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How a small typo landed a commercial plane in the wrong country

A pilot landing a passenger plane in the wrong city sounds bad enough, but in the wrong country? Yes, it happened.

Detailed in a report released this week by Australia’s aviation agency, the bizarre AirAsia flight, which had 212 passengers on board, was the result of a catalog of errors that began before the aircraft had even left the ground.

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The incident took place in March last year and was largely the result of the captain entering the wrong co-ordinates into the Airbus A330’s flight system shortly before take-off.

Instead of entering the longitude as 151° 9.8’ east, or “15109.8”, the pilot mistakenly input 15° 19.8’ east, or “01519.8”. This had the effect of making the aircraft think it was in Cape Town, South Africa, 6800 miles away. But it was in Sydney.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) said the crucial typo “adversely affected the aircraft’s navigation functions, global positioning system (GPS) receivers, and some electronic centralised aircraft monitoring alerts.” In other words, there was no way this plane was going to Malaysia.

The ATSB’s report said the aircraft’s safety systems gave the pilots several chances early on “to identify and correct the error,” but they failed to realize anything was amiss until the plane began tracking in the wrong direction when the autopilot engaged shortly after departure.

And this is where the story gets a bit scary. As the plane diverted from its originally intended course almost immediately after take-off, it crossed over a parallel runway just several hundred feet from the ground. Fortunately it managed to avoid any close encounters with other aircraft in the vicinity.

Once in the air, the pilots attempted to correct the situation. However, they were unable to do so as the cause of the problem still wasn’t clear to them.

Believing the safest course of action would be to land as soon as possible, the captain asked to return to Sydney. But after informing air traffic control that issues with the plane’s navigation system meant they could only land via a visual approach, the pilots were ordered to divert to Melbourne because of poor weather and low visibility. The plane landed safely in Melbourne a couple of hours later.

The entire episode could’ve been avoided if the plane had been upgraded with Airbus’s latest flight management system, which would’ve spotted and prevented the data entry error. AirAsia has since performed the upgrade to its fleet.

As for the passengers, it’s not reported when they finally made it to Malaysia.

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