are beaming around in the atmosphere, then it would be just as credible to blame the autopilot malfunctions on the 6:00 AM showing of Quincy on STV.

  18. Jolyon Ralph
    Thumb Down

    Laptops? Blackberry users morelike

    On every damn flight you see them, the crackberry addicts who cannot keep their damn gadgets turned off for more than the time it takes the attendants to walk past, and then promptly switch it back on again in case they've missed an urgent message from their sales director discsussing golf schedules.

    They should have little luminous signs above every seat on planes that are set to detect cellphone radiation, and light up with big green arrow pointing downwards saying "FUCKTARD" on activation.

    Please, El Reg, next time you review a new Blackberry phone, make a big deal about it having an On/Off control, and how this novel new feature may prove to be invaluable for the Blackberry user on the move.


  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I think it's far more likely that the plane was badly maintained and they're just looking for a quick way out.

  20. Anonymous Coward

    @ AC RE: Mouse Click

    I suppose we just have to be grateful they didnt use the scroll wheel then...

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Do the investigators have a BOFH working for them then?

    Sounds exactly like a BOFH excuse to me. I think they're grasping at straws... Now if someone keyed a large transmitter on the plane, maybe...

  22. Daniel
    Gates Horns


    Ovb its running windows Vista.

  23. Ermie Mercer

    Now if someone keyed a large transmitter on the plane...

    Like the aircraft's transponder, or the pilot's communications to Air Traffic Control...

    I just don't see on-board electronic gadgets as being the culprit here.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Ermie Mercer

    When the pilots key the plane's transmitter, the antenna is on the OUTSIDE of the plane. If someone keyed a multi-watt transmitter with the antenna inside the plane, it could have some effect on the electronics. But you're probably right--it's unlikely to be an EMI from anything a passenger was using.

  25. Daniel B.
    Thumb Down

    Re: Laptops? Blackberry users morelike

    Nice flame, but the BB devices have a "Turn off wireless" option that disables the "cellphone" bit of the device. Its one of the few cellphones that actually can be turned on inside a plane and not interfere with anything else. (And they can be turned off.)

    I do wonder however how one cellphone would work while flying over international waters and high enough to not be able to get a signal though...

    I wonder ... does all of this mean that if you fire up Flight Simulator, you might take over the plane?

  26. Tyson Boellstorff


    I think the 'beepbeepbeep' I heard after the "musta been a laptop" explanation was *not* a stall detector, but instead the Bullshit Detector that I got surplus from the Ministry of Housinge. They aren't just out for cat detection anymore!

  27. mittfh

    So what else can we blame on laptops?

    The Heathrow crash landing?

    That plane that blew a bit of fuselage?

    Now if only we could hack into public transport computer systems...

    We might discover the subroutine that ensures buses and trains never run on time...

    We might discover the random number generator that operates on trains arriving at Birmingham New Street (and keeps passengers fit with last minute platform alterations)...

  28. Richard Porter


    Laptops have to conform to EMC (electromagnetic compatibility) regulations. What about aircraft?

  29. Raz


    I think there is a long history of this kind of problems with Airbus planes. I remember clearly what one pilot was saying, that the plane thought that it's nose is pointing donw and it's in danger of crashing, and it was pointing it up. The problem was that when that happened, it was flying straight. So the plane went up until it lost traction then came down. Fortunately they were able to regain control.

  30. Orclev

    @Jolyon Ralph

    Asking people to turn electronics off on an airplane has absolutely nothing to do with the plane. It's done for two reasons, first because phones used on a plane cause excess traffic and other problems on cellphone networks, and second so that people actually (in theory) listen to the mind numbingly boring announcements that are made during take off instead of playing with their gadgets. For more details see the article at:

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If a laptop could down a plane

    Then terrorists would be using electronics to crash planes instead of box cutters.

  32. Stephen Bungay


    Cosmic radiation at 30,000 ft vs a wireless mouse at what.. 100 mW? If the onboard systems are that sensitive Its a wonder that airliners aren't simply raining down from the heavens.

  33. Stewart Haywood

    The problem with electronics.....

    inside an aircraft is not one with individual devices, but the effects of multiple devices. Every bit of electronics has at least one clock producing a comb of harmonics that get radiated, data busses radiate, small wireless devices radiate, displays radiate etc etc. It is when the overall power of the noise radiated from everything in the plane is high that we may get a problem ("may" being a very important word). Cell phones are rather bad because they will be transmitting on high power being inside a metal box. So, you get 300 people in there and they all fire up cell phones you can bet on about 300watts of noise.

    Stories of people flying the aircraft around the sky by clicking a wireless mouse are just nonsense.

  34. Michael Kean

    Noise cancelling iPod headphones did it...

    According to APC:

    EXCLUSIVE | Noise cancelling iPod headphones reportedly forced Qantas jet into terrifying plunge, leaving passengers with spinal injuries.





    Or not.

    I guess the headphones were going flat and in a last 'ditch' effort to top all noise, issued the librarian's secret 'silence at all costs' signal. But just as this was beginning to take effect, that capability was pulled by Apple for being a rogue app...

  35. Anonymous Coward

    @Stewart Haywood

    A modern cell phone will radiate at most 1/4 watt when broadcasting at max, some less. Actually less than a child's toy walkie-talkie. So at absolute max, with 300 people's mobiles broadcasting simultaneously, it would be 75W. Which is definitely significant. Not counting attenuation. But it's also on too high of a frequency to likely do any harm. Now an older cell phone on the 900 MHz band, more likely, and a FRS radio, even more. But still, as someone else mentioned, planes have redundant computers. (in triplicate I think) And they're shielded. Again, I think the investigation is grasping at straws. (see the Mythbusters episode of some credulity)---they broadcasted with a SERIOUS transmitter, and while 'lower' frequency devices were shown to perhaps affect one instrument on a small plane, they made not one whit of difference to a modern jet. And as far as laptops, how often do adjacent servers (even stacked right on top) in your server room cause other equipment to crash or misbehave? Never, most likely. Maybe if someone had an unshielded Apple II or Commodore system from the early 80's on their lap... Anyone using an Osbourne luggable?

  36. Andus McCoatover
    Paris Hilton

    EMC indeed.

    Totally pissed off with the Airbus A330 EMC gubbins. Why can't they get it right???

    Always upsets my EEE lappie while I'm trying to watch a grumbleflick and have a swift Jodrell Bank midair, at the same time as they're trying something as mundane as landing or summat.. Tossers. (Oops)

    Paris, 'cos I have the video!

  37. peter

    Excuses excuses.....

    I have been (not anymore) an aircraft engineer, and specifically responsible for the specification and testing of aircraft electronic systems, and testing whole aircraft.......and this whole 'clicking a mouse caused the aircraft to fall out of the sky' is complete hogwash.

    The avionics are designed to be immune to anything likely to radiate at that low level - and even radiated emissions you would find coming out of a mobile phone. Specific attention (and large sums of money) are spent designing and proving that anything like this could not happen to anything that could affect the safety of the aircraft. This is done lots of ways including; using interference resistant cabling (triax, twisted pair, shielding), interference resistant electronic signals (balanced signals), interference resistant data protocols (e.g. error detection and correction) and multiple redundancy (i.e. three data paths). This ensures the aircraft systems are resistant to RF radiation many more times more powerfull that a piddling little mobile phone. We not only design the systems to be resistant, we test it as well - and that includes putting big transmitters inside the aircraft.

    There is one area which is more susceptable and that is the aircraft recievers (including navigation and landing systems) as you cannot shield them. So, guess what?, we paid even more attention to them to ensure your Nintendo DS does not cause the aircraft to turn left. In my years I only heard of a couple of devices that could have caused a problem if the aircraft was trying to use their nav/landing receivers at their extreme ranges. Not close to a safety failure, but enough of an excuse to get all devices banned during takeoff and landing.

    Of course never say never and there is no such thing as a perfectly maintained aircraft, but every time I get on my aircraft and get told by a trolly dolly to switch off my ipod I have to grit my teeth and remind myself that these regulations are created by Elf and Safty, backed up by lawyers and implimented by managers...all of which would not know an electron if they tripped over one.

  38. Andus McCoatover
    Thumb Up

    @@Stewart Haywood (AC)

    Er, well. Couple of things. Mobiles can (theoretically) have a max output of 2 watts (Class-II). But nowadays in practice it's limited to one. That was when the coverage was crap, now it's ubiquitous pretty well anywhere. OK, I'm talking 2G here, but YMMwontV.

    Mobiles won't be broadcasting simultaneously, GSM standards (ETSI - now 3GPP) use Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) which separates the single frequency channel into 8 (6, or 7 as one or two are reserved on a single BTS (basestation) for signalling (BCCH, MBCCHC, SADDC, FACCH, FCC), etc) timeslots. So, you can't add up the power. It's distributed over time. 1W = 1W for all time.

    So, it's definitely less power out than the microwave ovens used to heat the nosh on your flight. (Unless you're flying American, and get the doggie-bag left over by the previous seat occupant - unheated)

  39. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    Who says it might have been a laptop?

    You don't need to know who I am or what I do where I work (even though it's relevant), hence AC. It's important that you look at the message rather than the messenger.

    What you do need to know is that a big part of the original "it might have been a laptop" (mis)quote comes from a representative of a company whose business is EMC testing. EMC testing is basically seeing how much electromagnetic interference electronic kit produces, and how kit responds when subjected to various kinds of electromagnetic interference.

    Equally importantly, the original quote also mentioned mobiles, not just laptops. Mobiles and their relatives (Blackberry etc with cellphone capability) *are* much more likely causes of interference issues than laptops.

    EMC testing *is* important, not inappropriately using mobiles on planes can be important, but rent-a-quote misleading advertising/publicity is not helpful, and nor is selectively and misleadingly quoting the original stuff.

    Enquiring whether any such electronic kit was inappropriately used prior to this incident would be a routine part of the initial inquiry. See VNUnet article linked below.

    There's a few unhelpful technically naive/ignorant comments on here too but in the interests of brevity (!) I'll let most of them pass. The topic I will comment on involves screening. Trying to satisfactorily screen sensitive kit on an aircraft whilst still enabling reception of relevant RF signals is a bit like trying to hear whether an individual instrument in an orchestra is in tune while someone has a 90dB+ compressor and pneumatic drill operating by the conductor. It just can't be done, especially not if the conductor is "screened" against the compressor/drill noise by ear defenders, so you prohibit the unwanted and unnecessary noise source (and hope that everyone sticks to the rules, hmm that'll work won't it :().

    Also unhelpful are the base articles like this one on El Reg. Even VNUnet did better, and the industry sources such as Flight magazine also confirm that investigations are now focusing on aircraft-related issues rather than unauthorised use of passenger electronic kit:

    Here are the last three paragraphs of the VNUnet article - note the very last one, and if you're interested, there's more detail at Flight:

    "It is well known in the electrical engineering community that the operation of electronics systems, including air navigation systems, may be adversely affected by electromagnetic interference," said Chris Zombolas, technical director at EMC Technologies, which tests electromagnetic interference.

    "Could a laptop computer or mobile phone have caused Qantas QF72 to plunge? The answer is 'yes'," he said.

    However, press reports now suggest that the fault lay not with onboard laptops, but with the aircraft's control software itself. Investigations are continuing."

  40. Andus McCoatover

    @Who says it might have been a laptop? -an abject apology

    Hi, Sir. Having re-read my comment I posted earlier, and Your knowledge of the scenario, I have no choice but to offer You a total, unqualified apology.

    In mitigation, this is what happens when I write comments at the same time as losing at billiards.

    Sorry for that. Regards, Andy.

  41. Andus McCoatover

    @Excuses excuses.....

    Sorry to be a dummy, but aren't the latest planes "Fly-By-Wire". Don't they have a PS2-style interface? So therefore, a "click of the mouse" is what sends the plane into a helluva fun trip?

    (Penguin, 'cos I'm obviously a dummy)

  42. B B Beyer
    Thumb Down

    Patently ridiculous

    Simon (15:42) and Anonymous Coward (21:19) got it absolutely spot on. I know nothing about electronics or avionics, so I won't advance any kind of technical argument. But let's assume that laptops and other personal electronic items could cause an aircraft to take a sudden dive. Are the powers that be seriously suggesting that the risk control measure is to appeal to people's goodwill to turn them off?? That's like saying: "you can bring a gun on board, as long as you promise not to shoot it."

    If electronic devices that dangerous, they simply shouldn't be allowed in the cabin. As has been said, why bother with the hassle of trying to smuggle onboard box cutters and shoe bombs if you can down the aircraft with a Gameboy?

    Next they'll be telling us that TV detector vans can determine what channel we're watching!!

  43. Anonymous Coward

    @billiards. Balls to Patientline too.

    Sorry to hear you lost, Andus. My screening comment wasn't directed particularly at you, as it is one which is often heard (eg also in the debate about "why can't I use my mobile in hospital" where similar factors need to be taken into consideration, at least in *some* parts of the hospital). There was some classic screening-related rubbish in comments on an El Reg article last year [1] reporting a report (?) which said there was a genuine technical case against mobiles in some parts of hospitals.

    Incidentally, speaking of hospitals, where's El Reg's coverage of Patientline going bust, and a newly-formed company (Hospedia) acquiring both Patientline UK and their only UK competitor, Premier Telesolutions ? [2] There used to be plenty of Patientline coverage here...

    Have a good weekend, better luck next frame (or is that snooker?).




  44. Mark Donnison

    Look over there... (pointatnothing.dissapear)

    Temporariliy transfering attention or clutching at straws...............

  45. Anonymous Coward

    Wrong terminology

    "New hardware found: A330-300

    Install driver yes no ?"

    On planes, they generally call them PILOTS.

    Installing a new one shouldn't be a problem, but its preferable not to reboot them until AFTER the plane has safely landed.

  46. Captain Horrid

    Remote controlled office equipment !

    As a regular flier I used to raise the metaphorical digit to the airlines as well.... until I left my Motorola V3 on top of our office shredder (a plain cheap SOHO Fellowes W6 from Viking). When someone calls it, and before the first ring - the shredder starts up. It works with my wifes Pebl as well. I havent tried it with an Airbus yet.......

  47. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    > A 330 problem

    At last, a reasoned, well written comment. Thank you sir.

    (A flight simulator designer)

  48. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Off-topic, but Hospedia == Premier Telesolutions. The buyout was effectively a takeover of Patientline's concessions by their competitor.

  49. john
    Paris Hilton

    Mile High Club

    I think you will find from the blackbox that the cause of the sudden drop was the hostess playing with the pilots joystick in the cockpit.....

    Paris - Because she knows how to handle a joystick.....

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Even if it IS possible to down a plane with a computer...

    I'll bet money that it wasn't a laptop that caused THIS particular issue.

  51. Anonymous Coward

    @Mouse click

    I think it was mouse gestures.

  52. Mick Sheppard

    @Mouse Click

    It was a Mac. There is only one button!

  53. Anonymous Coward

    Wireless mouse?

    Clicked on a mouse and the plane turned? It might feel that way, but...

    Many years ago, in Belfast, one of my colleagues plugged in a new computer, and pressed the "On" button. There was an almighty bang, the building shook, and some of the windows cracked.

    Intellectually he *knew* that it was a complete co-incidence that a car bomb had gone off at the end of the street at that very moment, but he was still twitchy about switching anything else on for days afterward...

  54. Turgut Kalfaoglu
    Dead Vulture

    Yeah I trust the airline industry

    A cordless mouse throwing a place off track?

    A laptop causing 40 people's injuries?

    I wonder when they will start building real planes, instead of these toy places we have to live (or die) with?

  55. Richard

    Just silly.

    If aeroplanes could be "controlled" by random wireless signals then we're all in a lot of trouble.

    May I suggest Airbus is clearly playing the card marked "What can we blame instead of admitting to shoddy design and construction?".

    -- Richard

  56. Colin Millar


    Saying that your aeroplanes can be controlled by laptops and mouses suggests something a bit worse than shoddy design and construction.

    So its no surprise that it isn't airbus saying it - it is the ATSB - and they are not blaming a laptop but an 'irregularity' in the aircraft computer system - it appears to be something called the Herald Sun that introduced the laptop speculation which ATSB basically refused to comment on.

    I don't know about Oz but in the UK transport safety boards are not know for wild speculation.

  57. David Barrett

    I may be wrong but...

    Im sure I read someting about a UK operator (Possibly Virgin) installing hardware to allow fliers to use mobiles on board...

    The main reason for asking people to switch them off in flight is that you are in an enclosed space with 100+ people who dont want to hear you tell your mates about what you did to that hooker at the weekend...

  58. Anonymous Coward

    What rubbish

    With airlines looking to introduce systems that would allow people to use their mobiles to make inflight calls, and laptops, etc being allowed for many years, it's quite obvious that these devices do not affect the planes navigation systems. Anyone suggesting otherwise is showing their ignorance!

    On the other hand Qantas former Australian maintenance staff have been saying for a few years now that the maintenance standards have dropped and it's only a matter of time before there is a serious incident (a few years ago most of the Aussie maintenance staff got the sack, the maintenance was all off-shored to low-cost / high corruption countries, and the execs gave themselves big fat bonuses while assuring everyone that standards would not be affected - sound familiar?) In the last few months there has been a string of incidents with Qantas planes and this is only the latest. It seems that a week doesn't go by now without some new Qantas incident.

    I certainly won't be flying Qantas.

  59. L


    It is unlikely but not impossible that an electronic device caused the jet to fail. As the engineer stated we do EMI testing on all products including aircraft, however it has been my observation that this testing does not cover all eventualities and that EMI is poorly understood particularly in aviation circles.

    Our firm is currently working with an American contractor who -in 2006- specified pigtails for shielding termination on a military aircraft. EMI is infinitely complex, and if engineers are still failing to make the most basic of EMI decisions correctly, anything is possible.

    Trains also require EMI testing to 20V/m. About 10 years ago we worked on a new train running out of NYC which would open the doors and apply emergency breaks when a cell phone was used in just the right location.

    Stating that EMI could not cause a flight systems failure is ridiculous. If they feel it necessary they should conduct a review.

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