Mount Erebus disaster

The Mount Erebus disaster was a major aircraft accident involving Air New Zealand Flight 901 in 1979. The flight was a non-scheduled passenger transport service from Auckland International Airport in New Zealand to Antarctica and return. The service, for the purposes of Antarctic sightseeing, was operated with McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 aircraft and began in February 1977. It was the 14th such flight operated by Air New Zealand.


Flight details

The flight was specifically designed and marketed as a unique sight-seeing experience, carrying an experienced Antarctic guide who would point out scenic features and landmarks using the aircraft public address system. Dignitaries such as Sir Edmund Hillary had acted as guides on previous flights. Indeed Hillary had been scheduled to act as the guide for this flight but had to cancel due to other commitments. The flight usually operated at about 85% of full capacity — the empty seats allowed passengers to more easily move about the cabin to observe external features.

The accident

On November 28, 1979, at 12:49pm NZDT, flight TE901 collided with Mount Erebus, Antarctica, killing all 237 passengers and 20 crew members. The flight that day was being operated by the DC-10 registered ZK-NZP, which was just under 5 years old. The aircraft altitude at the time of the collision was just 1465 feet (445 metres).

After radio contact was lost, McMurdo Station in Antarctica, who had been in radio contact with the flight, kept trying to contact it, and finally informed Air New Zealand headquarters in Auckland that communication with the aircraft had been lost. US search and rescue aircraft were put on standby. At 10:00pm NZDT, about thirty minutes after the DC-10 would have used the last of its fuel, the airline told reporters that it had to be assumed that the aircraft was lost. The wreckage was finally located about 1:00am NZDT by a United States Navy search aircraft.

The dead included 200 New Zealanders, 24 Japanese, 22 Americans, six British, two Canadians, one Australian, one French, and one Swiss. Forty four of the victims were not identified.

The accident is exceptional in that, to this day, controversy exists over the true cause of the accident, and in the amount of responsibility the airline and crew should assume. Public opinion also remains polarised.

The two opposing theories are listed below, together with their main points.

Accident inquiries

Official accident report

The accident report compiled by the chief inspector of air accidents, Ron Chippindale, was released on 12 June 1980. It attributed blame to the decision of Captain Jim Collins to descend below the customary minimum altitude level, and continue at that height when the crew was unsure of the plane's position. The customary minimum prohibited descent below 6000 feet (1830 metres) even under good weather conditions, but a combination of factors led the captain to believe the plane was over low, flat ground, and previous Flight 901 pilots regularly flew low over the area to give passengers a better view.

Mahon Inquiry

Due to public demand, the New Zealand Government announced a further one-man Royal Commission of Inquiry into the accident, to be performed by Justice Peter Mahon.

Mahon's report, released on April 27 1981, cleared the crew of blame for the disaster. Justice Mahon said the single, dominant and effective cause was the changing of the aircraft's navigation computer co-ordinates to route the aircraft directly towards Mount Erebus, without the crew being advised. The new flight plan took the aircraft directly at the mountain, rather than along its flank. Due to whiteout conditions, the crew were unable to visually identify the mountain in front of them. Furthermore, they may have experienced a rare meterological phenomenon called sector whiteout which creates the visual illusion of a flat horizon far in the distance. Justice Mahon also found that the radio communications centre at McMurdo Station had authorised Captain Collins to descend to 1500 feet (450 metres), below the minimum safe level.

Justice Mahon controversially claimed airline executives engaged in a conspiracy to whitewash the enquiry, covering up evidence and lying to investigators, famously accusing them of "an orchestrated litany of lies".

Privy Council appeal

The Privy Council subsequently found that Justice Mahon, as Royal Commissioner, had acted in excess of his jurisdiction and contrary to natural justice regarding those allegations. In their judgement, delivered on 20 October 1983, the five Law Lords of the Privy Council dismissed the Commissioner's appeal and upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal decision, which set aside the costs order against the Airline, on the grounds that Mahon had committed clear breaches of natural justice. Aviation researcher John King wrote in his book New Zealand Tragedies, Aviation:

They demolished his case item by item, including Exhibit 164 which they said could not "be understood by any experienced pilot to be intended for the purposes of navigation" and went even further, saying there was no clear proof on which to base a finding that a plan of deception, led by the company's chief executive, had ever existed.

"Exhibit 164" refers to a photocopied diagram of McMurdo Sound showing a southbound flight path passing west of Ross Island and one northbound passing the island on the east. The diagram didn't extend sufficiently far south to show where how, or even if they joined, and left the two paths were disconnected. Evidence had been given to the effect that the diagram had been included in the flight crew's briefing documentation. (See Mahon v. Air New Zealand (

Legacy of the disaster

The crash of flight TE901 remains New Zealand's second deadliest disaster after the Napier earthquake. The small size of New Zealand meant that nearly the entire population was affected by the disaster, personally or by association.

A wooden cross was erected above Scott Base to commemorate the accident. It was replaced in 1986 with an aluminium cross after the original was eroded by low temperatures, wind and moisture.

Almost all of the aircraft's fuselage and components still lie where they came to rest on the slopes of Mt. Erebus, under a layer of snow and ice. During warm periods when snow recedes, the wreckage is still visible from the air.

See also

External links

  • Aviation Safety Network: Transcript of flight 901 (
  • New Zealand Ministry of Transport Official Report parts [1] ( [2] ( [3] ( [4] ( [5] ( [6] ( (PDF)

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