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air safety

Dec 1, 2012

Erebus bitterness resurfaces in NZ

Some 33 years on, the wounds caused by the Air NZ Mt Erebus disaster are re-opened in a spat over the findings of the Mahon Commission of Inquiry.

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Unseen Erebus, and an airliner, a split second from impact, a graphic from Wikipedia.

There was a brief revival of the wounds the 1979 Mt Erebus air crash inflicted on New Zealand this week when a pilot association complained that the judicial report into the disaster by Justice Peter Mahon had not been properly filed with ICAO the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

All 257 people on board the Air New Zealand DC-10-30 sightseeing flight to Antarctica died when it crashed into the lower slopes of the Antarctic volcano 33 years ago last Tuesday.

The original report by the NZ air accident investigator, Ron Chippindale, found that the crash was caused by pilot error.  Justice Mahon, inquiring as a Royal Commissioner,  found that among other things, the crew were carrying out company expectations of making a low level sight seeing flight, that they were completely unfamiliar with flying in white out conditions, that the pre-taped coordinates uniquely used on DC-10s to program navigational waypoints had been entered with a fatal error that substituted the summit of Mt Erebus with the adjacent McMurdo Sound, and that Air New Zealand had lied in its evidence.

In fact, as I had reported for the Sydney Morning Herald in June 1980, before the Mahon report came out, Chippindale had also quite clearly referenced the navigational time bomb in the cockpit in his findings, and even drew my attention to this during an interview by telephone from Sydney, yet buried it in the body of his report where it would cause no offence to the national treasure that was Air New Zealand.

Mahon however highlighted the reason, and pointed out that the management of Air New Zealand had lied to him about it, which did cause offence.  The idea of an honest judge nailing the national flag carrier in NZ at that time was an affront to everything decent socially compliant people expected.

The NZ Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, even attacked Justice Mahon as a traitor, both in the national media, and in a number of other places, illustrating the depths to which the tragic episode caused wounds in the country.

My SMH report didn’t deal with whether or not the airline had lied, as much of the lying occurred in court in front of Justice Mahon, which was on reflection not the wisest choice of place or person to do so.

A life time later, the accident isn’t forgotten although the airline and the bereaved have moved on, and Chippindale, Mahon, Muldoon and much of the senior management of the airline at the time, have all died, variously angry, bitter, bewildered or feeling betrayed to the end.

On the lower slopes of Mt Erebus, on the side that faces away from McMurdo Sound, part of the tail of the jet, and a door and adjacent windows are visible to these times, and like the few who were never recovered from the ice, are borne ever closer to Lewis Bay by glacial flow, to a sea burial, unsung and unknown, centuries into the future.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.

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3 comments

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3 thoughts on “Erebus bitterness resurfaces in NZ

  1. anonflightattendant

    Justice Mahon is a national hero.

    His report is a watershed for science, truth and aviation safety.

    Great to see NZALPA continuing to protect and promote truth this week.

  2. Ronnie Moore

    Erebus was a NZ tragedy because it was NZ’s airline and mainly NZ’ers that perished there. It was hard to attribute blame, still is. I would say, now with much hindsight, there was a lack of process in Air NZ’s navigation section and a trust in the DC-10’s navigation systems coupled with an assumption from previous flights. What bothers me is the crew circled – basically knowing something was not as it should be. Then, this is both a blessing and a curse because the resultant workload for determining the next action seems too high for a two-person crew with their available systems. The white-out weather provided the final hole in the swiss cheese. On previous experience it should have been OK to continue into McMurdo area.
    How does one, really, put the blame on any particular one party? That really illustrates the multi-cause case for me.

  3. patrick kilby

    Interestingly on a much smaller and less tragic scale the same seems to be happening with the Pel-Air inquiry. Let the pilots hang out to dry and protect the corporate interests

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