Flight 901: A dreadful date with destiny

It was a disaster when Air New Zealand Flight 901 flew into Mount Erebus.

Part 1 — The Flight

Antarctic expedition had always been synonymous with danger. As youngsters at school, we were enthralled reading tales of early adventurers such as Amundsen, Shackleton and Mawson, and perhaps especially saddened at the loss of the brave but foolhardy Scott and his team. These hardy pioneers faced the most extreme weather conditions on earth in the name of discovery, national honour, scientific expedition and, not infrequently, personal pride.

Flash forward some six decades to a more modern form of Antarctic discovery, with people able to fly in cocooned comfort, provided quality food and beverages and delivered commentary by an explorer who’d actually been there first-hand. Through 33 months since mid-February 1977, Air New Zealand had made no less than 14 flights to overfly the continent, every one of them a careful orchestration between planners, pilots and aircraft capability.

All that changed on Wednesday November 28, 1979 when Flight 901, an Air New Zealand DC-10-30 with 237 passengers and 20 crew on board crashed into the flank of Mount Erebus.

In their last few seconds of life, those in the cabin of the huge aircraft were busy photographing an outlook they’d flown 2,000 miles to capture. Their camera lenses were aimed out the windows snapping away at scenes meant to last a lifetime… although not their own.

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All on board would have been happy in the knowledge they had arrived at the culmination of their great adventure over the Antarctic wilderness. There would have been some wonder as the aircraft probably began to nose up, and at the spooling up of the engines. Those seated would remain in comfort, but many standing may have been thrown against seats or, even, onto the cabin floor. Pity, but little enough to worry about. The captain, one of Air New Zealand’s most experienced pilots, knew what he was doing and there’d already been more than a dozen prior flights, all completed in absolute safety.

It would have been a different scenario for the four or five personnel on the flight deck, with a purposeful increase in trained activity being calmly applied. One moment flying towards a distant and clearly visible horizon — an optical illusion — and the next reacting to a whooping siren and a metallic voice commanding ‘Pull Up!’ This was the ground proximity warning, causing the captain to ask for emergency power. He would have known, with certainty, their situation to be critical.

What does flying into danger sound like? The aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder, or CVR, provided the following transcript of the last few seconds of flight, the last moments of life for 257 people:

First Officer: I don’t like this…
Ground proximity system: Whoop… whoop… PULL UP!
First Officer: 500 feet.
Ground proximity system: Whoop… whoop… PULL UP!
First Officer: 400 feet.
Captain: Go around power, please.
Ground Proximity system: Whoop… whoop…PULL UP!
… followed momentarily by the sounds of heavy collision, then nothing.

Flight 901, Auckland — McMurdo — Christchurch — Auckland, had flown into the side of 13,000-foot volcano Mount Erebus on Ross Island. Everyone on board sadly perished in what was then the world’s fourth worst air crash.

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But why had it happened?

An internal analysis by senior personnel at Air New Zealand and a subsequent investigation headed by New Zealand’s chief inspector of Air Accidents, Ron Chippindale, sheeted home the blame to those on the flight deck, establishing a finding of ‘Pilot error’. It was quick, it was clean, and it had the effect of absolving the airline executive… but it was wrong. The initial verdict left many dissatisfied, including the family of Captain Collins and the airline pilots’ association.

There was a whole lot more to come. The government established a Royal Commission. The Commissioner, Justice Peter Mahon, was to issue some especially scathing remarks at its end.

Part 2 — Flight 901: What happened and why, will be published on November 22

Do you remember the crash involving Flight 901? Where were you in 1979?