Episode 4: Air New Zealand Flight 901

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Summary:

In this episode of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, Stephanie shares the story of Air New Zealand Flight 901, a sightseeing trip over Antarctica that ended in tragedy when it crashed into the continent miles away from where the flight plan determined it should be. What caused the crash—and how did it go so off course? Join us as we find out!



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Where Route Did Air New Zealand Flight 901 Fly?

Air New Zealand offered a sightseeing flight from Auckland to Antarctica between 1977 and 1979. The flight didn't land on the continent; it was designed just to allow passengers to see Antarctica from above.

The premise is very interesting: flights would depart at 8 AM and fly all the way to Antarctica as part of a guided tour. The journey was narrated by an expert on the continent, who would point out interesting spots while sharing various facts and a bit of history with passengers. The flight also included a chance to fly very close to McMurdo Sound, which is a gorgeous part of the continent famous for the very heavy, thick ice that often surrounds it. Even during summer it can be difficult to navigate McMurdo Sound by boat because of the ice, so while that can post a problem to people who winter over at nearby stations like McMurdo Station, it's a great aerial destination because the ice is a lot prettier when you're looking down at it rather than being on a boat stuck in it. The flight would land in Christchurch for refueling and for a crew change before taking off for the final leg back to Auckland, returning the passengers at 9 PM. It was a long day, especially when considering there were no breaks to land on Antarctica and walk around or explore, but Antarctica is nothing if not remote. For a lot of people, just the chance to see it is more than enough.

What Was the Experience Like on Air New Zealand Flight 901?

One of the best parts of flight 901 was the price: the full-day journey, which lasted for a total of 13 hours, cost just $350-- with inflation, the same flight today would be around $1,200. Additionally, the flight most commonly used the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft, which is a three-engine wide-bodied jet that could carry 270 passengers with the airline's typical layout. The flight itself did not usually run at capacity, which was a great bonus for the passengers; although they had plenty of company on the flight, they also had some space to move around and look out the windows, which is absolutely necessary on a sightseeing tour of Antarctica. The onboard experience was also pretty luxurious; menus typically included lobster and caviar as well as champagne. The people who bought tickets for the Antarctica sightseeing flights were, in many cases, well-off, but they were also investing in the experience of a lifetime.

Who Was the Pilot on Air New Zealand Flight 901?

Air New Zealand Flight 901 was the assignment of a lifetime for the pilot and co-pilot that day. Captain Jim Collins and co-pilot Greg Cassin were both experienced pilots, but neither of them had flown the Antarctica flight before, which made it a really special treat for them as well. As with most things, there is a first time for everything, so even though Collins and Cassin had not flown that route they were given a briefing 19 days before the flight to prepare them for the route which included reviewing a copy of the flight plan from the previous sightseeing flight. That gave them close to three weeks to get comfortable with the flight plan and prepare for the journey, and for experienced pilots that is plenty of time.

Who Was on Air New Zealand Flight 901?

The flight was quite full on the morning on November 28, 1979. There were 237 passengers and 20 crewmembers including the flight crew onboard. Notably, the commentator for the journey that day was Peter Mulgrew, who was quite well-known for his role on several expeditions, including one to Antarctica with Sir Edmund Hilary. Edmund Hilarywas the first person to summit Mount Everest in 1953. In fact, Hilary was supposed to be on Flight 901 that day-- he regularly served as a commentator on sightseeing flights to Antarctica, but he had speaking engagements in the USA that month and asked his good friend Peter Mulgrew to take his place.

What Was the Weather Like for Air New Zealand Flight 901?

The sightseeing flight enjoyed a nice, smooth takeoff at 7:21 AM, a bit earlier than usual. Prior to the flight's departure, the crew input the flight's coordinates into the onboard computer and followed the predetermined route, and about four and a half hours after takeoff the plane was flying above Antarctica and specifically above what was identified as the Ross Ice Shelf, an enormous piece of ice from Antarctica's ice shelves and a geological feature that would have been of great interest to those onboard. Collins and Cassin were in touch with the radio communications tower at McMurdo Station, which is the US research station on the southern tip of Ross Island. Visibility was declining quickly that day, and McMurdo was able to confirm that even though the pilots were having visual difficulties because of the clouds it was much easier to see beneath the clouds at a lower altitude. Collins decided he would descend significantly, to an altitude of around 2,000 feet, to make the most of the improved visibility conditions.

Did Air New Zealand Flight 901 Fly Over Antarctica?

It's important to note that there are air safety regulations in place that prohibit aircraft from descending below 6,000 feet, even if the weather is good, due to safety issues. The Air New Zealand Antarctica sightseeing flight would not have been authorized to bend those rules, especially since Antarctica's weather can be exceptionally temperamental, but it was well-known that plenty of pilots were willing to descend as low as possible to afford passengers every opportunity to get a great look at the continent. The pilots were certainly aware of how expensive it was for people to purchase a ticket for the sightseeing flight, and they would have been very committed to ensuring each person got the most out of every dollar they spent on the experience.

How Did Air New Zealand Flight 901 Crash?

As the plane descended, the aircraft's ground proximity warning system activated, which caught everyone in the cockpit by surprise. The GPWS only activates when a plane is dangerously close to crashing, and since the flight was over the Ross Ice Shelf it was highly unlikely that they could have been on course to collide with anything. Still, the cockpit was suddenly echoing with the sound of the alarm shouting, "Whoop whoop, pull up," and at 12:49 the field engineer onboard announced the flight was 500 feet above ground, then 400 feet above ground. He did not have time to announce a lower altitude; shortly after that, as Captain Collins asked for go-around power that is requested during an aborted landing, the plane crashed into the side of Mount Erebus.

Did Anyone Survive the Air New Zealand Flight 901 Plane Crash?

Of the 257 people on board that day, there were no survivors. Investigators believe that every person on the plane died immediately upon impact. In interviews after the crash, some victims family members reflected on what would have been happening on the plane in the moments just before impact. Most people would have been out of their seats and actively moving throughout the cabin, positioning themselves near a window for a few great photos of the closest point they would get to Antarctica. Knowing that visibility had not been ideal prior to the plane's descent, there would have been even more excitement and anticipation as the continent came into view. Based on the cockpit voice recorder, which was recovered, there was a very short time between when the GPWS alerted the crew to the impending crash and when the plane made impact. Most people would not have had enough time to process what was happening, so it's unlikely that panic had swept through the plane. For most people, their final moments would have been filled with the view of one of the most beautiful and most remote spots on the planet. In fact, film from a passenger's camera that was recovered from the crash site and later developed is believed to have captured the moment of impact. It shows a clear shot of one of the plane's windows splattered with fuel. People were taking pictures until the very last moment, a good sign that they may have been spared some of the terror that could otherwise have accompanied an unspeakable tragedy.

It took quite a bit of time for Air New Zealand to acknowledge the plane's fate. Flight 901's final transmission occurred prior to 1:00 that afternoon, and by 2:00 the US Navy reported they had not been able to contact the crew. The plane was due to land in Christchurch for refueling just after 6:00 PM, and airline staff initially told family members who were waiting for the plane that it was common for the flight to run a little late. By 9 PM, though, at approximately the time the flight would have run out of fuel, Air New Zealand alerted the press that their aircraft was believed to be missing. Four hours later, at 12:55 AM, the US Navy spotted debris on Mount Erebus that was proven to be the missing aircraft the next morning. At that time, it was clear there were no survivors.

In the days following the crash, an extensive search and rescue effort dubbed Operation Overdue was conducted with a goal of locating and identifying the bodies of each and every victim. The process was intense and laborious; keeping in mind that the plane crashed into a volcano at 300 miles per hour, many bodies were charred from the resulting fire that started when 70 tons of jet fuel spilled from the plane and ignited the cabin. Additionally, many bodies were fragmented after the impact. Some people had to be identified by the possessions in their pockets. The investigation was managed by Inspector Jim Morgan, who provided some extensive detail about the efforts involved with the investigation, body identification, and the goal of exhuming and repatriating the remains in a dignified way.

Why Did Air New Zealand Flight 901 Crash?

According to the flight plan the pilots had reviewed, Mount Erebus-- and active volcano-- should have been almost 30 miles to the east of the aircraft. So what happened?

The first investigation report, known as the Chippendale report because it was compiled by New Zealand's chief inspector of air accidents, Ron Chippindale, was released about six months after the crash in June 1980. There was a lot of strong evidence detailing what happened in the hours and even moments before impact because both the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder were found in tact. The Chippendale report concluded that pilot error was to blame for the crash. Specifically, the report suggested that Captain Collins was at fault because of his decision to descend below the minimum recommended altitude for the aircraft to fly. He was unable to visually confirm his location; he had thought he was close to the Ross Ice Shelf when, instead, he was flying directly into Mount Erebus.

As it turned out, though, the New Zealand public wasn't particularly inclined to accept the Chippendale report. Many people, including Captain Collins' widow Maria, believed there was information being withheld; in fact, Maria was livid that her husband was being given almost the sole blame for an incident that took the lives of 257 people. The New Zealand government called for an additional investigation, which was conducted by Justice Peter Mahon. The resulting report was released in April 1981, and it completely reversed the findings of the Chippendale report. Instead of pilot error, Mahon determined the cause of the crash was the result of decisions and flight path changes made in the weeks before the flight-- changes that the pilots were unaware of and, if they had been aware of them, would have proven to be of no concern and would have resulted in a safe flight for everyone.

Captain Collins and co-pilot Cassin received a copy of the flight plan during their briefing 19 days before Flight 901 took off on November 28, 1979. What neither pilot knew was that the flight plan reflected a typo and was therefore different from the flight plan approved by the New Zealand Department of Transport Civil Aviation Division. Another pilot noticed the discrepancy based on his comparison of the computerized flight route he took and the printout of the flight route he was supposed to take. That pilot reported the error to Air New Zealand, who correct the flight path-- but did not notify the crew of flight 901 about the change. The most notable difference in the flight paths related to Mount Erebus. In the flight plan presented to the pilots for flight 901, they were supposed to fly approximately 30 miles to the east of Mount Erebus; however, in the corrected flight plan, they were routed to fly directly over Mount Erebus. When the pilots entered the coordinates into the plane's computerized system that morning before takeoff, they did not compare the coordinates to the printouts of the maps that they had; if they had done so, they might have noticed the issue. Still, if the airline had explicitly told them about the change to their route, there would have been significantly less room for error.

Did Whiteout Contribute to the Crash of Air New Zealand Flight 901?

There's one additional component that contributed to the crash that is critical to consider, and that is the impact of visibility and, specifically, a condition called sector whiteout. Sector whiteout is like an optical illusion;  it makes it almost impossible to differentiate between overcast skies and snow and ice, meaning everything looks similar and the horizon beyond the cockpit looks flat. For the pilots, they were expecting to see snow, ice, mountains, and clouds-- and that is exactly what they did see. The trouble is that, because of the sector whiteout, the ice and clouds they believed they saw were really the imposing mountain before them. Combined with the fact they believed they were miles away from Mount Erebus, they had no reason to believe anyone was in danger that day.

Were the Pilots Responsible for the Crash of Air New Zealand Flight 901?

Mahon's report absolved the pilots for any wrongdoing and, instead, placed full blame on Air New Zealand's executives and the fact the flight plan changed without notifying the pilots who would be flying it. Air New Zealand ultimately went to court to recover the costs they incurred during Mahon's investigation and to overturn the report's findings. The court threw out the monetary requests, but they did rule that Mahon overstepped his authority during his investigation. Still, they did not go so far as to overturn findings that Air New Zealand's management had conspired to commit perjury and cover up wrongdoing related to sharing the flight plan with the pilots.

What is the Legacy of Air New Zealand Flight 901?

Air New Zealand Flight 901 is still an open wound in New Zealand, which has a population of not quite five million and is full of lovely, close-knit communities that were rocked by the monumental loss. Most of the people on board were from New Zealand; all 20 crew members and 180 passengers called New Zealand home. In addition, 24 Japanese citizens, 22 US citizens, 6 UK citizens, 2 Canadians, and 1 citizen from Australia, Switzerland, and France died that day.

The aircraft itself was never removed from Mount Erebus. Most of the year it is covered in snow and ice; however, in warmer months, it is possible to see the wreckage from the air.

In 2008, Justice Mahon was posthumously awarded the Jim Collins Memorial Award by the New Zealand Airline Pilots Association for exceptional contributions to air safety, "in forever changing the general approach used in transport accidents investigations world wide.

Many of the victim's family members continue to speak out on their behalf to remember them, especially in response to questions about whether the pilots should bear any responsibility in the crash. In 2009, executives from Air New Zealand stated that both Captain Collins and co-pilot Cassin were highly regarded aviators that deserve the respect of the general public. That event also marked the first time Air New Zealand openly apologized for the airline's response in the aftermath of the accident; many of the victims' families received nothing more than flowers sent in the weeks following the crash, and the executives admitted they did not receive the compassion they should have after losing loved ones.

Also in 2009, some of the victims' loved ones had the opportunity to visit the crash site, which was 30 years after the incident. There were just six people who travelled by helicopter to the site; among them was Pip Collins, who was Captain Collins' daughter. The Collins family fought for decades to restore dignity to their family's name and to Captain Collins' reputation. There was a significant amount of public backlash toward the Collins family; in fact, their family home was broken into at one point and the intruder did nothing more than rip a photo of him in half.

In 2018, Air New Zealand came under fire for referencing Antarctica in one of their inflight safety videos. Many of the victim's family members came out to condemn the airline for featuring Antarctica in the video, saying it was insensitive and a dishonor to the memories and legacies of those who lost their lives.


Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered by: Crosse deStreit, Salmon Pond Studios
Graphic design and website by: Adam Hubka
Sound editing and music by: Mike Dunn
Air New Zealand Flight 901

The flight path. Source: Wikipedia

Air New Zealand Flight 901

Air New Zealand 901 crash. Image credit: Auckland Libraries YouTube

Air New Zealand Flight 901

McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 in 1977. Image credit: Wikipedia

Image Credit: Reddit