Flight 901: What happened and why

The initial investigation into Flight 901 concluded the accident was caused by pilot error but public outcry led to the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the crash.

Part 2 — The Findings

“A couple of miles change to flight path. It won’t make any difference.”

Following the tragic loss of life in 1979 when an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed in Antarctica, internal airline and external air accident investigations found the pilots at fault. Both conveniently overlooked changes the airline’s navigation branch entered into the aircraft’s computers the night before, without anyone bothering to advise the captain.

All previous flights had been routed down McMurdo Sound, overflying the sea ice. Altered coordinates were fed into the computers on the DC-10, causing it to fly 27 miles to the left of the previous course. Instead of a broken sea ice surface that never exceeded more than perhaps a few dozen feet beneath its wings, it now flew directly towards Mount Erebus on Ross Island.

The aircraft was programmed to one course, the captain another.

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A Royal Commission was established and an enormous amount of evidence presented to the Commissioner, High Court Judge Peter Mahon. Some of the most compelling arguments included the following:

  • Jim Collins was a senior, highly skilled and greatly respected pilot with 11,000 hours’ flying time. A couple of weeks before the fatal flight, he atttended a pre-flight briefing. It was to be his first Antarctic flight and he took copious notes. He went home and sat with his daughters, drawing the route in an atlas he took on the flight with him. It was never found.
  • On the evening before the flight, the navigation section of Air New Zealand made a ‘minor’ correction to the route and entered this into the DC-10 flight computer without advising Captain Collins or his crew.
  • Keith Amies of the navigation section said they were correcting a minor discrepancy, but it proved to be more than the 2 miles they thought. It was 27. What this meant was that the flight, instead of proceeding safely down the 40-mile wide McMurdo Sound now pointed straight at Mount Erebus. One of the counsel assisting asked, “If a cross-check had been made, would the error have been appreciated?” Mr Amies replied, “Yes.”

All of this, and a great deal more, was entered in evidence, including what Commissioner Mahon concluded to be a massive cover-up by airline executives. Damning though it all appeared, it still failed to address the reason an experienced pilot such as Jim Collins would simply fly straight into the side of a mountain in conditions of evidently good visibility.

An Air New Zealand check captain, Gordon Vette, provided evidence. Captain Vette had wondered why it was possible to “… have 200 miles visibility and still fly into a mountain.” He commenced an investigation that not only explained how it was possible, but made changes to air navigation in similar circumstances worldwide.

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Vette showed that the flight crew on the fateful day experienced a white-out condition that presented them with a perfect — but false — distant horizon. Later, flying a similar course to Flight 901, but in a helicopter from the United States McMurdo base, Justice Mahon experienced a similar event. The important difference was that the US pilot knew exactly where he was and what was happening, so withdrew to safety.

Captain Collins was not afforded that essential element. He and his companions in adventure thus paid the ultimate price.

Although there was far more to the hearing than can be reported here, Justice Mahon overturned the earlier ‘Pilot error’ finding and sheeted home blame to Air New Zealand for the change in navigation data. He was especially scathing about a company cover-up, highlighting what he believed their intentionally misleading evidence and, quote, “… orchestrated litany of lies.”

Jim Collins and his flight crew had been exonerated, but it would never bring back those 257 lives so sadly and needlessly lost.

My thanks to the late Peter Mahon for detailed information from his 1984 book, Verdict On Erebus, and to the late Gordon Vette for Impact Erebus (1983). May they, and the victims, rest in peace.

You can read Part 1 — The Flight here.

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