The legacy of Erebus
Although it did not occur on New Zealand territory, the crash of an Air New Zealand DC10 on Mt Erebus, Antarctica, in 1979 with the loss of 257 lives is widely regarded as New Zealand’s worst air accident.
The Antarctica flights
Air New Zealand’s one-day sightseeing flights to Antarctica began in 1977. Leaving Auckland, the aircraft headed for Antarctica, where passengers were treated to low-level views of the Ross Dependency before returning, with a brief refuelling stop at Christchurch. The flights had always operated smoothly and were popular with adventurous Kiwis and tourists. But when Flight TE901 failed to arrive at Christchurch on schedule on 28 November 1979, there was a great sense of foreboding. It was clear that the plane, if still airborne, would soon run out of fuel. Search and rescue operations began, and the following day wreckage was spotted on the slopes of Mt Erebus; no-one could have survived the impact when the DC10 ploughed into its slopes.
More than 60 people were involved in the gruelling tasks of recovering bodies from the crevasse-riven site and inspecting the wreckage to determine the cause of the disaster. These operations took several weeks. Against heavy odds, all the bodies were retrieved and eventually 214 were identified. An air accident investigation began, using information from the aircraft’s flight recorders and other sources.
Clues or controversy?
All large and some small aircraft carry two ‘black boxes’: a digital flight data recorder, which monitors altitude, speed, direction and engine function, and a cockpit voice recorder (CVR). They can help determine the cause of accidents. The content and significance of the first transcript of the CVR from the Erebus DC10 is still hotly debated. Access to the original tape has been barred until 2049. Until then, speculation will continue.
The air accident report
The official report by Chief Air Accident Inspector Ron Chippindale was published in June 1980. It explained that at the time of the crash, the aircraft was flying at about 450 metres above sea level in whiteout atmospheric conditions – where the sun is filtered through cloud and reflects light from the snow, making it impossible to distinguish ground from air. The plane flew into the icy mountainside in level flight soon after the ground proximity warning had sounded. Mechanical problems were ruled out. The report found fault with the airline for inadequate pilot briefings and procedures, including a late flight-path alteration that was not mentioned to the crew. It also reprimanded the Civil Aviation Division for not monitoring Antarctic flights more rigorously. However, the main blame was reserved for the pilots, especially the captain, who was criticised for descending to a low altitude when he was unsure of his position and unable to see the terrain. This conclusion was strongly opposed by some, who saw it as a slur on the professionalism of the dead pilots.
Commission of inquiry
Meanwhile, a royal commission of inquiry, headed by High Court Judge Peter Mahon, was appointed to look into the circumstances surrounding the disaster. Judge Mahon’s report, released in 1981, reached a different conclusion. It found that the state-owned airline was primarily to blame in changing the flight plan without telling the crew, with the result that the plane flew towards Mt Erebus instead of down McMurdo Sound. The report stirred up further controversy, particularly in its condemnation of Air New Zealand. Mahon asserted that the airline had intentionally misled the inquiry through an ‘orchestrated litany of lies’.
The airline sought a judicial review of the judgement. A Court of Appeal judgement in December 1981 decided that Mahon had exceeded his terms of reference in suggesting criminal conspiracy, and in October 1983 the Privy Council upheld this decision.
Today, the argument over what really caused the Erebus crash continues. There were clearly a number of contributing factors. But which of them was the most significant, and whether the pilots or the airline were ultimately responsible, remains a matter of intense debate.