BY ETHAN GRIFFITHS
At 8 am on the morning of November 28th, 1979, 237 passengers and 20 crew boarded an Air New Zealand DC-10 on flight TE901, onboard a world-class luxurious jet-liner, geared up for a day of champagne, entertainment, and sightseeing. As each of the 257 passengers lifted their feet off the tarmac at Auckland Airport onto the tall metal staircase to the entrance of the aircraft, not one of them knew that it would be the very last time they touched the ground.
The Air New Zealand DC-10 was bound for Antarctica on one of Air New Zealand’s overwhelmingly popular sightseeing flights, flying from Auckland at 8am, flying over and exploring Antarctica at low-altitude, before returning to Christchurch to refuel at 7pm, and then back to up to Auckland by 9pm.
The flights were incredibly popular. Air New Zealand started flying to Antarctica in 1977, with six that year, and another four per year in 1978 and 1979. The flights were never full, to give passengers the ability to move about the cabin to take in the sights. All of them had on board an Antarctic expert, who provided live commentary over the cabin PA system. On one of those flights, Sir Edmund Hillary was the commentator, and for TE901, he was scheduled to be on board but pulled out last minute due to other commitments.
Most people on the flight had their tickets gifted to them. Some for their birthdays earlier in the year, and some an early Christmas present. For others, they had long dreamed of exploring the most pristine and untouched area on earth, and these sightseeing flights finally gave them that opportunity. For the flight crew, consisting of Captain Jim Collins and First Officer Greg Cassin, they were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to fly the last Antarctic flight of the year, a highly sought after role within Air New Zealand. Both had never flown to Antarctica before.
Air New Zealand’s DC10, the exact aircraft involved in the Erebus Disaster, pictured in 1977. Image/Air New Zealand
By the late afternoon of November 28, people across New Zealand were listening to their radios and watching their television sets receiving news that an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight to Antarctica had disappeared from radar and lost all radio communication with air traffic control. TE901 hadn’t made contact via radio since 12:50 pm that day, and Air New Zealand was quickly alerted of the loss of communication. By 7 pm, when the plane was due to arrive in Christchurch, passengers’ families were told it was “normal for the plane to be a tad late”. Families, staff and Air New Zealand management silently hoped the plane would arrive safely, knowing that all fuel would be exhausted by 8:30 pm that night. By 9 pm, Air New Zealand CEO Morrie Davis informed the media that they believed the plane to be lost. The flight never returned. Four hours later, at 1 am on the morning of the 29th, the US Air Force personnel in Antarctica located the wreckage on the side of Mount Erebus, a 3,794-metre high active volcano in Antarctica. There were no survivors.
Suddenly, the focus moved from finding the plane, to finding out what went wrong inside the plane. This single crash had become (and still remains) New Zealand’s worst disaster with 257 lives lost. There wasn’t a single person in New Zealand who didn’t know someone or know of someone who knew a person on that plane. The disaster had rippling effects across New Zealand for years to come.
The first thing to do was to get on the ground in Antarctica. Years prior, the United States had cautioned New Zealand against flying to the Antarctic, simply due to the fact that if an accident like this ever was to occur, it would be logistically near impossible to recover wreckage and bodies. But within a day, multiple New Zealand identification, recovery, and investigative teams had landed in Antarctica and were flown up to the crash site. The recovery operation was dubbed ‘Operation Overdue’, and lasted on the ice until December 9, with 60 people on Erebus at it’s peak. The identification process lasted many weeks, with only 83% of the victims being formally identified, and 28 bodies never found. The unidentified bodies were buried together in the same grave in Auckland, with a funeral held for them in February 1980.
After the recovery operation, the focus moved solely to the investigation of the crash. The biggest question; how could the world’s most sophisticated airliner with a highly experienced flight crew crash directly into a mountain they knew existed? A man named Ron Chippendale, the Chief Inspector of Air Accidents was ordered to conduct an inquiry. The first step was to listen to and transcribe the cockpit voice recorder, or “black box”. This was expected to provide vital clues to what occurred but instead left more questions unanswered. The recording showed that both Captain Collins and First Officer Cassin had absolutely no idea they were flying directly into a mountain, not even seconds before impact. By the time the aircraft crashed, they would have perished immediately, with no knowledge of what had occurred.
The landing gear and fuselage of the DC-10. Image/Air New Zealand
Chippendale later blamed the crash on “pilot error”, suggesting that Collins was flying too low, and didn’t follow the “strict altitude regulation requiring the aircraft to remain above 6,000 feet”. For the wife of Jim Collins, Maria Collins, she then wondered “does this make my husband a murderer?”.
This report was received with mixed reaction. At the time, Air New Zealand was solely owned by the NZ Government, and the investigation which blamed pilot error meant that the aircraft was covered under insurance. However, concerns were raised that the investigation was conducted by the government itself, by a man who had previous connections to Air New Zealand. Public pressure grew, and in the end, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon announced an independent Royal Commission to be headed by High Court Justice Peter Mahon, to conclude just what had happened on that fateful day.
The Royal Commission and it’s almost daily sessions gripped the nation. Day after day it became clear that Air New Zealand had completely lied about what had truly happened on that day, and their processes and plans for the flight prior to departure. The first momentous moment in the inquiry was when it was revealed that Air Traffic Control had actually granted the aircraft permission to descend below 6,000 feet. Furthermore, it was revealed to also be common practice. In Air New Zealand’s own magazine, a review of an Antarctic flight from 1977 stated that “flying at 2000 feet above the ground is like nothing you have ever witnessed before”. The Chippendale report cited breaching this rule as one of the key reasons pilot error was to blame, yet every single Antarctic flight had done it too.
But undoubtedly what completely shifted the course of the inquiry was when it was revealed that an Air New Zealand staffer had programmed the computer onboard the aircraft incorrectly, accidentally making a typo of two wrong numbers in a set of coordinates. This set the aircraft on a trajectory 27 miles off course of what the pilots expected, leading them right into Mount Erebus. What’s more, Air New Zealand knew about this, and for reasons that most speculated had to do with insurance, they never admitted they did know.
The final report was released in April 1981, and completely cleared the crew of any blame for the disaster. Justice Mahon laid all blame on Air New Zealand, for failing to accurately input flight details, failing to check, double-check, and triple check the coordinates, and completely covering up the fact that the coordinates were incorrect, despite having full knowledge of it. Justice Mahon stated Air New Zealand was involved in a conspiracy to shift the responsibility of the crash onto the crew and accused them of an “orchestrated litany of lies”, a phrase that all New Zealanders alive at the time will remember for the rest of their lives.
This month marks forty years since the disaster, and to this day, Air New Zealand has still not apologised for its role in the crash. No national memorial yet exists, and it remains an incredibly touchy subject for both Air New Zealand and the government. It wasn’t until 1999 that the official investigation was tabled in Parliament after former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon refused to. The wreckage of the plane still remains on the mountain to this day, and in the Antarctic summer is often visible when overflying the area. Air New Zealand never flew to Antarctica again, and sightseeing flights didn’t resume until 2013, when Qantas flew a 747 over the continent.
Forty years on, the crash of Flight 901 remains New Zealand’s most deadly disaster, as well as New Zealand’s most controversial one. When first discovered, the mountain was named after the Greek God Erebus, universally known as the personification of darkness. Forty years on, there is still so much hurt, so much angst, and so much unclaimed responsibility, with the darkness of Erebus ever so visible.
Stuff and RNZ have jointly released a six-part podcast series, exploring the crash and the subsequent investigation, with in-depth interviews with Maria Collins and others who were heavily involved in the ordeal. You can find it by clicking here.
ETHAN GRIFFITHS is Tearaway’s Political Editor. Young, passionate and a wannabe babysitter for Neve Ardern, Ethan won’t stop talking about politics. Likes a bit of cricket, wearing trendy ties and is in love with Jeff the purple wiggle.
Read more from ETHAN GRIFFITHS