Emotional and financial costs
‘All those people … the loss of all those people. I can’t get it out of my mind’: a young woman’s reaction sums up the horror felt by New Zealanders when an Air New Zealand DC10 crashed in Antarctica on 28 November 1979, killing 257 people. 1
Although the risk of dying in an air accident is very small (there is a much greater chance of being killed in a road accident), the public reaction to such events is intense. Loss of confidence in an airline, or in flying generally, is common, whether the accident was fatal or not. Crashes have other serious consequences. The cost of rescue operations, recovering bodies, retrieving aircraft wreckage and investigation can run into millions of dollars.
An air accident is rarely caused by just one event. Usually there are several factors, connected like links in a chain. Often the final link – the pilot’s response to an emergency – is seen as the sole cause of the accident, but investigation usually reveals other causes.
The Dash that crashed
The crash of an Ansett Dash 8 in the foothills of the Tararua Range on 9 June 1995 was the result of a cluster of causes. On the approach to Palmerston North airport, the pilots had difficulty lowering the plane’s undercarriage (it was a design flaw that had been previously identified). Instead of climbing to a safe altitude while fixing the problem, they continued descending on an instrument approach in cloud. While they were distracted the plane collided with a hill; four people died and others were seriously injured.
Human error is the underlying cause in the majority of aircraft accidents. The person at fault may be a pilot, maintenance engineer, ground crew member, manager or supervisor, designer, or someone involved in the manufacture of an aircraft. Errors on the ground can include faulty aircraft construction or maintenance, incorrect instructions to air crew, mistakes in refuelling or securing the aircraft doors, overloading, and excessive stress on staff. In the air, pilots may make navigation errors, or choose to fly in cloudy conditions using visual cues such as landmarks instead of navigational instruments.
Failing to heed up-to-date weather forecasts is unwise in New Zealand, where the elements are particularly changeable and intense due to the mountainous terrain and the prevalence of strong winds and turbulence. Severe weather can test the structural strength of aircraft designed for less rigorous conditions, and the skill of the pilots.