The crash of Air New Zealand flight TE901 into Mt Erebus on Ross Island in Antarctica on 28 November 1979 was at the time the World’s fourth worst aviation disaster and today still ranks at number 10, if those involving intentional acts (bombs, missiles and 9/11) are excluded.
The cause of the crash of the sightseeing flight was sussed by two in Air NZ’s Auckland Head Office the same night: the airline’s then Chief Navigator for whatever bizarre reason had changed crucial co-ordinates of a waypoint in McMurdo Sound in the early hours of the morning and hadn’t told the pilots. The change programmed into the aircraft’s computerised AINS navigation system meant that instead of the route they had been briefed on — up the middle of McMurdo Sound over flat ice — the aircraft would collide with Mt Erebus unless it maintained an altitude greater than the 13,000 ft height of the mountain, which is an active volcano, not something you want to fly over.
Combined with the phenomenon of sector whiteout which happens when there is snow/ice below you, cloud above you and sun behind you, the pilots couldn’t see the mountain in this flight. It was both pilots’ first time to Antarctica and they had not been briefed about whiteout either.
All this wasn’t something either the Airline or the government (which then owned all its shares) wanted made public; it was much better to blame the pilots and the then Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, Ron Chippendale, obliged in his accident report.
But the cover-up didn’t remain such for very long. When a legal counsel for Air NZ proposed to then Prime Minister Muldoon that one of his friends, Justice Peter Mahon, head the Royal Commission of Inquiry in the expectation that he would back Ron Chippendale’s report, it backfired: Peter Mahon was astute, scrupulous and had no time for the Airline’s (and Civil Aviation’s) conspiracy.
His famous declaration in 1981 that Chippendale’s findings were nonsensical and the Airline had presented him with “an orchestrated litany of lies” was a big event, not just in NZ but worldwide. Of the 257 killed, 57 were foreign nationals.
Most importantly of all, the whole affair demonstrated to the public that NZ government departments and agencies aren’t above being involved in conspiracies and cover-ups to stop the public knowing about their incompetence and blunders — if they think they can get away with it, they will try it. We’ve seen that with DoC’s program of misinformation about 1080 poison, among other things. And it’s superfluous to repeat what we’ve observed on here about the KCDC.
Peter Mahon’s book Verdict on Erebus remains a must-read. The most recent book on the saga, late broadcaster Paul Holmes’ Daughters of Erebus from 2011, is also worth reading.