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Plane Crash Diaries

Episode 21 - “An orchestrated litany of lies" the Mount Erebus disaster and a tainted investigation

Plane Crash Diaries
Plane Crash Diaries
This is episode 21 and we’re taking a close look at the Mount Erebus disaster where an Air New Zealand McDonald Douglas DC-10 crashed on 28th November 1979, killing all 257 passengers and crew.
At first it looked like straight pilot error - a CFIT or controlled Flight Into Terrain accident.

But that would change as inquiries led to court cases.

Of all the accidents I’ve described, this one has some of the most unfortunate set of circumstances and one of the most difficult recoveries afterwards of any aviation accident in history.

Mount Erebus is on Ross Island part of the Antarctic archipelago and as you’ll hear, a juddge eventually called some evidence presented by Air New Zealand as "an orchestrated litany of lies" and which took 30 years before anyone at the airline formally apologised for that deceit.

To say the court processes which took place were riven by bitterness and a distinct failure of leadership is pretty much an understatement.

In fact, the phrase ‘an orchestrated litany of lies’ entered the Kiwi lexicon for some time and by the end of this episode I hope you’ll see why.

The first aviation inquiry found pilot error caused the accident but then a Judge in a follow up investigation ruled the cause was incorrect data which had been knowingly left in a flight computer despite this error being reported.

When a judge uses a phrase like conspiracy by senior management, then something has gone seriously wrong in terms of governance.

But the legal wrangling didn’t end with the judge – there was an appeal then intervention by the privy council in London as New Zealand is a commonwealth state.

So let’s go over the facts that are not in dispute.

Flight 901 was marketed as a unique sightseeing experience where the passengers paid around $360 US Dollars each to be flown over Antarctica with an experienced guide who pointed out features and landmarks using the plane’s PA system.

Some big names had been involved for example Sir Edmund Hillary had acted as a guide on flights and was actually supposed to be on board 901 that day in November 1979, but cancelled because he had other bookings.

Unfortunately for long-time friend and climbing companion, Peter Mulgrew, he was available and stood in for the hero of Mount Everest. Mulgrew would never return from the Antarctic.

The flight plan was complex compared to a normal commercial route. After the 5,360 miles from Auckland to the frozen south, the pilots would put the DC-10 into a series of low-flying sweeps out to the sea of McMurdo Sound or over the Ross Ice Shelf or both depending on time and the weather, then return home.

There had been 13 previous flights which went off without serious incident and the whole concept had started two years earlier in 1977. It had become a great money-spinner for Air New Zealand, not to mention an excellent marketing tool. Come fly with Air New Zealand and see the world’s least visited Continent for a cool $359 New Zealand Dollars – which now set you back around $1300 US dollars.
The flight left Auckland International Airport 8am on the morning of the 28th November and was due back at 7 that night.
Usually flights would not be filled to capacity so that there would be space allowing passengers to walk about and get a better view of the incredible frozen continent from different places in the cabin.
Cocktails would be served for the travellers as they clicked away on their cameras, many of whom would be puffing away on cigars and cigarettes.
The aircraft that day was Air New Zealand’s McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 trijet and the plane was registered ZK-NZP. It had logged more than 20,700 flight hours prior to the crash.
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