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Published November 15, 2019

Forty years ago, more than two hundred and fifty people set out on an exciting, luxurious sightseeing trip to the bottom of the world. A few hours later, their lives ended on the bleak, snow-covered slopes of Antarctica’s Mount Erebus.

But the disaster itself would only be the first part of this tragedy.

Source: Unsplash

The extreme places of the Earth have always exerted a special draw on people, and Antarctica is no exception.

The term “Antarctic” was coined in the 2nd century AD, but at the time the existence of the continent was only a theory. James Cook and his crew were the first to cross the Antarctic Circle in 1773, but they didn’t actually see the continent itself. It wasn’t until 1820 that explorers officially discovered land there.

This sparked the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”, during which much of the coastline was mapped, the South Pole was reached – and more than twenty men died in the process.

Despite the harsh conditions, the first tourists in the Antarctic region were there as early as the 1920s – a mail ship servicing whaling and sealing stations in the South Shetland and South Orkney Islands marketed round-trip tickets.

It was in the 1960s that Antarctic tourism really began, though, with the first cruise ship to be built specifically to take people there.

And, in 1977, the first scenic flights over Antarctica began. Qantas flew from Sydney on the 13th of February 1977, and Air New Zealand flew from Auckland two days later.

These flights proved to be very popular. By 1979, thousands of people had flown over the frozen continent, and when Air New Zealand announced their November flights, they were fully booked within three weeks. 

According to Air New Zealand’s brochure,

“The flights will give YOU a unique opportunity to look down on the lonely land of Scott, Shackleton and Byrd, and their explorer scientist successors. Your vehicle will be a long range Series 30 DC-10, one of the world’s most modern and comfortable airliners. The flight will operate from Auckland to McMurdo Sound, nearly 400 miles beyond Cape Hallett on the northern Antarctic coastline… McMurdo Sound, in the Ross Sea, is the historic heart of most Antarctic exploration, and the main American base and New Zealand’s Scott Base are there. After its non-stop Antarctic “cruise”, the DC-10 will land at Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand before returning to Auckland.”

Whilst onboard, passengers would enjoy a champagne breakfast and lunch, along with in-flight entertainment – three suitably Antarctic films, and live commentary from an experienced Antarctic explorer. 

On the 28th of November, 1979, the flight was crewed by Captain Jim Collins and his co-pilot, First Officer Greg Cassin. The flight also carried a spare co-pilot, Graham Lucas, and two flight engineers, Gordon Brooks and Nick Moloney. The in-flight commentator was originally scheduled to be the famed Sir Edmund Hillary – but due to other commitments he had been replaced by Peter Mulgrew, a close friend and climbing companion of his.

Although the flight was fully booked, it wasn’t filled to the maximum capacity of the DC-10 – because it was a sightseeing trip, it was booked to about 85% capacity so that there would be room for passengers to move around, and allow everyone to get an equal view.

Photographs taken by passengers onboard that day show just what you’d expect – happy, excited people leaning towards the windows for a better view, enjoying the onboard luxuries, or views out of the window of the stunning snow-bound landscapes.

Until about ten to two in the afternoon, New Zealand Time.

The American air traffic controllers at McMurdo Station were unable to contact Flight 901 after that time. Shortly after losing contact, they dispatched search and rescue flights along McMurdo Sound, the route they expected the flight to be using. If the plane had gone down in the water, the passengers wouldn’t be able to survive for long in the frozen waters.  However, there was no sign of them.

The plane, registered as ZK-NZP, used for Flight 901. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The hours ticked past; families arriving at Christchurch and Auckland to meet passengers began to worry. At around ten pm, Air New Zealand told the press that the plane had to be presumed lost; they would have run out of fuel.

Finally, almost twelve hours since the last communication with Flight 901, the crew of an American Navy aircraft spotted something that didn’t belong on the ice and snow.

A spokesman for the search effort told reporters,

“A few moments ago we received news that they’d located the wreckage of the DC-10. They reported that it was about two thousand five hundred feet up Mount Erebus, which is the largest mountain in the Antarctic and regrettably reported no sign of survivors.”

Mount Erebus. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Standing 12,448 feet – 3,794 metres – tall, Mount Erebus is not only a mountain, it’s an active volcano. It was named by polar explorer Sir James Clark Ross after one of his ships – nearby Mount Terror was named after the other. These were, of course, the same ships later used by the disastrous Franklin expedition to the Arctic. 

In Greek mythology, Erebus was the personification of darkness; it was also the name of a region of the underworld, where the newly dead go. Antarctica’s Erebus had now claimed 257 lives.

It wasn’t until the following morning that any rescuers were able to land on the slopes of the mountain and reach the crash site, but it was immediately clear from the air that there couldn’t be any survivors. The plane was now little more than a black smear across the ice. 

Sergeant Greg Gilpin was one of a handful of New Zealand police officers who were sent to Antarctica to retrieve and identify the dead. In the film Erebus: Into The Unknown, he recalled the moment they first saw the crash site.

“As we drew near to McMurdo, the captain of the Hercules drew our attention to Mount Erebus and there in the distance was a slight smudge on the side of the mountain. The reality of it hit home, that here was a, a big, huge airliner, which had disintegrated. All it looked like was a little cigarette smudge on the side of the mountain, and that was a very, very moving moment.”

The crash site. Source: The Erebus Story

The Disaster Victim Identification Team were trained and prepared to deal with the dead, but they had very little preparation for the conditions of the Antarctic. After brief training at McMurdo Station, they were sent to the mountainside. There they stayed in a small camp of tents set up a respectful distance from the crash itself, working twelve hours on, twelve hours off, but with little rest in the permalight of the Antarctic summer. 

“It was 24 hour daylight. You’d constantly see the body that you were dealing with, so I did not get much sleep at all during the whole time. The main thing for me was the birds. They never shut up the whole time. They squawked the whole time. They circled the crash site. They were, obviously they’d got to the bodies before we got there. They tormented me… Eventually we decided that we would bury the bodies again so that the birds couldn’t get to them. And it worked.”

Working painstakingly through a grid system, and having to avoid falling into dangerous crevasses which were not always easy to spot, the team retrieved a total of 340 bodies or body parts. This alone amply demonstrates the violence of the crash.

Although some of the victims were retrieved virtually unscathed, identification would not always be easy. 

In her book, “Towards The Mountain: A story of grief and hope”, Sarah Myles, granddaughter of passenger Frank Christmas, recalls how many details the police requested from her family.

“…this is not the first visit the Big Blue Men have paid to my grandparents’ house. They have already interviewed my grandmother. They have already recorded her statement. They have already taken my grandfather’s personal items.

‘Go and get his brush and comb.’

They already have his dental records.

‘Someone call Blue Wallace. He only took Frank’s teeth out a few months ago.’

They have already lifted his fingerprints.

‘He put a new battery in the kitchen clock right before he left. Would that help?’

They have already asked about his war wounds, his jewellery and his scars.” 

They showed her grandmother photographs of clothing – a tie, a shirt, a pair of trousers, and ask her to identify them. She also gives them some fabric; offcuts from those same trousers, which she had shortened for her husband before he left. The family received the news that Frank Christmas had officially been identified on Christmas Eve 1979, almost a month after the tragedy.

Meanwhile, the question that everybody wanted the answer to was simple – how had Air New Zealand Flight 901 come to crash into the side of a mountain?

Both Collins and Cassin were experienced pilots; although neither had flown in Antarctica before, between them they had clocked up 19,000 flight hours. Collins, the pilot in charge, had 11,000 of those, and a reputation for caution.

And yet, from the mute evidence of the crash site, it appeared that they had flown at full speed into Mount Erebus. How was this possible?

Ron Chippindale was the Chief Inspector of Air Accidents for New Zealand. It was his job to investigate the crash. He was a trained pilot, with around 4,000 hours flight time, but had no experience with large jet airliners; most of the incidents he had previously investigated involved light aircraft. It’s therefore unsurprising that he wanted somebody with more experience in this area to advise him. What was somewhat surprising was that his adviser was Air New Zealand’s Chief Pilot, Captain Ian Gemmell.

Greg Gilpin recalled,

“I did think at the time it was a little odd that Air New Zealand people were on the site. The scene today would be probably treated as a crime scene, but in those days it wasn’t, and it was made very clear to us during our briefings before we went up there that we were not investigating…”

On the 11th of December, not even two weeks after the crash, Chippindale was quoted in the news as saying, “We have a fairly good idea what happened.”

According to Paul Holmes, in his book “Daughters of Erebus”, Chippindale expressed his view a few days later to the captain’s widow. 

“…when he came to see Maria Collins, Captain Collins’s wife, on 14 December he kept repeating, as they sat at her table, “Jim was too low, Maria. Jim was too low.” Maria knew then that his finding would reflect that view.”

Chippindale’s report was released in June 1980, and just as Mrs Collins feared, the blame ultimately fell upon her husband.

“The probable cause of this accident was the decision of the captain to continue the flight at low level toward an area of poor surface and horizon definition when the crew was not certain of their position and the subsequent inability to detect the rising terrain which intercepted the aircraft’s flight path.”

In other words, pilot error. However, the Chippindale report would not be the final word.

In March 1980, it had been announced that there would also be a commission of inquiry to look into the crash of Flight 901; in April it was announced that it would be headed by one man, Justice Peter Mahon. This, according to contemporary newspaper reports, was because other members would have had to include technical people, but almost all technical people would have some connection to Air New Zealand. 

“The government decided it was better to have just a judge who had experience in the technical and commercial area.”

Some may have expected the inquiry to be a mere formality – after all, Chippindale had already published the “probable cause” of the accident – but Mahon was a thorough man. He heard evidence over a period of 75 days; there were 284 exhibits produced, 3,083 pages of notes on the evidence, and the text of the submissions of counsel at the end ran to 368 pages. 

The results were surprising and controversial.

Through the course of the hearing, and the subsequent report, Mahon brought to light a number of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the Chippindale report, as well as a number of factors which were mentioned but not given sufficient weight. As a result, his conclusion was very different.

One of the key differences he highlighted was the issue of a minimum safe altitude which pilots had to obey during the flight. According to  Air New Zealand, most of the flight had a minimum safe altitude of 16,000 feet; they were allowed to descend to 6,000 feet near McMurdo Station, after they had passed Mount Erebus. 

However, there’s a fairly obvious logical problem with this. It was a sightseeing trip. How much sightseeing was anyone going to do from 16,000 feet?

It was true that those altitudes had been agreed between the Civil Aviation Division and Air New Zealand, but were they applied in practice? The answer soon appeared to be an emphatic “no”. Although Air New Zealand pilots giving evidence on behalf of their employer, including Captain Gemmell, testified that they had flown that route and at no time descended below the specified levels, evidence presented to the inquiry showed that they had.

Air New Zealand staff at the hearing also protested that, if there had been occasions when pilots had descended below minimum safe altitudes, they absolutely did not know about it. 

Exhibit 148A was an airline newsletter, entitled “Air New Zealand News” dated 30 November 1978. 

“The opening two paragraphs of the article read as follows:

“The flight deck crew of TE 901 took the boss flying with them on November 7. And as the DC10 cruised at 2000 feet past the antarctic’s Mt Erebus and over the great ice plateau Captain Doug Keesing, Flight Operations Director International, was as interested in sightseeing as the other 230-odd passengers aboard.”

Captain Lawson said that he considered that this airline newsletter, which is distributed to all members of the airline’s staff, would have provided ample evidence available to people in authority… But Captain Lawson was the only pilot called by the airline who admitted any knowledge of the contents… There was no executive pilot called on behalf of the airline who admitted ever seeing this exhibit.”

On top of that, in 1977 the president of the Mcdonnell-Douglas Corporation had enjoyed the Antarctic trip, and afterwards sent an article he had written about to Morrie Davis, the Chief Executive of Air New Zealand. In it, he wrote:

“As we neared the Ross Ice Shelf, Captain Vette began a gradual descent which would bring us to approximately 3000 feet above the ice. Ahead could be seen 13 200 foot Mt. Erebus, a live volcano emitting clouds of white smoke. At 2.20 pm. New Zealand time, we were abeam of Ross Island, dominated by Mt. Erebus, flying over the Ross Ice Shelf at relatively low altitude. Surface features could be seen distinctly.”

Mr Davis claimed that he received so much mail that he routinely didn’t read any attachments, no matter who they came from, and therefore was unaware of the contents of that article.

The article in question had, in fact, been included in a publication called Travelling Times, which had been distributed to almost a million homes throughout New Zealand – by arrangement, and at the cost of, Air New Zealand. But still the Chief Executive maintained that he didn’t know about it. Mr Mahon referred to further publicity in the same vein, and said,

“”I only advert to this widespread publicity of the actual flight levels being conducted in Antarctica because of the steadfast denial by the airline management, by the Flight Operations Division of the airline, and by the Civil Aviation Division, that any such information ever became known to them.”

“As inquiries eventually established, these limits, which may or may not have been observed by the airline for the initial two flights in February 1977, had not been observed at any time thereafter. In truth, the minimum safe altitude so prescribed by the Civil Aviation Division may have been quite satisfactory as part of an initial flight plan to be used for planning purposes on the first flight. But such minimum altitudes of 16 000 feet and 6000 feet, insofar as they were supposed to apply to all Antarctica flights, were misconceived. They had no relation whatever to the realities of sightseeing flights in Antarctica. They continued to be the officially approved levels as between the Civil Aviation Division and the airline from February 1977 right through to the date of the disaster. But in practice the airline disregarded those minimum altitudes, and in my opinion were justified in doing so.

Captains of Antarctic flights were specifically briefed in 1978 and in 1979 that they were authorised to descend in the McMurdo area to any flight level authorised and approved by the United States air traffic controller… Contrary to what I think has been a public misconception over this altitude question, there was at no time on 28 November 1979 any unauthorised “low flying” by the crew of TE 901.”

Another issue dealt with was the exact route which was to be taken. The flight plan was supposed to take them from Auckland across the ocean to the Balleny Islands, where they would turn left to skirt the coast of Antarctica as far as Cape Hallett; then they would turn right towards McMurdo. It was this leg, Cape Hallett to McMurdo, on which the evidence focussed.

Witnesses from the Navigation Section of the airline admitted that an error had been made in the flight plan on their systems.

The original waypoint, for the first 1977 flights, had been the Williams Field landing strip at McMurdo: 77 degrees 53 minutes south and 166 degrees 48 minutes east.

In mid-1977, this was changed to the non-directional beacon at McMurdo itself: 77 degrees 51 minutes south and 166 degrees 41 minutes east- this was just a difference of a couple of miles.

In 1978, the flight plans for the Antarctica flights were computerised. According to Chief Navigator Mr C.B. Hewitt, he made two errors; firstly, taking the original Williams Field coordinates and secondly, mis-typing them to enter the longitude as 164 degrees 48 minutes east.

166 degrees would take the flight over Mount Erebus; 164 degrees took it over the safe, flat sea ice of McMurdo Sound and – coincidentally, according to Air New Zealand witnesses – coincided with the route usually used by US Navy flights.

Comparison of expected and actual flight plan routes in the Ross Island region. Map source: Mappery – routes added by author.

In cross-examination, a track and distance diagram was presented which appeared to show a plotted track down McMurdo Sound – along the 164 degrees route – with a dotted semi-circular line around the south of Ross Island, then a straight line back to Cape Hallett along the 170 degrees meridian, accompanied by an arrow pointing towards Cape Hallett. 

Mr Keith Amies, an Air New Zealand navigation systems specialist, claimed that he had drawn the arrow to point north – not to indicate the return journey. Mahon, in his report, retorted:

“The arrow which Mr Amies marked on the line of 170 E longitude was naturally pointing north because all meridians of longitude point north and south. I wondered whether companies like Swissair and British Airways were aware of the fact that their navigation consultant had to plot an arrow on a map to remind himself that a meridian of longitude pointed true north.”

Apparently, nobody noticed the change of route at the time – perhaps because it changed the route into one that made more sense, and didn’t fly over an active volcano – and the McMurdo Sound route was used throughout the 1978 season, and for all the prior 1979 flights.

However, after the flight on the 14th of November, the pilot of that flight, Captain Simpson, had reported that the coordinates given were 27 miles away from McMurdo; he maintained in evidence that he had merely suggested pilots be made aware of the difference, in case they got confused. Captain Johnson, the briefing officer, maintained that he had been asked to correct the waypoint to the original destination – that is, the Williams Field destination – and assumed that the waypoint in the plan that he was changing it from was the non-directional beacon. 

In other words, he thought that the change would be an insignificant one, about two miles, not the 27 miles that it actually was.

And so, at some time in the morning before Flight 901, this “error” had been “corrected” – changing the flight plan to point straight at Mount Erebus. And the captain, Jim Collins, was not informed that there had been a change. Mahon said of this change:

“There seem to me to be only three possible explanations…

(a) The first is that the communication by Captain Simpson was in fact misinterpreted by Captain Johnson, who directed that the computer flight track be now aligned with the TACAN in the belief – which he did not verify – that it had always been aligned with the NDB and thus the alteration would be minimal.
(b) The second explanation is that both Captain Johnson and the Navigation Section knew quite well that the McMurdo waypoint lay 27 miles to the west of the TACAN and that since his track had not officially been approved by the Civil Aviation Division it should therefore be realigned with the TACAN and then someone forgot to ensure that Captain Collins was told of the change. Such an interpretation means that the evidence as to the alleged belief of a displacement of only 2.1 miles is untrue.
(c) The third explanation is that the relocation of the McMurdo waypoint at the TACAN position was never intended and was effected by mistake, and that after the disaster it was thought better to back-date the “mistake” by 14 months as this would look a little better than admitting the occurrence of a computer error only hours before the flight departed. However, whether this in fact occurred will never be known, and I propose not to discuss this point further.”

Although Johnson maintained in his evidence that he had briefed Captain Collins on the route which went over Mount Erebus, again evidence said otherwise. His widow and two of his daughters testified that, on the night before the flight, he had spent some time plotting his route on an atlas and a larger map that he had acquired – since topographical maps had not been provided by the airline. Both of the daughters, at the time aged 15 and 17, testified that he had specifically shown them the route down McMurdo Sound. He had then taken the atlas and larger map with him, in his flight bag.

So, Captain Collins had been briefed on a route down McMurdo Sound. On his maps at home, he had plotted – and shown his daughters – a route down McMurdo Sound. There was no reason for him to think that the navigational computer on his plane would take him anywhere but down McMurdo Sound.

But instead it took him straight towards Mount Erebus.

Flight 901 Flight recorders. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The second question, then, was why didn’t anyone on the flight deck realise? The flight recorder made it obvious that they hadn’t suspected anything was wrong until the terrain alert went off, just six seconds before impact. Why didn’t they see the mountain? A thirteen thousand foot mountain would, you’d think, be pretty hard to miss.

However, this was not just any mountain; it was in Antarctica, and in Antarctica there are special dangers. 

The Chippindale report implied that the pilots did not know where they were because they were flying in cloud. Mahon tackled this thus:

“It was assumed that the aircraft was flying in cloud. Yet this in itself contained a contradiction, for it could hardly be surmised that Captain Collins, with his wealth of experience, could have been flying in cloud at that altitude, in terrain where mountains were a common feature. In addition the crew had advised that they were flying VMC.”

VMC means Visual Meteorological Conditions – in other words, that the pilot has good enough visibility to fly by eye, instead of purely by their instruments.

In addition, he pointed out that the cloud base to the south and west of the mountain was reported to be 3000 feet; assuming that the conditions on the other side were roughly similar, at an altitude of 1500 feet, Collins would have been flying beneath the clouds in clear air.

Furthermore, there was evidence that showed the exact conditions – the cameras carried by the passengers. It was, after all, a sightseeing trip. 

“Prints were developed of film which had been exposed by cameras only seconds before the crash. there was even the film of a movie camera which had been running at the moment of impact. The films showed scenes to the east, to the west, and to the north. There were no prints which showed any views to the south, this being the direction of travel of the aircraft.

The riddle of the weather was by this means resolved. It was apparent that the aircraft, at the time when it struck the mountain, had been flying in clear air. Photographs taken within seconds of impact removed all doubt.”

So, if it wasn’t cloud, what was it?

One of Air New Zealand’s own pilots, Gordon Vette, stepped forward with the answer. He had taught Collins to fly, and knew that the mistakes being attributed to him were unlike him. He had spent a lot of his own time and money working out the answer.

Experienced polar pilots knew all about the phenomenon of whiteout – but Collins and Cassin had never flown in polar conditions before, and hadn’t been briefed on it. 

Mahon quoted the opening extract from a paper by Robert B. Boswell, an airman who had studied the phenomenon. The paper itself was submitted as Exhibit 44.

“Whiteout is an atmospheric effect which results in loss of depth perception and is especially common in polar regions when there is snow cover. Only two conditions are necessary to produce whiteout, a diffuse shadowless illumination, and a mono-coloured white surface…

Large unbroken expanses of snow are illuminated by a sky overcast with dense, low stratus clouds that blot out all trace of surface texture or shadow, and merge hollows and snow covered objects into a flattened white background. In addition, cloud and sky may have the same apparent colour, and horizon discrimination is lost and the ground plane disappears.”

Essentially, in the exact conditions that prevailed at the time of the crash, sector whiteout could actually make a mountain disappear. To the pilots of Flight 901, it looked like a flat expanse of sea ice straight out to the horizon – exactly what they expected to see as they flew up McMurdo Sound.

A simulation of Flight 901 approaching Mount Erebus in whiteout conditions. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Justice Mahon himself witnessed this phenomenon on his own trip to Antarctica. 

“As we approached the ice shelf at about 75 knots, the latter could clearly be seen as on 26 November, and the rising ground which commenced at the ice shelf was also clearly apparent in the sunlight, but the mountain itself was becoming enveloped in pale cloud, and in a minute or so it totally disappeared from sight. Even though the mountain slope began only some 2 or 3 miles ahead of the crash site, no part of the mountain could be seen.”

Despite this, various witnesses denied that this could be a factor. Mahon dealt with that quite succinctly.

“It was stated by the Director of Civil Aviation that in his opinion the whiteout phenomenon did not exist in this case, or if it did exist, then it played no part in the accident. This of course required him to give some explanation as to why both pilots made coincidentally the same type of gross visual error. He suggested that each may have become afflicted by some mental or psychological defect which controlled their actions. This involved the startling proposition that a combination of physical and psychological malfunctions occurred simultaneously to each pilot. I was surprised to find that a person with the status of the director should advance a suggestion which is so palpably absurd.”

So, Mahon had dealt with all the factors cited by Chippindale in his “probable cause” and dismissed them. In summary, he found that the actual cause of the accident was:

“(1) The single effective cause of the crash of the aircraft was the act of personnel in the Flight Operations Division of the airline in altering the latitudinal and longitudinal co-ordinates of the destination waypoint without the knowledge of the air crew and in omitting to notify the air crew, either before departure or during flight, of the fact that an alteration had been made. The said act and omission each related to a function which the Flight Operations Division had a duty to perform.

(2) Although the single effective cause of the crash of the aircraft was as stated above, there were two contributing causes and they were:

(a) The failure of the Civil Aviation Division of the Ministry of Transport to ensure that the pilot-in-command of unscheduled flights to Antarctica was always provided at his pre-despatch briefing with a topographical map on which the programmed flight path of the aircraft had been plotted.

(b) The act of Civil Aviation Division in dispensing with the requirement that the pilot-in-command of a flight to Antarctica must have flown on that route before.”

With regards to the contrary evidence given by Air New Zealand, Mahon wrote:

“No judicial officer ever wishes to be compelled to say that he has listened to evidence which is false. He always prefers to say, as I hope the hundreds of judgments which I have written will illustrate, that he cannot accept the relevant explanation, or that he prefers a contrary version set out in the evidence.

But in this case, the palpably false sections of evidence which I heard could not have been the result of mistake, or faulty recollection. They originated, I am compelled to say, in a pre-determined plan of deception. They were very clearly part of an attempt to conceal a series of disastrous administrative blunders and so, in regard to the particular items of evidence to which I have referred, I am forced reluctantly to say that I had to listen to an orchestrated litany of lies.”

Not surprisingly, Air New Zealand took the case to appeal; however it is important to note that they were not appealing Mahon’s findings as to the cause of the disaster – only his order that they pay costs, and some findings of fact.

Eventually, the Privy Council found that, although false evidence had been given, it had not been part of a conspiracy. As Mahon would put it in a television interview:

“The tribunal took the view that I was correct in my assessment of the cause or causes, I was correct in deciding that it was not a case of pilot error, and what they did in effect was, that they said that although I may have been correct or indeed was correct in deciding that numbers of witnesses gave false evidence, nevertheless they took the view that this false evidence was given individually by witnesses and not as the result of some predetermined plan, it’s rather as if a group of singers sang as soloists not as a choir.”

As a result of the crash – which was New Zealand’s deadliest peacetime disaster – all Antarctic sightseeing flights were withdrawn. They didn’t resume until 2013. 

Mahon’s report was not tabled in Parliament until 1999 – much to the chagrin of the pilots’ widows and families, who until then had to live with the blame attributed to their loved ones.

In 2009, the CEO of Air New Zealand offered an apology to the families;

“Captain Collins and first officer Cassin along with three other members of the flight crew… were highly regarded aviators, they deserve our respect and they certainly have mine.”

“…if we turn the clock back 30 years and reflect on the events following the Erebus tragedy, sadly the historical record displays what appears to be a different priority. The pursuit of someone or something to blame… Ultimately hundreds of families lost loved ones in this tragedy and all suffered an equal loss… A number of these families feel they were let down by Air New Zealand in the aftermath of the tragedy… The enormity of the tragedy was overwhelming for Air New Zealand and in fact the nation… As a result, Air New Zealand inevitable made mistakes and undoubtedly let down people directly affected by the tragedy. I can’t turn the clock back, I can’t undo what has been done but as I look forward, I would like to start the next step in our journey by saying sorry. Sorry to all of those who suffered the loss of a loved one, or were affected by the Erebus tragedy and did not receive the support and compassion they should have from Air New Zealand.”

The passengers aboard Air New Zealand Flight 901 were drawn by the same fascination that called the early explorers to Antarctica; a desire to see that bleak, frozen desert for themselves. They thought that doing so from a modern jet airliner meant that they would be safe, and they should have been – but for the errors caused by people behind desks, far away.

A memorial stands in Waikumete Cemetery, Auckland, for those who could not be identified or recovered after the Erebus tragedy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Sources, References and Further Reading

Wikipedia page on Air New Zealand Flight 901

The Man Who Solved the Mystery of Flight 901 – Air Space Mag

Mt Erebus Disaster – Where Air Crash Recovery Learnt its Grisly Trade – The Telegraph

Erebus Disaster – New Zealand History

Tailstrike.com – Cockpit Voice Recorder Database

Aviation Safety Network

Aviation Accidents.net

The Erebus Story – Website maintained by the New Zealand Airline Pilots Association

Judgments of the court of appeal

ChristchurchCity Libraries – Mount Erebus Disaster

Film: Erebus: Into The Unknown

Books:

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