Debris from the doomed Flight 901 is strewn across Mount Erebus.
Debris from the doomed Flight 901 is strewn across Mount Erebus. AP Photo/New Zealand Archives, HO

DAY IN HISTORY: Air New Zealand flight crashes in Antarctica

NEW Zealand mourned its worst aviation disaster when doomed Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed into Antarctica's Mount Erebus on this day in 1979.

The flight, which claimed all 257 people on board, was meant to be a much-hyped sight-seeing excursion that revealed the mysteries of the world's most southern continent.

However, navigation and pilot error led to the most tragic of outcomes when the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 slammed into the side of the 3,800m volcano.

Captain Jim Collins and co-pilot Greg Cassin were experienced pilots but had never flown to Antarctica and relied on a previous flight plans handed to them at a pilot's briefing weeks before the flight on November 9.

This route would take Flight 901 down the wide McMurdo Sound about 43kms west of Mount Erebus.

However, these plans did not correspond with recently updated coordinates in the ground computer, which had been changed when a previous flight noticed inconsistencies with the November 9 route and coordinate bearings on Antarctica. These changes were not relayed to the crew of Flight 901.

Mount Erebus is Antarctica's largest mountain, standing at 3,800m near the coastline.
Mount Erebus is Antarctica's largest mountain, standing at 3,800m near the coastline. NZ Herald

On the morning of November 28, Flight 901, flying with a computer based on the wrong coordinates, took off from Auckland Airport and, after about four hours of flying, approached Antarctica.

The crew performed a descent via a figure-eight manoeuvre to break cloud cover and obtain visual confirmation while giving passengers a better view of the continent.

However, this descent, later estimated to be between 610 to 910m, smashed the minimum safe altitude of 4,900m on the approach to Mount Erebus and 1,800m in the sector south of the volcano.

At this point, believing he was flying over McMurdo Sound, Collins switched controls over to the computer, not knowing the plane was heading directly towards Mount Erebus.

Even when the mountain loomed up in front of them, the crew wrongly believed, a combination of trusting the wrong flight plan and an effect known as whiteout, that the white mass in front of them was the Ross Ice Shelf, a huge expanse of ice, the perfect indicator they were on target.

At 12:49pm, the ground proximity warning system lit up the controls but it was too late; six seconds later, Flight 901 flew straight into Antarctica's tallest mountain, killing all on board.

The initial accident report blamed pilot error for the tragedy. But public outcry led the New Zealand Government to announce the Mahon Inquiry into the accident.

Justice Peter Mahon found the majority of blame lay with Air New Zealand after it alteration of the flight plan, exonerating the flight crew. Justice Mahon also accused the company's senior management of "an orchestrated litany of lies" which later led to major change in the company's executive ranks..

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