Mr Sullivan was captaining a Qantas A330 on a flight from Singapore to Perth in 2008 when an air-data unit sent incorrect information to other systems, leading to a flight-control computer twice commanding the aircraft carrying 303 passengers to nosedive.
He has written a vivid account of the near disaster in a book, No Man’s Land. It also examines the risks posed by automation and his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mr Sullivan said there were many similarities to the situations faced by the pilots of Qantas Flight 72 in 2008, and those on the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft which crashed in Indonesia and Ethiopia within five months of each other, killing 346 people.
“There’s pilot confusion; there’s startle; there’s loss of control. The journey is different but the destination is the same. Do they even know how the system works – how to negate it?” he asked of those piloting the Boeing 737 MAX planes that crashed.
“There are so many similarities and it is like, where does this worm hole finish?”
Preliminary investigations into the 737 MAX crashes have indicated that a new anti-stall system was triggered erroneously, sending the aircraft into uncontrollable nosedives.
Mr Sullivan, who left Qantas in 2016 after three decades of flying for Australia’s largest airline, said he wanted his book to serve as a warning to others about the risks of greater automation.
“As the world is trying to embrace more automation … I feel it’s my responsibility to say, ‘Hey … let’s talk about this a little bit more [and] let’s not run to embrace this,’ ” he said.
“What we are seeing is [systems] activating for the wrong reasons. They’re confused and causing loss of control. And the pilots are confused because [they] haven’t seen this before.”
Asked if training for automation failures needed to be bolstered, Boeing said in a statement that there were required standards of training internationally for pilots, and it developed its training and materials consistently with them.
“The process for the flight crews is to ensure they have all the information to safely operate the airplane,” it said.
But Mr Sullivan, who lives in Sydney, said there needed to be greater scrutiny of how automated systems could fail because the “10 per cent of the time when it actually misbehaves badly can cause injury or loss of life”.
As he details at length in his book, post-traumatic stress disorder was a price he paid for saving the Qantas aircraft in 2008 with two other pilots, and it eventually cost him his career.
While many people told him that writing would be cathartic, he found it painful because it made him re-live the event every day he wrote for over more than a year.
“I cried every day I wrote that book because there is pride; there is loss; there is frustration. I am very emotional these days because of the PTSD,” he said.
“But I persevered because I felt it was important to tell this story. And it’s a success story in a lot of ways. My crew were brave and valiant and my passengers were also very brave and very compassionate.”
Published by ABC Books, No Man’s Land: the Untold Story of Automation and QF72 is on sale from May 31.
Matt O’Sullivan is the Transport Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Lester Ranby is a journalist and video producer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.