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Erebus 25 years on

Old 21st Nov 2004, 09:58
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Erebus 25 years on

Erebus 25 years on
21 November 2004

It was the disaster that rocked a nation. Ruth Laugesen talks to three people whose lives were changed by the Erebus crash.

At 8.20am, a quarter of a century ago next Sunday, 237 passengers and 20 crew fastened their seatbelts for what was supposed to be a very special trip. Flight TE901's sightseeing joyride over Antarctica was due to take 11 hours.

The aircraft never returned.

In a small country, it seemed as if everyone knew, or had connections to, someone who had been on board the jet as it smashed into the side of Mt Erebus.

The crash was only the beginning of the anguish for those most closely bound up in this loss. The remains of 213 bodies were identified, but for the families of a further 44, the pain of loss was made more intense because the remains of their loved ones were never found.

The pain continued as New Zealanders tried to understand what had happened. On one side of what was to become a bitter national debate, air accident chief inspector Ron Chippindale ruled it was pilot error. He said the pilots were flying too low when they had not established where they were. On the other, Commission of Inquiry head Justice Peter Mahon blamed Air New Zealand for a last-minute change to the flight path that took the plane over towering Mt Erebus. It was a change of which the pilots were unaware. Mahon also levelled the charge of an attempted cover-up by the national airline.

Mahon's famous accusation, of "an orchestrated litany of lies", still reverberates down the years. Mahon was rebuked by superior courts, and prime minister Rob Muldoon refused to table the report, but many of the public came to Mahon's defence. Even now, the aviation industry remains sharply divided over the issue.

Erebus 25 years onNext Sunday, Sir Edmund Hillary, who was originally scheduled to be a commentator on that flight, will give a reading at a memorial service in Antarctica.

Here, three people discuss how their lives were changed forever by the Erebus disaster.

The widow

Anne Cassin's husband was Greg Cassin, co-pilot of the Erebus flight. After the crash, Cassin went on to gain her own commercial pilot's licence, becoming a top flight instructor whose lessons included aerobatics. Six years ago she was blinded by a stroke. Now 56 and living in Nelson, she still misses intensely the sensation of flying a plane. Her daughter Maria flies jumbo jets for Air New Zealand.

"I felt disbelief (when I heard), because I was just rung up by a staff member to say that the plane was missing. I just couldn't believe that somebody would do that. I thought it must have been a hoax.

"So I rang up the Air New Zealand office to find out if it really was true. Somebody came on the line to say 'yes, it does appear to be true'. It hadn't been heard from for several hours by then. I (held out hope) for days, because it was days before his body was found. I had this crazy notion that maybe he was in a snow cave somewhere, and still surviving. You sort of try and think up scenarios: maybe he didn't go on that flight for some reason. (It was) still very much hopeful, wishful thinking. I guess I didn't really allow myself to believe it until they rang to say they'd found the body.

"I immediately understood . . . just how many other families would be hurting as well. But you go into survival mode, and it's a sort of numb, horrible feeling. The children were four, nine and 12.

"It's quite unbelievable that it happened; when I look back I still feel quite astounded at what happened. But we just put it behind us. We just live for now, really. You can't live in the past. I've found that life, when these things happen, it makes you turn in another direction, and it's not all bad. You take on a new focus, and concentrate on that, and it gets you through.

"It's amazing how long it goes on for, 25 years later, and there's still talk about it. You realise it's never going to be behind you."

The photographer

Fred Freeman, now 74, was in the Air New Zealand boardroom the night chief executive Morrie Davis told the waiting reporters and photographers that all hope was gone for the missing flight. The Auckland Star photographer's image of the devastated chief executive that night was unforgettable.

"He was absolutely cut in half. He was dreadful. He didn't talk very long. He was gutted.

"I had got the call that night to go to the Air New Zealand building. We stayed there most of the night. The phones in the Air New Zealand office - they were going eyes out. They were getting calls from all around the world.

"Everybody realised this plane had gone with all these people on board, and it was a full plane. And the tension was . . . you could have cut the tension with a knife.

"(Davis) looked to me as though he might have had a few drinks, but that's only a personal thing. He was pretty cut up. Everybody was cut up at the time, because it looked as though there was going to be no show for anybody, and all those people on board.

"You can imagine how touchy it was, because nobody (from Air New Zealand) wanted to say anything. Nobody had any real true facts or figures, or anything, excepting that they had to accept the fact the plane had gone down. It had crashed, and that was it.

"And they couldn't get to it to get any survivors.

"I was shooting with the available light in the room, which wasn't much. So I had the camera on the table so I could hold it steady. He put his hands up to his face as much to say 'bugger off, get out of the place, I've had enough, I've got to find out what's going on'.

"There was just the hush. And then it all closed off and they said, 'righto that's it'. He was cut to pieces. Personally, myself, I felt for the guy at the time. He was going through agony."

The searcher

Hugh Logan, now 51, was working at New Zealand's Scott Base when the DC10 went down. Twenty hours later, he was among the first three to arrive at the crash site. Logan went on to take part in the grim task of recovery of human remains. For two weeks, up to 60 people toiled, gathering what they could from the ice. Logan is now director-general of the Department of Conservation.

"As we came around the corner (in the helicopter) it was just a black smear . . . up the side of the hill. From a distance it looked quite small. But as you got closer to it, you think, no, this is much bigger.

"First of all we had to determine whether anyone had in fact survived. It was very clear to us, more than abundantly clear, that there were absolutely no survivors of that plane, and no one had in fact survived the initial impact at all.

"I'd been involved in alpine search and rescue in Mt Cook in the 1970s, so I'd had to deal with injured and dead people in mountain situations, but not on that scale. The main thing all of us felt was the complete devastation that was there.

"People had different ways and methods of coping with it. I think that many people simply made sure they depersonalised things to the extent they could. Some people distanced themselves from it and some people stepped away from it; they actually were involved and said, 'hang on I'm not sure I like this that much'. And they didn't continue on.

"But you dealt with it as a job to be done. It's how I dealt with it.

"For people back in New Zealand, particularly family and people associated with the crash, for them it was much worse because they couldn't readily identify with what they were having to deal with. Whereas for those at the crash site, it was real."

Erebus Remembered: Flight TE901, a commemorative exhibition at National Archives, Wellington, is on display until May 30 next year.


Sun "New Zealand Herald"

What the PM knew about Erebus

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon\'s backroom advisers worked to debunk the embarrassingly critical Erebus crash report even before it was released.

The revelations to the Herald on Sunday come on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Antarctic crash that claimed 257 lives when an Air New Zealand DC10 flew into the slopes of Mt Erebus, on November 28, 1979.

The one-man commission, the late Justice Peter Mahon, was slammed by Muldoon who refused to table his 1981 report which accused Air New Zealand witnesses of participating in an "orchestrated litany of lies" on the witness stand.

An accident report had blamed pilot error - far less damaging to the Government than systems failure at the state-owned airline.

Justice Mahon found a navigation computer had been incorrectly changed so the plane was programmed to fly into the mountain, and that Air New Zealand witnesses had lied to cover up other mistakes that pointed blame at the carrier.

Muldoon responded with venom - the findings were potentially fatal to the Government-owned carrier - while Air New Zealand prepared an appeal against the lying accusations in court.

Nearly 23 years later, Muldoon\'s key advisers reveal officials were getting advice that would counter the report, months before it was released.

The prime ministerial advisory group had been leaked indications of where the Mahon inquiry was going, and hired aviation experts and even met Air New Zealand in a bid to explore their concerns.

"The Prime Minister\'s department in those days tended to work a bit in advance of events," said Muldoon\'s press secretary of the time, Brian Lockstone.

"It was at that point that it was recognised that perhaps there was going to be a report that might have been strong on emotion and perhaps some fixed ideas that might actually miss the greater point."

Pressure and conflicting opinions came from all sides, including multi-national companies who built the plane, he said.

The advisory group received a draft of the report reviewed by two pilots with polar and whiteout flying experience, working independently of each other.

"They came up with some very interesting conclusions that basically said that poor old Peter Mahon had got it wrong," he said.

Former head of the department Gerald Hensley said the advisers felt there were problems with Mahon\'s logic and told Muldoon who said they should have a closer look.

The consulted pilots argued that only one person flew the aircraft "and that\'s the pilot," he said.

"From all that we did have some differences with Justice Mahon\'s argument that the plane, in his phrase I think, \'was programmed to fly into the mountain from the moment it left [New Zealand]\'."

Justice Mahon\'s widow Margarita was horrified Air New Zealand were in on the advisory group meetings.

"Muldoon wanted to make Air New Zealand into the seventh wonder of the world. Nothing, nothing was going to damage it. That was my understanding. They had no right to be there. No one should have had any knowledge of what was in that report at all."


Wirraway is offline  
Old 22nd Nov 2004, 03:51
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i think my grantparents are having a small get together with other family members to remember my great great aunty who died in the crash
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Old 23rd Nov 2004, 08:37
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Thumbs up

Food for thought- That, of the crew, only one expressed extreme angst verbally several times in those last minutes ,that the aircraft wasnt where it was supposed to be , & that was the Flight Engineer !!!!!!!!! R.I.P. indeed !!!!!
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Old 23rd Nov 2004, 14:16
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crocodile redundee

Maybe not - take a look at Peter Mahon's book, Verdict on Erebus.

The official CVR transcript was made by the NTSB in Washington, but Mahon had the tape analysed by the AAIB at Farnborough, which apparently had more advanced equipment at the time. Some of the words ascribed in Washington were interpreted differently in Farnborough.

Some words also appear to be misleading. For example, the (official) Washington transcript has a reference to a 'Bert', apparently made by a flight crew member, yet according to Mahon, no-one has been able to trace a 'Bert' on the flight deck.

One thing we do know from the CVR is, that the GPWS went off when the DC10 crossed the Ross Island cliffs and the engines hadn't had time to spool-up after Capt. Collins called for go-round power, before impact.
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Old 24th Nov 2004, 11:57
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My then office had a passenger onboard the DC10.

TAA Burnie had booked the wife of the Port of Burnie Authority on the ill fated 3 holer. An anniversary present.

It was devastating for all of us, but not nearly as devestating as for the relatives.

I just find it hard to believe it has been 25 years, and what has gone in between.

Having read in depth the bad press the DC10 gained over the years, I was determined to fly on one before they were relegated to the wilds of Africa and South America. I am pleased to say I did, with Garuda.

If any aeroplane could have got them out of the corner management put them in, I am sure they were in the right one.

Solid, reliable and powerful.

Please, where have those 25 years gone?

God rest all the souls onboard.

Best all

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Old 24th Nov 2004, 12:23
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Go back in history croc and I think you will find that the F/O was showing some concern before the big bang also!
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Old 24th Nov 2004, 20:11
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I second that comment on robroy; a cretin if ever there was one.

RIP "Brick"Lucas, ex-RNZAF Nav, who in all probability expressed the "I don't like it" comment.
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Old 25th Nov 2004, 03:22
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Eastwest Loco


Spent many a relaxed hour with a Chivas in one hand on those very fine, quiet and comfortable aircraft.

Typical Donald Douglas, built like the proverbial and somehow felt like it.

Every pilot I know who has flown (as distinct from operated :rolleyes) them loved them dearly.

A true pilots aircraft and a passengers delight, well in J anyway.

As for Erebus, lessons learnt culprits exposed and deepest sympathies to the crew and pax.

It might be safe to speculate now on what would have been the consequences if they had survived the accident and how prepared are we for this sort of recovery anywhere in this form of wilderness zillions of miles from anywhere.
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Old 25th Nov 2004, 07:42
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A very hard time 25 years ago. I was working in NZ at the time and knew someone on the plane. A whole nation was in shock.

Last edited by Woomera; 16th Apr 2005 at 10:34.
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Old 26th Nov 2004, 02:02
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I think that all Kiwi's, over the age of about 35, can remember where they were and what they were doing when the news of the lost antarctic DC10 first went to air. I was just embarking on a flying career at the time and remember it well. I also knew a passenger on board that aircraft as I suspect many kiwis did. Interesting to note how accident investigations have changed in the past 25 years with Mahon's systemic approach during the commision, appearing outrageous to some back then, being the accepted norm now. A mention of Gordon Vette is worthy here as he was very involved with Justice Mahons findings. Both Mahon and Vette were clearly well ahead of their time in the process of accident investigation.
The now famous "Orhestrated Litany of Lies" has to be one of the bravest accusations in 20th century aviation.

Last edited by TAY 611; 26th Nov 2004 at 08:06.
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Old 26th Nov 2004, 08:19
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TAY 611,
I would like to offer a different view than that you put in your post.

Gordon Vette made criticism of the Accident report put forward by The Chief Inspector of Air Accidents at the time, Mr R Chippendale, based on the supposed lack of experience of Mr Chippendale in any dealings with "Large Civil Airliners."
Compare Mr Chippendales aeronautical experience with that of Mr Justice Mahons and who had the lack of experience in the aeronautical field is glaringly obvious.

The statement "Orchestrated litany of lies" has been shot down by so many people, including Mahons peers, his superiors, and up to the Privy Council, it is hard to understand why it is still quoted.

At this point in time anybody who has read and digested all the many words written about this accident would have formed there own opinions as to the cause and no great purpose is served going into all the detail again.

I would like to point out that there are many who do not agree with the findings of Mr Mahon or with the case put forward by Mr Vette.

Old 26th Nov 2004, 20:17
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HGW- Well said mate. Theres a time and a place..This is neither.

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Old 26th Nov 2004, 21:08
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At this point in time anybody who has read and digested all the many words written about this accident would have formed there own opinions as to the cause
The cause of the crash was the DC10 flying into Mt Erebus!
The REASON they flew into it was because an Air N.Z. ground personnel altered the (Lat & Long) co-ordinates of the previously established route - that would have taken the flight over McMurdo Sound - to take them direct to Mount Erebus but he didn't TELL anyone

The subsequent attempt to cover up his actions, by shredding all relevant documentation, and Ian Gemmell's actions of secretly removing the flight plan from the crash site, and his "evasiveness" in court, when questioned as to whether he had recovered and removed the same from the flight deck of the crashed aircraft..."There was no flight deck as such"...., and Air N.Z.'s denial that they promoted the flight on the low level flyover around Erebus, certainly showed the company's actions to be "orchestrated" and deceitful, in trying to move the blame from themselves, and place it squarely on the flight crew.

Indeed, for such a tiny country, with a population of only just over a couple of million at that time, it had a devastating emotional effect.
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Old 26th Nov 2004, 22:40
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Kaptin M,
You would appear to belong to the school that supports Mahons statement that the aircraft "was programmed to fly into the mountain from the time it left (NZ)".

If that was the case why bother having a crew in the sharp end??

Gordon Vettes investigations attempted to show why they never saw Erebus, not why they were down at the altitude they were.

Bloodshot VFR at 1500ft, 260 kts, in an area that neither of the drivers had ever been to, and the CVR recording of uncertainty as to position, this was the fault of the company??

As stated previously, bringing up bits of the enquiry in isolation means nothing, opinions have been formed and held for many years now.

Old 26th Nov 2004, 23:25
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Bloodshot VFR at 1500ft, 260 kts, in an area that neither of the drivers had ever been to, and the CVR recording of uncertainty as to position..
Ever heard of "whiteout", prospector - the visual illusion created in certain landscapes, where one is led into believing that he is visual with an indiscernible horizon, created by the overhead (lowering) cloud base merging with the (rising) terrain?
this was the fault of the company??
The idiot who altered the co-ordinates - without telling anyone - placed the crew in an area where they believed they were over flat terrain.
They were at that altitude because Air New Zealand PROMOTED these flights - via brochures - as "once in a lifetime" opportunities to fly at low level in the vicinity of Erebus.

On this particular flight, an non-pilot employee of Air New Zealand DID programme the aircraft to fly into the mountain, as a result of an unfortunate chain of events.

The ensuing attempt by the company to "cover up" their liability is what stinks!!
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Old 27th Nov 2004, 00:43
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Kaptin M,
It would help if you read all the available reports and findings before bursting into print.

Whiteout, as generally understood, had no direct bearing on the incident. Captain Vette spent a great deal of time to show that it was sector whiteout that hid Erebus and therefor wrote the final chapter of this sorry saga. This particular phenomenem was not well understood prior to the accident.

At the altitudes approved for the operation whiteout would not have been a problem. There were flights that went below these altitudes, that is a fact, but they did not hit Erebus, or anything else, this flight would not have either if the approved let down procedure had been complied with.

Old 27th Nov 2004, 01:37
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prospector, try opening your eyes, reading what is written, and engaging brain before hitting the “submit” button.
”whiteout”…..the visual illusion created in certain landscapes, where one is led into believing that he is visual with an indiscernible horizon, created by the overhead (lowering) cloud base merging with the (rising) terrain
There were flights that went below these altitudes, that is a fact, but they did not hit Erebus, or anything else..
Of course they didn’t – because the co-ordinates used kept the aircraft well AWAY from Erebus (about 25 nm from memory).

On this particular flight, the co-ordinates were (secretly) changed, thus aiming the aircraft DIRECTLY into the mountain!
The crew were not advised of the altered course by the company, and the conditions (which appeared to be VFR in Antarctica), provided the crew no reason to suspect that they had been set on a collision course with Mount Erebus.

You consistent defence of Air New Zealand, in light of ALL the evidence that came out PROVING them culpable – and attempting to cheat and lie their way out of it – leads me to believe your “head in the sand” attitude is as a result of your close personal association with culprits involved this tragedy.

You are attempting to defend the indefencible, prospector!!
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Old 27th Nov 2004, 02:44
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Kaptin M,
Let us just deal with the known facts, there was one approved let down procedure and it was as follows taken direct from Company paper.

Delete all reference in briefing dated 23/10/709. Note that the only let-down procedure available is VMC below FL160(16000ft) to 6000ft as follows:

1. Vis 20 km plus.
2. No snow shower in area.
3. Avoid Mt Erebus area by operating in an arc from 120 degree Grid to 270 degree Grid from McMurdo Field, within 20 nm of TACAN CH 29.
4. Descent to be coordinated with local radar control as they may have other traffic in the area.

You will note that this is the ONLY let down procedure approved by the Company and the CAA. The crew was aware of this requirement as a copy of the memorandum was recovered from the cockpit wreckage.

No doubt your study of the accident will have appraised you of the fact that at no time was a DME lockon achieved, and it is possible, but only possible, that the radar may have got one or two returns.

As the descent was commenced long before any of the compulsory requirements were established, the fact that the waypoint was changed was sloppy operating granted, but was not the cause of the accident.

The weather at McMurdo was well below the minima required for the company approved letdown procedure, this being established then the alternative flight plan should surely have been adopted rather then improvising there own letdown procedure. The choice was not theirs to make, there was only one Company and CAA approved letdown.

One would think that you placed more importance on Company publicity blurbs on their brochures than on standing orders. If the weather was not suitable for the letdown at McMurdo, and it was not, the passengers were well briefed that an alternative would be required.

With your obviously limited knowledge of this incident you are taking a lot upon yourself to call people derogatory names. Check on the facts and see how many times that last waypoint had been changed, and for what reasons.

Old 27th Nov 2004, 04:24
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Further to the points under discussion, an article in todays Dominion Post about the accident quotes the conversation that a Ted Robinson (deputy leader, Scott Base) had with Jim Collins.

Robinson, was at the time, sitting in the radio room doing routine checks with field parties when Collins called for a chat and a weather report.

Quote "Collins made contact and I informed him of the weather conditions, how it was a complete whiteout". He, Robinson, told Collins that it would be unwise to come to McMurdo as passengers wouldn't see anything.

He suggested that Collins fly over the Dry Valleys where the weather was clear.
Robinson also told Collins that a work party on the sea ice some 64 kms from Scott base and at Vanda Station had clear conditions.

Shortly after Collins accepted that information he changed frequency to McMurdo station and Robinson did not speak with him again.
Robinson was never called to give evidence at the enquiry.
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Old 27th Nov 2004, 08:58
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For such a sacrifice made by the many and the lessons learned, may it never happen again, rest in peace all.
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