Episode 77: Ansett New Zealand Flight 703

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On June 9, 2005, Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 crashed when it collided with terrain just 10 miles from the airport in Palmerston, New Zealand. Join Shelly as she shares the story of how a distracted flight crew and faulty systems led to the crash that killed 4 out of 21 people.

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In episode 77 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we explore the story of Ansett New Zealand Flight 703. Which collided with the foothills of the Tararua Ranges on June 9, 1995, while on final approach to the airport in Palmerston, New Zealand. While 17 of the 21 people onboard ultimately survived, the crash revealed that an issue with the plane’s faulty landing gear distracted both the captain and first officer from watching the plane’s descent while the onboard ground proximity warning system (GPWS) failed to alert the crew in enough time for the crew to recover the plane. The crash led to a procedural revision that encouraged pilots to discontinue the landing approach whenever an issue requires resolution or correction prior to landing. The captain was also acquitted of manslaughter charges brought against him six years later for his role in the crash. 

Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 Prepared for Final Approach to Palmerston

It’s the morning of June 9, 1995, and the short commuter flight known as Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 is approaching its destination in Palmerston, New Zealand. The flight is a mere 250-mile (or 402 km), one-hour voyage from the city of Auckland to the city of Palmerston. And today 18 passengers and 3 crew members are onboard the Dash 8-100 series turbo prop airplane. 

Among the three crew members we have Captain Garry Sotheran, First Officer Barry Brown, and flight attendant Karen Gallagher. 40-year-old Captain Sotheran had been with Ansett New Zealand since 1989 and has a total of 7,795 flight hours over his career. Those who assessed his performance as a pilot said that Captain Sotheran had above average command and leadership. 33-year-old First Officer Barry Brown had joined the airline less than six months prior and had 6,640 total flight hours. 

Flight attendant Karen Gallagher is chatting up passenger William McGrory, who is on his way to Palmerston North for work. William was meant to be joined on the flight by his then wife and two children, but they are put on another flight. Karen shares with William that she is about to own her first home, and William can tell she is both very excited and proud of this possibility. 

Among the other passengers are the Gray family, who are heading to a surprise party in Masterton. Ian and Maree are joined by their two little girls, Petra, 6, and Elle, 3. When they boarded, they initially were sitting in different seats, but once they saw that Flight 703 was only half-full, they were able to move from their original seats near the plane's left wing to the back, so they can sit together. 

As Flight 703 is close to the airport, the pilots begin preparing their approach from the west, which is the preferred route because it bypasses the rugged terrain of the Tararua Ranges. But they are informed by air traffic controllers that they will have to change their approach and come in from the east, over the Tararua Ranges, due to other aircraft in the area. 

Let’s talk about what this change meant to the pilots in the cockpit. Tararua Range is an area of hilly and mountainous terrain that often experiences unpredictable and harsh weather. Often, this area features very low and thick cloud cover, and for pilots, the instrument approach in these conditions is complicated with the descending terrain. It’s a descent that requires total focus and concentration on the part of a flight crew. 

As the aircraft makes its final turn to line-up with the airport, Captain Sotheran reduces the engines to idle, and the pilots begin the familiar process of landing.

Landing Gear Issue Emerges as Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 is on Final Approach 

Meanwhile, in the cabin, as flight attendant Karen is continuing her conversation with William, she notices something odd outside the plane’s windows: though they are on an approach, she cannot see the plane’s right landing gear. She asks William to take a look out the window to see if he can see the landing gear, and he confirms to her that he cannot. But when they peer out the left side windows, they can see the gear on that side of the plane. 

Karen politely excuses herself from her conversation with William and turns toward the cockpit. She enters the cockpit and tells the flight crew that it appears as though the right landing gear is not yet extended. The crew lets her know they are aware of the issue and are working on a procedure to manually lower it. In fact, First Officer Brown already has his nose buried deep within the checklist for this very procedure. 

After returning from the cockpit to talk to the pilots, Karen leans over the seat in front of William and lets him know that the pilots have it under control and the two continue their conversation where they left off. 

Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 Crashes into Tararua Ranges 10 Miles from the Airport 

That is the moment when, as William later recalls it, “There was an almighty crash. A tremendous sound.” 

Without warning to anyone in the cabin, Flight 703 has just collided with the hillside. First, the plane’s front nose gear hits the ground. With the force of the initial impact, the plane becomes momentarily airborne before slamming back down to the ground and careening up a slope. As it does, the cabin floor begins to disintegrate while the plane scrapes across the ground below. The tail smashes off, and then the left wing tears away before the crumpled fuselage makes a full 180 degree turn and spins to a stop. Inside the plane, at first, is complete stillness and silence. 

At the same time, Flight 703 disappears from radar, and in the tower at Palmerston Airport, controller Tony Chapman scrambles to find the plane. He tries contacting the crew but does not get a response. Then he begins contacting other towers to see if they have any status on the plane. The frustrating situation before Tony right now is that emergency services are ready to be dispatched, but he has no idea where they need to go. Flight 703’s last reported position was that they were making a final turn to line up with runway 25. This meant that in between that position and the airport, the plane could have gone down anywhere in a 150 square mile radius (or 388 square kilometer radius).

As controller Tony Chapman is trying to locate Flight 703, passenger William McGrory extracts himself from the mangled cabin by going through a hole in the right side of the fuselage. When he emerges from the tangled wreckage, he can tell they are somewhere in the hills in a paddock, or an enclosed field. But other than that, William has no idea where they are. And soon, other survivors begin to emerge from the airplane, and as they do, William returns to help them. 

Passenger Reg Dixon, who is on the plane with his wife Jill, also helps his fellow passengers. He tries to free two other passengers trapped near the wing as the wreckage caught fire. Unfortunately, he is unable to free them, and a flash fire erupts and critically burns Reg and kills the two trapped passengers. 

Surviving Passenger Helps Officials Locate Crash Site of Ansett New Zealand 703 

All around William are survivors, some trapped, some walking around, some crying for help. William knows he needs to act fast. He looks around on the ground for his briefcase. And amazingly, he finds it damaged but still in one piece. And even more unbelievable than that is the fact that his cell phone is inside and is still working. 

Remember, this is 1995, and not many people even had mobile phones. So, the fact that William not only has one but that it survived the impact is extremely fortunate. 

William dials the emergency number, and when asked by the 111 operator whether he needs police, fire, or ambulance, he answers, "The whole bloody lot." Not only are there injured passengers, but the driving cold, wind, and rain make shock and hypothermia a very real danger to anyone who is still alive or struggling to remain alive. 

The operator tells William that she will notify airport authorities and have someone contact him immediately. And just seconds later, Tony Chapman gets a call from police that they'd had a call from a witness to the crash. Tony quickly rings the number and speaks to William, who he thinks is just a witness. Tony’s first question is, what do you know about the crash? William, frustrated, says, "What can I tell you about it? I was on the bloody thing."

Tony tells William to organize the survivors to huddle together for warmth and suggests finding clothing in luggage for warmth, but most people's bags can't be found. Two passengers, Peter Roberts and Dean Mason, build a shelter out of plane debris. 

Tony (ATC) still needs to solve the problem of where Flight 703 has crashed. He asks William to send a passenger to go to the top of the hill and see if they can identify anything that would help rescuers locate them. Peter Roberts volunteers for this task and follows a fence line up the hill, which leads him to fencing around an early model wind turbine. He can tell this is a very large sheep holding pin. 

For about 35 minutes, William talks to Tony over his Nokia phone. Peter’s pinpoint description of the area was relayed back to Tony through William. Tony then alerts the police, who quickly follow up with local landowners to identify the exact site of the plane. 

And soon, help is on the way. Helipro's chief pilot and chief executive Rick Lucas is, on that same Friday morning, heading to Central Hawke's Bay with pipeline company workers. On the way he takes a call from the local press asking if he knows anything about a Dash-8 going down. He did not, but he knows if this is true, they will need help immediately. 

Rick rushes back to base in Palmerston North, still with his two passengers, who are experienced in search and rescue and are happy to help. They head off in three giant helicopters to find the plane. And it isn't easy work flying in conditions that they later describe as like flying inside a milk bottle.

Over radio Rick can hear William talking to controller Tony Chapman, but the downed plane proves elusive. Finally, Rick picks up a signal from the wreckage, about 10:15 am. Of spotting the wreckage, Rick said, "It was kind of surreal. It was eerie. There were people huddled in airline blankets under the side of this smashed-up fuselage... We had a big airliner lying in bits on the Tararua foothills."

17 Out of 21 People Survive Crash of Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 

As soon as he finds a place to land his chopper, he and the other choppers rush the injured to Palmerston North Hospital. When all is said and done, eighteen people survive the impact, although 14 suffer serious injuries, including both pilots who have experienced severe brain trauma. Flight attendant Karen Gallagher, 31, who was not buckled into a seat, has sadly died upon impact. Jonathan Keall, 43, and David White, 37, are also killed. Reg Dixon, who was burned in a flash fire while helping to free two others, dies from his injuries two weeks later. His wife Jill survives. Reg Dixon is later posthumously awarded the New Zealand Cross for bravery.

Ian Gray, who was travelling with his wife and two daughters, remembers the days after the crash for the kindness displayed to his family from hospital staff and complete strangers. And they need it. Maree Gray fractures seven vertebrae and a rib; Ian breaks several ribs and his jaw; and Elle suffers a broken leg. Daughter Petra suffers only bruising. Their survival would not have been possible if the family had remained in their original, separate seats. The move to sitting together ended up saving all their lives. 

William McGrory, who had been such an important part of rescuers’ ability to find the plane, went to the hospital and discovered that he also had a fractured vertebra. It is in the hospital that he meets air traffic controller Tony Chapman for the first time, who has come to see the man who helped him locate Flight 703. 

TAIC Begins Investigation into Ansett New Zealand 703 Crash

Officials from New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission (or TAIC) travel to the crash site along with officials from the Canadian Transport Safety Board (or CTSB) who will assist the TAIC in the investigation – the CTSB is on hand because the Dash-8 is manufactured by De Havilland, a Canadian company. 

And to put it bluntly, the plane’s fuselage is a mess. The main fuselage is mostly intact but badly crumpled and damaged, with the tail and left wing completely broken off. Investigators can see where the plane’s front nose wheel hit first because this is the first impact marks seen on the ground from the plane’s wheels. This tells investigators that Flight 703 was flying level when it crashed. But there is a missing clue from the impact patterns that baffles investigators from the start: they can’t find any marks on the ground from the right landing gear.

When they look at the cockpit display panel, investigators can see that the pilots were working to get the right landing gear on the ground. They can tell that the pilots were trying to manually lower it because the landing gear selector lever was in a down position and the emergency landing gear selector was being used. Investigators know they are dealing with a landing gear issue of sorts, but they are not sure how these factors play into the crash. 

Essentially, investigators have two questions they need to answer if they are going to find out what happened to Flight 703: why was the right landing gear not lowered and why did the plane crash into the hillside?

The TAIC brings in a large helicopter to move the wreckage to a hangar for examination. The first plane parts they examine are the landing gear components.

Flight 703 Aircraft Has History of Landing Gear Issues

Here is a technical part of our episode today. On a Dash-8, when the landing gear is up, a latch holds a roller on the gear’s leg in the retracted position, which keeps the gear from extending. When the gear is lowered, an actuator moves the uplock latch to release the roller, allowing the gear to extend. 

Everything investigators see so far points to the uplock actuator and the uplock latch. The latch shows signs of wear and tear – on the right gear latch, there is a slight indent where the roller sat – a small groove was formed. This would have been enough of an indent to prevent the latch from sliding the roller into the down position so the landing gear could release. 

Investigators examine maintenance records for the plane and can see that issues exist with the uplock actuator and are well documented on this specific aircraft as well as on other Dash-8 aircraft. In fact, this type of aircraft had experienced landing gear issues for years – either the gear lowered slowly or not at all. The manufacturer, in response to these issues, offered a modified uplock mechanism designed to overcome the problem. 

But on the plane that was Flight 703, Ansett only replaced the left side uplock actuator because that was the side where most of the landing gear failures were. This meant that the right side may still create landing gear extension issues. And when it did, in each instance, pilots used the manual procedure, and the landing gear came down. So, why were the pilots on Flight 703 unable to get the right landing gear to come down?

On the Dash-8, when a pilot uses the manual system to extend the landing gear, the handle in the cockpit manually disengages the latch so the gear could drop into position. What investigators find on Flight 703 is frustrating and surprising: the First Officer, who was the one completing the manual gear extension process, did not pull down on the handle hard enough for it to work. The handle was only partially pulled. This would explain why the gear had not lowered.

But none of this explains why Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 crashed. As we mentioned, the pilots had suffered severe brain trauma in the impact and were unable to be interviewed. Investigators will need to listen to the cockpit voice recorder (or CVR) to understand what transpired inside the cockpit leading up to the crash.

Distracted Flight Crew Lose Track of Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 Position and Altitude

For the first part of the flight, things are progressing normally. Then, on final approach, Flight 703 is 14 miles (or 22.5 km) from the airport, and it is then that it must make a turn so to out it on course to line up with the runway and approach from the east. This path toward the airport takes the plane over rugged terrain, and because of that, they plane must hit exact minimum altitudes at specific intervals to avoid colliding with the ground. The dialog between Captain Sotheran and First Officer Brown shows that each pilot understood what those intervals and altitude milestones were. 

Two-and-a-half minutes before the plane crashes, Flight 703 makes that final turn toward the airport. The pilots notice that the right landing gear is not extended, and so the First Officer begins the alternate procedure and consults the checklist for doing so. But what is evident from the CVR is that it is taking the First Officer a long time to walk through the steps. Captain Sotheran asks First Officer Brown to skip to the bottom of the checklist for the more applicable steps. Apparently, this is something a captain has authorization to do. Which in some cases is not a problem, but on Flight 703, this crew is clearly rushing to get things done. 

And the First Officer is struggling – and the Captain can tell. The First Officer has begun a second alternative procedure before even finishing the first alternative procedure he began. 

On the CVR, you can hear the Captain tell the First Officer, “You’re supposed to pull the handle....” The First Officer then pulled the handle and replies, “Yeah that’s pulled, here we go.” But as we know, he did not pull the handle all the way down. In his use of the checklist, he essentially skipped this step and went on to other steps, and when the Captain told him to pull the handle, the First Officer did so hastily. 

Distracted Crew, Lagging GPWS Contributed to Ansett New Zealand 703 Crash

And right after this exchange in the cockpit, Flight 703 impacts the hillside. Investigators want to know how the flight crew did not realize they were descending so close to the terrain. For this question, there are two answers, and those answers ultimately lead to identifying two contributors to the cause of the crash.

The first contributor is, instead of monitoring the airplane, Captain Sotheran was helping the First Officer with the checklists. As he does, the plane is getting lower and lower, dropping below the minimum altitude by almost 1,400 feet (or 426 m). To give this context, the plane at this point during approach should have descended at a rate of about 500 feet per minute (or 152m per minute) but was actually descending much faster, at a rate of 1,200 feet per minute (or 365 m per minute). This is a huge contributor.

The second contributor is related to the onboard ground proximity warning system, or the GPWS. The system alerted the pilots to pull up just 4.5 seconds before impact. This is not enough time for any pilot to take evasive actions. By the time the alert sounded, there was nothing Captain Sotheran could have done. Based on the collision factors of this crash, investigators assess that the GPWS should have alerted the crew when they were 17 seconds from collision, which would have been plenty of time for Captain Sotheran to pull up. As one investigator said, it would have been scary but not fatal. 

And here is the most disturbing part of this crash investigation: the reason for the delayed alert is never identified. Investigators rule out several factors they thought would have caused this to occur, but in each instance, they cannot recreate what happened on Flight 703. (They looked at a nearby radio tower to see if those signals interfered with the signals the GPWS needed to interpret altitude and terrain below, but the frequency of those signals was not strong enough. They also considered that the bottom of the radio antenna for the system was painted when it should not have been, but the system still worked properly.)

According to the accident report, the GPWS is there to aid the pilot in ensuring that they do not fly the aircraft into the ground. However, it is an aid and it’s not meant to be used to replace the ability of the pilot to safely fly the aircraft. The pilot must ensure at all times that they have control of the aircraft. Although one of the biggest contributions to the crash is the failing of the GPWS, which did not allow the pilots enough time to react, they were other contributing factors that have to do with the pilots’ performance and errors they performed that all lead up to the accident. Situational awareness as well as constant vigilance in ensuring the flight is flying on the required profile is paramount. Ensuring the proper execution of checks in cases of flight abnormality as well as in normal flight is required. 

As you can imagine, the Airline Pilots Association had a lot to say about this and there is a lot of back and forth included in the end of the report about specific objections that the Association had when it came to some of the commission’s conclusions. 

Pilot Error Final Cause of Crash of Ansett New Zealand Flight 703

The big picture take-away in the report is this: a landing gear issue like this one should not cause a plane to crash, and the Captain should have discontinued the landing and gone into a holding pattern while they resolved the landing gear issue. Above all, Captain Sotheran never should have lost sight of the airplane’s position and altitude, and had they discontinued the approach, none of the other factors would have mattered as much. 

Ultimately, the report found the following contributors:

  • The captain proceeded with his decision to resolve the landing gear issue without first discontinuing the approach.
  • The captain was distracted from flying the aircraft safely during the first officer's efforts to fix the landing gear issue. 
  • The first officer did not execute a Quick Reference Handbook procedure in the correct sequence.
  • The ground proximity warning system warning alert was too short to allow for corrective measures.

Following the crash, Ansett revises its operations manuals to encourage the discontinuation of the approach before landing in these kinds of situations. 

Flight 703 Captain Charged with Manslaughter Following Crash

In 2000, Ansett, which operated in New Zealand between 1987 and 2000, settles out of court with 12 of the injured passengers, but Captain Sotheran is charged with manslaughter. He is acquitted after a long and complicated 2001 trial in Palmerston North. Captain Sotheran told the jury that he had been let down by his instruments and that his altimeter had not shown him he was flying so low on its easterly approach to Palmerston North. The decision to prosecute Captain Sotheran angered the Air Line Pilots' Association, which fought police efforts to obtain the cockpit voice recorder.

Passenger and Controller Remain Friends Years After Harrowing Crash of Ansett New Zealand Flight 703

And almost 25 years later controller Tony Chapman and William McGrory still keep in touch. Of their phone conversation on the day of the crash, William recalls, "The one thing that did stand out mainly was when I told him that the helicopters had arrived and one of the firemen on the back of a farmer's bike had arrived, and he said: 'OK, you can hang up now, William. You've done your job.'" William says he was on auto-pilot after the crash, but is proud he showed great presence of mind. Of the crash he says, "I belong to a very exclusive club that no one else wants to join."

And THAT is the story of the crash of Ansett New Zealand Flight 703.

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Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered at: Snow Monster Studios
Sound editor: Podcast Engineers
Producer: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
Ansett New Zealand Flight 703

Rescue choppers assist crews on the ground at the crash scene of Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 . Source: Newshub

Ansett New Zealand Flight 703

Flight 703 passengers Jill Dixon, whose husband Reg died after suffering severe burns, and William McGrory back near the crash site in the late 1990s. Source: Stuff

Ansett New Zealand Flight 703

Wreckage from the site of the crash of Ansett New Zealand Flight 703. Source: News Hub