One of the more obscure stories in the aviation world is the one where Qantas almost crashed a Boeing 707. It is just pure luck the aircraft did not break up inflight and what happened makes for hair raising reading.

The Australian airline is one of the safest airlines in the world, having never lost a jet aircraft in an accident. Since they have been operating them since 1959 that is some achievement, especially when compared to their peers.

The Flight

Qantas Boeing 707-338C registered VH-EAB was scheduled to operate the Singapore to Bangkok to Bahrain sectors of the QF739 to London. The aircraft was just over a year old on 21 February 1969 and on board were 62 passengers and 10 crew. This was a pretty light load, in fact the jet was 20 tonnes below its maximum weight.

The aircraft was flying uneventfully at 35,700 feet, and outside it was pitch black with no horizon visible. Suddenly, the Captain noticed that his artificial horizon instrument was indicating a 30 degree bank to the right, so he took control and swung the wings to the left to counter this.

2 Minutes when Qantas almost crashed

Alas, the instrument itself was faulty and the plane was actually in level flight, though the pilot did not realise this. The increase in bank ended up getting the aircraft into an inverted spiral dive. According to the report, the G force built up to a peak of 4.57G and the descent rate was as high as 84,000 feet per minute at one point.

The First Officer was on his break in the cabin and had to crawl back to the cockpit, unable to stand due to the G force. Once there, he was able to verbally assist the Captain in regaining control and eventually it pulled out of the dive at 16,800 feet, climbing immediately back up to 21,500 feet.

At this point, the aircraft was porpoising and headed back down, pulling -0.63 negative G in the process. This injured a passenger who had his seatbelt only loosely fastened. He flew up to the roof then hit his head on the way back down (which later required 17 stitches) as the plane pulled out of the second dive.

From here on, the flight continued normally and they climbed back to their assigned cruising altitude. Since everything seemed fine with the Boeing 707, the crew continued on to their destination of Bahrain, a location where Qantas had a base.

So What Happened?

It turns out it was all very simple. An electrical fault in the Captain’s artificial horizon resulted in it incorrectly showing a 30 degree bank to the right. The warning flag that should have appeared when an instrument disagreed with the other two did not appear and the Captain did not check either the standby artificial horizon or the one on the other side before banking the aircraft to the left.

Since it was pitch black outside, there was no way they could see the actual horizon, otherwise this would not have happened. Sitting beside him, the Second Officer should have caught it, but he happened to be making a position report on the radio at the time, holding paperwork obscuring his view of the panel. A classic case of pilot error, it seems.

Overall Thoughts

So, Qantas almost crashed but some skill and a bit of luck saved the day. Boeing engineers later calculated that had the plane been loaded 18,000kg heavier, it would almost certainly have disintegrated at around 25,000 feet in the dive. It was an extremely close call for the airline and the people on board that fateful night.

The full story of the Bahrain Bomber* Incident, as it is called, can be found here. It’s far more detailed (and harrowing) than the summary I have presented, and it is very much well worth the read.

Did you know that Qantas almost crashed a Boeing 707? What do you think of the story? Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.

* Why Bahrain Bomber? Bahrain being the destination of course, and “Bomber” was a colloquial term at Qantas referring to the Boeing 707-338C. The older, smaller and more nimble Boeing 707-138Bs were referred to as the “Fighter”. Now think military aviation and you’ll get it – the fighter and the bomber.

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Featured image by Qantas Heritage Collection via AussieAirliners.
Boeing 707 VH-EAP by John Wheatley on via Wikimedia Commons.
707 with VC10 by George Canciani on
Saha Air Boeing 707 cockpit by Christian Waser on