Air New Zealand Flight 901

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Air New Zealand Flight 901
Air New Zealand Flight 901.jpg
Debris from the DC-10's fuselage photographed in 2004. Most of the wreckage of Flight 901 remains at the accident site.
Date28 November 1979
Summary Controlled flight into terrain
Site Mount Erebus, Antarctica
77°25′30″S167°27′30″E / 77.42500°S 167.45833°E / -77.42500; 167.45833 Coordinates: 77°25′30″S167°27′30″E / 77.42500°S 167.45833°E / -77.42500; 167.45833
Aircraft type McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30
Operator Air New Zealand
Registration ZK-NZP
Flight origin Auckland International Airport

Air New Zealand Flight 901 (TE-901) [nb 1] was a scheduled Air New Zealand Antarctic sightseeing flight that operated between 1977 and 1979. The flight would leave Auckland Airport in the morning and spend a few hours flying over the Antarctic continent, before returning to Auckland in the evening via Christchurch. On 28 November 1979, the fourteenth flight of TE-901, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30, registration ZK-NZP, flew into Mount Erebus on Ross Island, Antarctica, killing all 237 passengers and 20 crew on board. [1] [2] The accident became known as the Mount Erebus disaster.

Air New Zealand Limited is the flag carrier airline of New Zealand. Based in Auckland, the airline operates scheduled passenger flights to 20 domestic and 31 international destinations in 19 countries around the Pacific Rim and the United Kingdom. The airline has been a member of the Star Alliance since 1999.

Antarctic region around the Earths South Pole

The Antarctic is a polar region around the Earth's South Pole, opposite the Arctic region around the North Pole. The Antarctic comprises the continent of Antarctica, the Kerguelen Plateau and other island territories located on the Antarctic Plate or south of the Antarctic Convergence. The Antarctic region includes the ice shelves, waters, and all the island territories in the Southern Ocean situated south of the Antarctic Convergence, a zone approximately 32 to 48 km wide varying in latitude seasonally. The region covers some 20 percent of the Southern Hemisphere, of which 5.5 percent is the surface area of the Antarctic continent itself. All of the land and ice shelves south of 60°S latitude are administered under the Antarctic Treaty System. Biogeographically, the Antarctic ecozone is one of eight ecozones of the Earth's land surface.

Auckland Airport international airport serving Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland Airport is the largest and busiest airport in New Zealand, with 19,387,627 passengers in the year ended October 2017. The airport is located near Mangere, a residential suburb, and Airport Oaks, a service hub suburb 21 kilometres (13 mi) south of the Auckland city centre. It is both a domestic and international hub for Air New Zealand, and as the New Zealand hub of Virgin Australia and Jetstar Airways.


The initial investigation concluded the accident was caused by pilot error, but public outcry led to the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the crash. The commission, presided over by Justice Peter Mahon QC, concluded that the accident was caused by a correction made to the coordinates of the flight path the night before the disaster, coupled with a failure to inform the flight crew of the change, with the result that the aircraft, instead of being directed by computer down McMurdo Sound (as the crew had been led to believe), was instead re-routed to a path toward Mount Erebus. Justice Mahon's report accused Air New Zealand of presenting "an orchestrated litany of lies" and this led to changes in senior management at the airline.

Pilot error decision, action or inaction by a pilot of an aircraft

Pilot error is a term historically used to describe a decision, action, or inaction by a pilot or crew of an aircraft that is determined to be the cause of, or a contributing factor in, an accident or incident. The term includes mistakes, oversights, lapses in judgment, gaps in training, adverse habits, and failures to exercise due diligence in a pilot's duties.

Peter Thomas Mahon was a New Zealand High Court Judge, best known for his Commission of Inquiry into the crash of Air New Zealand Flight 901. His son, Sam Mahon is a well-known artist.

McMurdo Sound landform

McMurdo Sound and its ice-clogged waters extends about 55 kilometres (34 mi) long and wide. The sound connects the Ross Sea to the north with the Ross Ice Shelf cavity to the south via Haskell Strait. The strait is largely covered by the McMurdo Ice Shelf. The Royal Society Range rises from sea level to 4,205 metres (13,796 ft) on the western shoreline. Ross Island, an historic jumping-off point for polar explorers, designates the eastern boundary. The active volcano Mount Erebus at 3,794 metres (12,448 ft) dominates Ross Island. Antarctica's largest scientific base, the United States' McMurdo Station, as well as the New Zealand Scott Base are on the southern shore of the island. Less than 10 percent of McMurdo Sound's shoreline is free of ice. It is the southernmost navigable body of water in the world.

The accident is New Zealand's deadliest peacetime disaster, as well as the deadliest accident in the history of Air New Zealand.

Flight and aircraft

The flight was designed and marketed as a unique sightseeing experience, carrying an experienced Antarctic guide who pointed out scenic features and landmarks using the aircraft public-address system, while passengers enjoyed a low-flying sweep of McMurdo Sound. [3] The flights left and returned to New Zealand the same day.

ZK-NZP, the aircraft involved in the accident, photographed in 1977 Air New Zealand DC-10-30 ZK-NZP LHR Jul 1977.png
ZK-NZP, the aircraft involved in the accident, photographed in 1977

Flight 901 would leave Auckland International Airport at 8:00 am for Antarctica, and arrive back at Christchurch International Airport at 7:00 pm after flying a total of 5,360 miles (8,630 km). The aircraft would make a 45-minute stop at Christchurch for refuelling and crew change, before flying the remaining 464 miles (747 km) to Auckland, arriving at 9:00 pm. Tickets for the November 1979 flights cost NZ$359 per person (NZ$1,279 in December 2016 with transport-related inflation). [4] [5]

Christchurch International Airport international airport in Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch International Airport is the main airport that serves Christchurch, New Zealand. It is located 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) to the northwest of the city centre, in the suburb of Harewood. Christchurch (Harewood) Airport officially opened on 18 May 1940 and became New Zealand's first international airport on 16 December 1950. It is the second busiest airport in New Zealand after Auckland by both annual passengers and aircraft movements. Christchurch along with Auckland are the only two airports in New Zealand to regularly handle Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 aircraft. The airport is curfew free operating 24 hours a day.

Dignitaries including Sir Edmund Hillary had acted as guides on previous flights. Hillary was scheduled to act as the guide for the fatal flight of 28 November 1979, but had to cancel owing to other commitments. His long-time friend and climbing companion, Peter Mulgrew, stood in as guide. [6]

Peter David Mulgrew was a New Zealand mountaineer, yachtsman and businessman.

The flights usually operated at about 85% of capacity; the empty seats, usually the ones in the centre row, allowed passengers to move more easily about the cabin to look out of the windows.

The aircraft used on the Antarctic flights were Air New Zealand's eight McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 trijets. The aircraft on 28 November was registered ZK-NZP. The 182nd DC-10 to be built, and the fourth DC-10 to be introduced by Air New Zealand, ZK-NZP was handed over to the airline on 12 December 1974 at McDonnell Douglas's Long Beach plant. It was the first Air New Zealand DC-10 to be fitted with General Electric CF6-50C engines as built, and had logged more than 20,700 flight hours prior to the crash. [1] [7]

Trijet aircraft propelled by three jet engines

A trijet is a jet aircraft powered by three jet engines. In general, passenger airline trijets are considered to be second-generation jet airliners, due to their innovative engine locations, in addition to the advancement of turbofan technology.

Aircraft registration registration and identification assigned to an individual aircraft by national aviation authorities

An aircraft registration is a code unique to a single aircraft, required by international convention to be marked on the exterior of every civil aircraft. The registration indicates the aircraft's country of registration, and functions much like an automobile license plate. This code must also appear in its Certificate of Registration, issued by the relevant National Aviation Authority (NAA). An aircraft can only have one registration, in one jurisdiction, though it is changeable over the life of the aircraft.

General Electric CF6 turbofan aircraft engine family

The General Electric CF6 is a family of high-bypass turbofan engines produced by GE Aviation. Based on the TF39, the first high-power high-bypass jet engine, the CF6 powers a wide variety of civilian airliners. The basic engine core also powers the LM2500, LM5000, and LM6000 marine and power generation turboshafts. The newer GEnx family has been introduced, intended to replace the CF6 family.


Circumstances surrounding the accident

Captain Jim Collins and co-pilot Greg Cassin had never flown to Antarctica before (while flight engineer Gordon Brooks had flown to Antarctica only once previously), but they were experienced pilots and were considered qualified for the flight. On 9 November 1979, 19 days before departure, the two pilots attended a briefing in which they were given a copy of the previous flight's flight plan. [3]

The flight plan that had been approved in 1977 by the New Zealand Department of Transport Civil Aviation Division was along a track directly from Cape Hallett to the McMurdo non-directional beacon (NDB), which, coincidentally, entailed flying almost directly over the 12,448-foot (3,794 m) peak of Mount Erebus. However, because of a typing error in the coordinates when the route was computerised, the printout from Air New Zealand's ground computer system presented at the 9 November briefing corresponded to a southerly flight path down the middle of the wide McMurdo Sound, approximately 27 miles (43 km) to the west of Mount Erebus. [8] The majority of the previous 13 flights had also entered this flight plan's coordinates into their aircraft navigational systems and flown the McMurdo Sound route, unaware that the route flown did not correspond with the approved route. [9]

Captain Leslie Simpson, the pilot of a flight on 14 November and also present at the 9 November briefing, [10] compared the coordinates of the McMurdo TACAN navigation beacon (approximately 5 kilometres [3 mi] east of McMurdo NDB), and the McMurdo waypoint that his flight crew had entered into the INS (Inertial Navigation System), and was surprised to find a large distance between the two. After his flight, Captain Simpson advised Air New Zealand's Navigation section of the difference in positions. For reasons that were disputed, this triggered Air New Zealand's Navigation section to resolve to update the McMurdo waypoint coordinates stored in the ground computer to correspond with the coordinates of the McMurdo TACAN beacon, despite this also not corresponding with the approved route. [8]

The Navigation section changed the McMurdo waypoint coordinate stored in the ground computer system at approximately 1:40 am on the morning of the flight. Crucially, the flight crew of Flight 901 was not notified of the change. The flight plan printout given to the crew on the morning of the flight, which was subsequently entered by them into the aircraft's INS, differed from the flight plan presented at the 9 November briefing and from Captain Collins' map mark-ups which he had prepared the night before the fatal flight. The key difference was that the flight plan presented at the briefing corresponded to a track down McMurdo Sound, giving Mount Erebus a wide berth to the east, whereas the flight plan printed on the morning of the flight corresponded to a track that coincided with Mount Erebus, which would result in a collision with Mount Erebus if this leg was flown at an altitude of less than 13,000 feet (4,000 m). [9]

Additionally, the computer program was altered such that the standard telex forwarded to US Air Traffic Controllers at the United States Antarctic science facility at McMurdo Station displayed the word "McMurdo", rather than the coordinates of latitude and longitude, for the final waypoint. During the subsequent inquiry Justice Mahon concluded that this was a deliberate attempt to conceal from the United States authorities that the flight plan had been changed, and probably because it was known that US Air Traffic Control would lodge an objection to the new flight path. [11]

The flight had earlier paused during the approach to McMurdo Sound to carry out a descent, via a figure-eight manoeuvre, through a gap in the low cloud base (later estimated to be at approximately 2,000 to 3,000 feet (610 to 910 m)) while over water to establish visual contact with surface landmarks and afford the passengers a better view. [12] It was established that the flight crew either was unaware of or ignored the approved route's minimum safe altitude (MSA) of 16,000 feet (4,900 m) for the approach to Mount Erebus, and 6,000 feet (1,800 m) in the sector south of Mount Erebus (and then only when the cloud base was at 7,000 feet (2,100 m) or better). Photographs and news stories from previous flights showed that many of these had also been flown at levels substantially below the route's MSA. In addition, pre-flight briefings for previous flights had approved descents to any altitude authorised by the US Air Traffic Controller (ATC) at McMurdo Station. As the US ATC expected Flight 901 to follow the same route as previous flights down McMurdo Sound, and in accordance with the route waypoints previously advised by Air New Zealand to them, the ATC advised Flight 901 that it had a radar that could let them down to 1,500 feet (460 m). However, the radar equipment did not actually pick up the aircraft, and the crew also experienced difficulty establishing VHF communications. The distance measuring equipment (DME) did not lock onto the McMurdo Tactical Air Navigation System (TACAN) for any useful period. [13]

Cockpit voice recorder transcripts from the last minutes of the flight before impact with Mount Erebus indicated that the flight crew believed they were flying over McMurdo Sound, well to the west of Mount Erebus and with the Ross Ice Shelf visible on the horizon, when in reality they were flying directly toward the mountain. Despite most of the crew being engaged in identifying visual landmarks at the time, they never perceived the mountain directly in front of them. Approximately six minutes after completing a descent in Visual Meteorological Conditions, Flight 901 collided with the mountain at an altitude of approximately 1,500 feet (460 m), on the lower slopes of the 12,448-foot (3,794 m) tall mountain. Passenger photographs taken seconds before the collision removed all doubt of a "flying in cloud" theory, showing perfectly clear visibility well beneath the cloud base, with landmarks 13 miles (21 km) to the left and 10 miles (16 km) to the right of the aircraft visible. [14]

Changes to the coordinates and departure

The crew input the coordinates into the plane's computer before they departed at 7:21 am from Auckland International Airport. Unknown to them, the coordinates had been modified earlier that morning to correct the error introduced previously and undetected until then. The crew evidently did not check the destination waypoint against a topographical map (as did Captain Simpson on the flight of 14 November) or they would have noticed the change. Charts for the Antarctic were not available to the pilot for planning purposes, being withheld[ why? ] until the flight was about to depart. The charts eventually provided, which were carried on the aircraft, were neither comprehensive enough nor large enough in scale to support detailed plotting. [15] Such cross checks (and more crucially, real-time monitoring of the aircraft's actual position over the ground) was neither supported nor required, nor even encouraged, by the Navigation Section of Air New Zealand.[ citation needed ]

These new coordinates changed the flight plan to track 27 miles (43 km) east of their understanding. The coordinates programmed the plane to overfly Mount Erebus, a 12,448-foot-high (3,794 m) volcano, instead of down McMurdo Sound. [3]

About four hours after a smooth take-off, the flight was 42 miles (68 km) away from McMurdo Station. The radio communications centre there allowed the pilots to descend to 10,000 ft (3,000 m) and to continue "visually." Air safety regulations at the time did not allow flights to descend to lower than 6,000 ft (1,800 m), even in good weather, although Air New Zealand's own travel magazine showed photographs of previous flights clearly operating below 6,000 ft (1,800 m). Collins believed the plane was over open water. [3]

Crash into Mount Erebus

Flight path of Flight 901. Flight Air New Zealand 901 crash map.PNG
Flight path of Flight 901.

Collins told McMurdo Station that he would be dropping to 2,000 feet (610 m), at which point he switched control of the aircraft to the automated computer system. Outside there was a layer of clouds that blended with the white of the snow-covered volcano, forming a sector whiteout – there was no contrast between the two to warn the pilots. The effect deceived everyone on the flight deck, making them believe that the white mountainside was the Ross Ice Shelf, a huge expanse of floating ice derived from the great ice sheets of Antarctica, which was in fact now behind the mountain. As it was little understood, even by experienced polar pilots, Air New Zealand had provided no training for the flight crew on the sector whiteout phenomenon. Consequently, the crew thought they were flying along McMurdo Sound, when they were actually flying over Lewis Bay in front of Mt. Erebus. [3]

At 12:49 pm, the ground proximity warning system  (GPWS) began sounding a series of "whoop whoop pull up" alarms, warning that the plane was dangerously close to terrain. The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) recorded the following: [nb 2]

The go-around power was immediately applied, but it was too late. [16] [17] There was no time to divert the aircraft, and six seconds later the plane crashed into the side of Mount Erebus and exploded, instantly killing everyone on board. The accident occurred at 12:50 pm at a position of 77°25′30″S167°27′30″E / 77.42500°S 167.45833°E / -77.42500; 167.45833 (accident site) and an elevation of 1,467 feet (447 m) AMSL. [18]

McMurdo Station attempted to contact the flight after the crash, and informed Air New Zealand headquarters in Auckland that communication with the aircraft had been lost. United States search and rescue personnel were placed on standby. [3]

Nationalities of passengers and crew

Air New Zealand had not lost any passengers to an accident or incident until this event took place. [19] The nationalities of the passengers and crew included: [3] [20]

New Zealand18020200
United States22-22
United Kingdom6-6

Rescue and recovery

Initial search and discovery

At 2:00 pm the United States Navy released a situation report stating:

Air New Zealand Flight 901 has failed to acknowledge radio transmissions. ... One LC-130 fixed-wing aircraft and two UH-1N rotary wing aircraft are preparing to launch for SAR effort. [21] :1

Data gathered at 3:43 pm was added to the situation report, stating that the visibility was 40 miles (64 km). It also stated that six aircraft had been launched to find the flight. [21] :2

Flight 901 was due to arrive back at Christchurch at 6:05 pm for a stopover including refuelling and a crew change before completing the journey back to Auckland. Around 50 passengers were also supposed to disembark at Christchurch. Airport staff initially told the waiting families that it was usual for the flight to be slightly late but, as time went on, it became clear that something was wrong. [22]

At 9:00 pm, about half an hour after the plane would have run out of fuel, Air New Zealand informed the press that it believed the aircraft to be lost. Rescue teams searched along the assumed flight path but found nothing. At 12:55 am the crew of a United States Navy aircraft discovered unidentified debris along the side of Mount Erebus. [21] :4 No survivors could be seen. At around 9:00 am, twenty hours after the crash, helicopters with search parties managed to land on the side of the mountain. They confirmed that the wreckage was that of Flight 901 and that all 237 passengers and 20 crew members had been killed. The DC-10's altitude at the time of the collision was 1,465 feet (447 m).

The vertical stabiliser section of the plane, with the koru logo clearly visible, was found in the snow. [23] Bodies and fragments of the aircraft were flown back to Auckland for identification. [24] The remains of 44 of the victims were not individually identified. A funeral was held for them on 22 February 1980.

Operation Overdue

The recovery effort of Flight 901 was called "Operation Overdue".

Efforts for recovery were extensive, owing in part to the pressure from Japan, as 24 passengers had been Japanese. The operation lasted until 9 December 1979, with up to 60 recovery workers on site at a time. A team of New Zealand Police officers and a Mountain Face Rescue team were dispatched on a No. 40 Squadron C-130 Hercules aircraft.[ citation needed ]

The job of individual identification took many weeks, and was largely done by teams of pathologists, dentists, and police. The mortuary team was led by Inspector Jim Morgan, who collated and edited a report on the recovery operation. Record keeping had to be meticulous because of the number and fragmented state of the human remains that had to be identified to the satisfaction of the coroner. From a purely technical point of view the exercise was both innovative and highly successful, with 83% of the deceased eventually being identified, sometimes from evidence such as a finger capable of yielding a print, or keys in a pocket.[ citation needed ]

The fact that we all spent about a week camped in polar tents amid the wreckage and dead bodies, maintaining a 24-hour work schedule says it all. We split the men into two shifts (12 hours on and 12 off), and recovered with great effort all the human remains at the site. Many bodies were trapped under tons of fuselage and wings and much physical effort was required to dig them out and extract them.

Initially, there was very little water at the site and we had only one bowl between all of us to wash our hands in before eating. The water was black. In the first days on site we did not wash plates and utensils after eating but handed them on to the next shift because we were unable to wash them. I could not eat my first meal on site because it was a meat stew. Our polar clothing became covered in black human grease (a result of burns on the bodies).

We felt relieved when the first resupply of woollen gloves arrived because ours had become saturated in human grease, however, we needed the finger movement that wool gloves afforded, i.e., writing down the details of what we saw and assigning body and grid numbers to all body parts and labelling them. All bodies and body parts were photographed in situ by U.S. Navy photographers who worked with us. Also, U.S. Navy personnel helped us to lift and pack bodies into body bags which was very exhausting work.

Later, the Skua gulls were eating the bodies in front of us, causing us much mental anguish as well as destroying the chances of identifying the corpses. We tried to shoo them away but to no avail, we then threw flares, also to no avail. Because of this we had to pick up all the bodies/parts that had been bagged and create 11 large piles of human remains around the crash site in order to bury them under snow to keep the birds off. To do this we had to scoop up the top layer of snow over the crash site and bury them, only later to uncover them when the weather cleared and the helos were able to get back on the site. It was immensely exhausting work.

After we had almost completed the mission, we were trapped by bad weather and isolated. At that point, NZPO2 and I allowed the liquor that had survived the crash to be given out and we had a party (macabre, but we had to let off steam).

We ran out of cigarettes, a catastrophe that caused all persons, civilians and Police on site, to hand in their personal supplies so we could dish them out equally and spin out the supply we had. As the weather cleared, the helos were able to get back and we then were able to hook the piles of bodies in cargo nets under the helicopters and they were taken to McMurdo. This was doubly exhausting because we also had to wind down the personnel numbers with each helo load and that left the remaining people with more work to do. It was exhausting uncovering the bodies and loading them and dangerous too as debris from the crash site was whipped up by the helo rotors. Risks were taken by all those involved in this work. The civilians from McDonnell Douglas, MOT and U.S. Navy personnel were first to leave and then the Police and DSIR followed. I am proud of my service and those of my colleagues on Mount Erebus. [25]

Jim Morgan

In 2006, the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus) was instituted to recognise the service of New Zealanders, and citizens of the United States of America and other countries, who were involved in the body recovery, identification, and crash investigation phases of Operation Overdue. On 5 June 2009 the New Zealand government recognised some of the Americans who assisted in Operation Overdue during a ceremony in Washington, D.C. A total of 40 Americans, mostly Navy personnel, are eligible to receive the medal. [26]

Accident inquiries

The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder of Air New Zealand Flight 901, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (2015) Air New Zealand Flight 901 Black Box.jpg
The flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder of Air New Zealand Flight 901, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (2015)

Despite Flight 901 crashing in one of the most isolated parts of the world, evidence from the crash site was extensive. Both the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder were in working order and able to be deciphered. Extensive photographic footage from the moments before the crash was available: being a sightseeing flight, most passengers were carrying cameras, from which the majority of the film could be developed. [27] [28]

Official accident report

The accident report compiled by New Zealand's chief inspector of air accidents, Ron Chippindale, was released on 12 June 1980. It cited pilot error as the principal cause of the accident and attributed blame to the decision of Collins to descend below the customary minimum altitude level, and to continue at that altitude when the crew was unsure of the plane's position. The customary minimum altitude prohibited descent below 6,000 feet (1,800 m) even under good weather conditions, but a combination of factors led the captain to believe the plane was over the sea (the middle of McMurdo Sound and few small low islands), and previous flight 901 pilots had regularly flown low over the area to give passengers a better view, as evidenced by photographs in Air New Zealand's own travel magazine and by first-hand accounts of personnel based on the ground at NZ's Scott Base.

Mahon Inquiry

In response to public demand, the New Zealand Government announced a further one-man Royal Commission of Inquiry into the accident, to be performed by the highly respected judge Justice Peter Mahon. This Royal Commission was 'handicapped' in that the deadline was extremely short; originally set for 31 October 1980, it was later extended four times. [29]

Mahon's report, released on 27 April 1981, cleared the crew of blame for the disaster. Mahon said the single, dominant and effective cause of the crash was Air New Zealand's alteration of the flight plan waypoint coordinates in the ground navigation computer without advising the crew. The new flight plan took the aircraft directly over the mountain, rather than along its flank. Due to whiteout conditions, "a malevolent trick of the polar light", the crew were unable to visually identify the mountain in front of them. Furthermore, they may have experienced a rare meteorological phenomenon called sector whiteout, which creates the visual illusion of a flat horizon far in the distance. (It appeared to be a very broad gap between cloud layers allowing a view of the distant Ross Ice Shelf and beyond.) Mahon noted that the flight crew, with many thousands of hours of flight time between them, had considerable experience with the extreme accuracy of the aircraft's inertial navigation system. Mahon also found that the pre-flight briefings for previous flights had approved descents to any altitude authorised by the US Air Traffic Controller (ATC) at McMurdo Station, and that the radio communications centre at McMurdo Station had indeed authorized Collins to descend to 1,500 feet (460 m), below the minimum safe level.

In para. 377 of his report, [30] Mahon found [31] that airline executives and senior (management) pilots had engaged in a conspiracy to whitewash the inquiry, accusing them of "an orchestrated litany of lies" by covering up evidence and lying to investigators. Mahon found that in the original report Chippindale had a poor grasp of the flying involved in jet airline operation, as he (and the New Zealand CAA in general) was typically involved in investigating simple light aircraft crashes. Chippindale's investigation techniques were revealed as lacking in rigour, which allowed errors and avoidable gaps in knowledge to appear in reports. Consequently, Chippindale entirely missed the importance of the flight plan change and the rare meteorological conditions of Antarctica. Had the pilots been informed of the flight plan change, the crash would have been avoided.

Court proceedings

Judicial review

On 20 May 1981, Air New Zealand applied to the High Court of New Zealand for judicial review of Mahon's order that it pay more than half the costs of the Mahon Inquiry, and for judicial review of some of the findings of fact Mahon had made in his report. The application was referred to the Court of Appeal, which unanimously set aside the costs order. However, the Court of Appeal, by majority, declined to go any further, and, in particular, declined to set aside Mahon's finding that members of the management of Air New Zealand had conspired to commit perjury before the Inquiry to cover up the errors of the ground staff. [29]

Privy Council appeal

Mahon then appealed to the Privy Council in London against the Court of Appeal's decision. His findings as to the cause of the accident, namely reprogramming of the aircraft's flight plan by the ground crew who then failed to inform the flight crew, had not been challenged before the Court of Appeal, and so were not challenged before the Privy Council. His conclusion that the crash was the result of the aircrew being misdirected as to their flight path, not due to pilot error, therefore remained.

Regarding the issue of Air New Zealand stating a minimum altitude of 6,000 feet for pilots in the vicinity of McMurdo Base, the Privy Council stated "Their Lordships accept unreservedly that ... the evidence given by several of the executive pilots at the inquiry was false. But, even though false ... it cannot have formed part of a predetermined plan of deception. Those witnesses whom the Judge disbelieved on this issue were, as their Lordships must accept, being untruthful ... they were also being singularly naive. [Q]uite apart from the mass of evidence of flights at low altitudes and the publicity given to them ... it is not conceivable that individual witnesses falsely disclaimed knowledge of low flying on previous Antarctic flights in a concerted attempt to deceive anybody". [32]

But the Law Lords of the Privy Council under the chair of Lord Diplock effectively agreed with some of the views of the minority in the Court of Appeal in concluding that Mahon had acted in breach of natural justice in making his finding of a conspiracy by Air New Zealand management. In its judgment, delivered on 20 October 1983, the Privy Council therefore dismissed Mahon's appeal. [33] Aviation researcher John King wrote in his book New Zealand Tragedies, Aviation:

They demolished his case (Mahon's case for a cover-up) item by item, including Exhibit 164 which they said could not "be understood by any experienced pilot to be intended for the purposes of navigation" and went even further, saying there was no clear proof on which to base a finding that a plan of deception, led by the company's chief executive, had ever existed.

"Exhibit 164" was a photocopied diagram of McMurdo Sound showing a southbound flight path passing west of Ross Island and a northbound path passing the island on the east. The diagram did not extend sufficiently far south to show where, how, or even if they joined, and left the two paths disconnected. Evidence had been given to the effect that the diagram had been included in the flight crew's briefing documentation.

Legacy of the disaster

The crash of Flight 901 is one of New Zealand's three deadliest disasters – the others being the 1874 Cospatrick sailing ship disaster in which 470 [34] [35] people died, and the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake, which killed 256 people. [36] At the time of the disaster, it was the fourth-deadliest air crash of all time; [37] as of 2014 it ranks 18th.[ citation needed ]As of April 2018 (2018-04), the crash remains Air New Zealand's deadliest accident, as well as New Zealand's deadliest peacetime disaster. [38] [39]

Flight 901, in conjunction with the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 in Chicago six months earlier (May 25), severely hurt the reputation of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Following the Chicago crash, the FAA withdrew the DC-10's type certificate on June 6, which grounded all U.S.-registered DC-10s and forbade any foreign government which had a bilateral agreement with the United States regarding aircraft certifications from flying their DC-10s, which included Air New Zealand’s seven DC-10s. [40] The Air New Zealand DC-10 fleet was grounded until the FAA measures were rescinded five weeks later, on July 13, after all carriers had completed modifications that responded to issues discovered from the American Airlines Flight 191 incident. [41]

Flight 901 was the third deadliest accident involving a DC-10, following Turkish Airlines Flight 981 and American Airlines Flight 191. The event marked the beginning of the end for Air New Zealand's DC-10 fleet, although there had been talk before the accident of replacing the aircraft; DC-10s were replaced by Boeing 747s from mid-1981, and the last Air New Zealand DC-10 flew in December 1982. The occurrence also spelled the end of commercially operated Antarctic sightseeing flights – Air New Zealand cancelled all its Antarctic flights after Flight 901, and Qantas suspended its Antarctic flights in February 1980, only returning on a limited basis again in 1994.

Almost all of the aircraft's wreckage still lies where it came to rest on the slopes of Mount Erebus, as both its remote location and its weather conditions can hamper any further recovery operations. During the cold periods, the wreckage is buried under a layer of snow and ice. During warm periods, when snow recedes, it is visible from the air. [42]

A television miniseries, Erebus: The Aftermath , focusing on the investigation and the Royal Commission of Inquiry, was broadcast in New Zealand and Australia in 1988.

The phrase "an orchestrated litany of lies" entered New Zealand popular culture for some years. [43] [44] [45]

Following the incident, all charter flights to Antarctica from New Zealand ceased, and were not resumed until 2013, when a Boeing 747-400 chartered from Qantas set off from Auckland for a sightseeing flight over the continent. [46]

Justice Mahon's report was finally tabled in Parliament by the then Minister of Transport, Maurice Williamson, in 1999.

In the New Zealand Queen's Birthday Honours list in June 2007 Captain Gordon Vette was awarded the ONZM (Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit), recognising his services in assisting Justice Mahon during the Erebus Inquiry. Vette's book, Impact Erebus, provides a commentary of the flight, its crash and the subsequent investigations.

In 2008, Justice Mahon was posthumously awarded the Jim Collins Memorial Award by the New Zealand Airline Pilots Association for exceptional contributions to air safety, "in forever changing the general approach used in transport accidents investigations world wide." [47]

In 2009, Air New Zealand's CEO Rob Fyfe apologised to all those affected who did not receive appropriate support and compassion from the company following the incident, and unveiled a commemorative sculpture at its headquarters. [48] [49]

The registration of the crashed aircraft, ZK-NZP, has not been reissued.


Photograph of the Erebus Memorial at Waikumete Cemetery, Glen Eden, Auckland. January 2014. Erebus-memorial-waikumete.jpg
Photograph of the Erebus Memorial at Waikumete Cemetery, Glen Eden, Auckland. January 2014.

A wooden cross was erected on the mountain above Scott Base to commemorate the accident. It was replaced in 1986 with an aluminium cross after the original was eroded by low temperatures, wind, and moisture.

The memorial for the 16 passengers who were unidentifiable and the 28 whose bodies were never found is at Waikumete Cemetery in Glen Eden, Auckland. Beside the memorial is a Japanese cherry tree, planted as a memorial to the 24 Japanese passengers who died on board Flight 901. [50]

A memorial to the crew members of Flight 901 is located adjacent to Auckland Airport, on Tom Pearce Drive at the eastern end of the airport zone. [51]

In January 2010, a 26-kilogram (57 lb) sculpted koru containing letters written by the loved ones of those who died was placed next to the Antarctic cross. [52] It was originally to have been placed at the site by six relatives of the victims on the 30th anniversary of the crash, 28 November 2009, but this was delayed for two months due to bad weather. It was planned for a second koru capsule, mirroring the first capsule, to be placed at Scott Base in 2011. [53]

The book-length poem “Erebus” by American writer Jane Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015) memorializes a close friend who died in the tragedy, and in a feat of ‘investigative poetry,’ explores the chain of flawed decisions that caused the crash. [54]

See also

Similar aircraft incidents



  1. At the time of the crash, Air New Zealand had two IATA codes, TE for international flights (a relic from Air New Zealand's predecessor, Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL)) and NZ for domestic flights (acquired from the merger with the National Airways Corporation in April 1978). Despite being domestic flights from an immigration point-of-view, the Antarctic flights used the TE code for logistical reasons.
  2. GPWS = Ground Proximity Warning System , CA = Captain , FO = First Officer , FE = Flight Engineer, CAM = Cockpit Area Micophone.

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Further reading