Erebus Operation Overdue

History of the Erebus Crash

On 28 November 1979, Air New Zealand Flight TE901, a DC-10 registered ZK-NZP, crashed into Mount Erebus on Ross Island, Antarctica, instantly killing all 257 people on board. Whilst that brutal event sparked worldwide interest in the Erebus story, it represented neither the beginning nor the end of a complicated and compelling tale.

Antarctic flights were a new and exciting breakthrough in airborne tourism. Interest in the Antarctic had been particularly strong amongst the scientific community since the late 1950s, but only a small number of privileged people had experienced the wonders of the icy south. To gain an understanding of the climate within which the flights took place, see BACKGROUND, Antarctic Experience.

Integral to the ability of Air New Zealand to provide the Antarctic flights was its new long-range aircraft, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. During the 1970s, several high-fatality and high-profile DC-10 crashes meant that, when ZK-NZP went down in Antarctica, immediate suspicion was laid on the aircraft. For information on the DC-10, see BACKGROUND, McDonnell Douglas DC-10

At the heart of much of the eventual controversy surrounding the causes of the accident were changes made to the flight plan of TE901. The plan loaded into the aircraft’s flight management computer was not that on which the flight crew had been briefed 19 days earlier, but no-one had told them. For an explanation of how and what was changed, see BACKGROUND, Flight Path.

The search and rescue operation – which involved New Zealand and American personnel – was harrowing, physically and emotionally. As well as hunting for human remains, one of the searchers’ early goals was to retrieve both the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) in the hope they would hold an explanation for the disaster.

When the search and rescue effort in Antarctica ended on 10 December 1979, the accident investigation was only just beginning. In the INVESTIGATION section, a summary of the development of accident-investigation methods is presented (History of Accident Investigation) followed by the key elements in the long and acrimonious process of apportioning responsibility for the accident. These include the Chippindale Report (the official accident investigation report); the so-called Mahon Report (the official report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry); and the Legal Process, a discussion of the decisions made in the High Court and Privy Council concerning the activities of Justice Mahon during the royal commission.

During the course of the investigation, Air New Zealand’s Captain Gordon Vette went to extraordinary lengths to gain an understanding of, and explain to others, the sector white-out phenomenon. His research was heralded internationally as ground-breaking; it played a pivotal role in understanding the causes of the accident and, more importantly, in preventing recurrences. See INVESTIGATION Captain Vette’s Research to understand his contribution to the story.

Similarly important to the investigation were the last moments of the accident as recorded by the CVR. Two very different transcriptions were produced from the poor-quality tape. A comprehensive discussion of the differences between the two is presented in INVESTIGATION, The CVR Transcript Controversy.

It is the multifaceted nature of the causes of the disaster that make the Erebus story eternally relevant and compelling. The only published transcript of voice data from TE901 is presented in THE ACCIDENT, Transcript.

Read the air accident report here.

Reprinted courtesy of the New Zealand Airline Pilots’ Association

Please see here for more information on the official Erebus site.


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