An Orchestrated Litany of Lies: The crash of Air New Zealand flight 901
Note: this accident was previously featured in episode 7 of the plane crash series on October 21st, 2017, prior to the series’ arrival on Medium. This article is written without reference to and supersedes the original.
In 1841, Sir James Clark Ross and his crew sailed into a nameless bay on the hitherto unknown continent of Antarctica, and there watched awestruck as a towering volcano spewed fire into the midnight sun. Ross named the volcano Mount Erebus, after his flagship vessel HMS Erebus, and a neighboring peak was christened Mount Terror after Erebus’ sister ship. In Greek mythology, Erebus, son of Chaos, was a primordial deity personifying darkness — an unsettling, if appropriate name for the icebound volcano on the bottom of the world. As though cursed by the association, Erebus and Terror would go on to play central roles in the disastrous Franklin expedition to the Canadian Arctic, in which both ships and all 129 officers and men were lost, vanishing into the vast frozen wilderness with little left behind to explain their passing.
More than a century later, Mount Erebus’ vaguely disturbing name and history took another, even darker turn. On the 28th of November 1979, an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight crashed directly into the side of Mount Erebus, killing all 257 people aboard in what was then the fourth deadliest plane crash of all time. The so-called Erebus Disaster shook New Zealand to its core, thrusting the young nation into a struggle to understand an unspeakable horror that touched the lives of every New Zealander. The question of what happened and why proved murkier than anyone had expected, and the tragic plane crash in Antarctica would turn into a political drama that came to define New Zealand’s public discourse for years after it occurred. There is no other story that compares to it, no plane crash so profoundly eerie and earth-shattering that at the same time remains the source of such controversy, from its purported origin with a single typo on a flight plan in 1978, to the political unraveling of an entire country to which that miniscule error ultimately led.
In 1977, Australia’s flag carrier Qantas announced that it would begin operating sightseeing flights to Antarctica, for the first time offering paying passengers a bird’s eye view of the forbidden continent. Qantas’ smaller, scrappier counterpart from across the Tasman Sea — the state-owned carrier Air New Zealand — soon resolved to do the same. Thanks to the introduction of the wide body McDonnell Douglas DC-10 to its fleet in 1973, Air New Zealand had the capability to fly passengers out of Auckland, take them several hundred kilometers down the Antarctic coast, and return to Christchurch without needing to refuel.
The first several flights in February and November 1977 proved to be so successful that the airline approved another round for 1978. Those who had managed to nab a highly coveted seat on the Antarctic flights invariably left rave reviews. The scenery was spectacular: from the towering icebergs of the Southern Ocean to the precipitous peaks of Victoria Land to the looming bulk of Mount Erebus, the otherworldly vistas left passengers giddy with joy. The service, too, was memorable: passengers were served three gourmet meals complete with champagne, and were treated to continuous commentary by Antarctic experts, including world-famous mountaineer and native kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest. Guests could walk in through the open cockpit door and admire the sights through the DC-10’s broad windscreen while conversing with the pilots, and when the flight passed near the air traffic control tower at New Zealand’s Scott Base, the crew would broadcast their communications over the public address system to impress the passengers. And all of this could be purchased for as little as NZ$275 — less than it cost to fly from New Zealand to just about anywhere else in the world.
In 1977, the flights were conducted in a somewhat ad-hoc fashion, with a new flight plan drawn up before every flight. Nevertheless, the general pattern was the same for all seven Antarctic flights conducted that year. After departing Auckland, the flights would head south for several hours until reaching Cape Hallett. They would then continue south along the coast into the Ross Sea, passing by enormous glaciers flowing off the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Next, the flights would proceed down McMurdo Sound, with Ross Island on the left and the famous Dry Valleys of Victoria Land on the right. In the center of Ross Island, Mount Erebus rose to a height of 3,794 meters (12,448 ft), clearly visible to all the passengers. Finally, the flights would make a low pass over McMurdo Station and the historic hut built by explorer Robert Falcon Scott, before turning around and heading back to New Zealand, arriving in Christchurch that evening to take on fuel for the last leg back to Auckland.
For the 1978 season, the plan was much the same as before, although Air New Zealand formalized the route by writing up a standard series of coordinates which could be programmed into the plane’s inertial navigation system prior to departure. The DC-10’s advanced inertial navigation system, or INS, consisted of three independent gyros which measured every motion in three dimensions made by the aircraft and could, through dead reckoning, pinpoint exactly where the aircraft was and where it was going with remarkable accuracy over long distances. In this manner, the INS could guide flights along a pre-programmed “nav track” consisting only of geographic coordinates without any need to lock on to ground-based navigational aids, of which there were precious few in Antarctica. With the help of the INS, the four flights conducted that summer proceeded smoothly, and another round of four was scheduled for 1979, to the delight of many New Zealanders.
The four flights that year were all to take place in November, near the beginning of the Antarctic summer, with the first flight on the 7th and the last on the 28th. Pilots competed for the flights just as fiercely as the passengers, and the airline favored bids by the most senior captains. So when mid-level Captain Jim Collins found out that he had been scheduled to fly the last trip of the season, he all but jumped for joy. There was reason to believe that this could be the last Antarctic flight for the foreseeable future, considering the skyrocketing price of jet fuel, so he was thrilled to get his chance before the opportunity disappeared.
Also scheduled on the 28th of November sightseeing flight, designated flight 901, were First Officer Greg Cassin, First Officer Graham Lucas, Flight Engineer Gordon Brooks, Flight Engineer Nicholas Moloney, Antarctic expert Peter Mulgrew, fourteen flight attendants, and 237 passengers. (The extra pilots were on board as a relief crew to take over part way through the 11-hour journey.) Sir Edmund Hillary had originally been scheduled to provide the commentary on flight 901, but a commitment in the United States forced him to cancel, and his good friend and fellow Antarctic explorer Peter Mulgrew stepped up instead. The flight crew attended a briefing on November 9th outlining the rules of the Antarctic sightseeing operation, the flight plan, and some of the unique aspects of operating in the region, after which they were considered good to go.
The first three flights went ahead as scheduled, and when the 28th finally rolled around, the passengers and crew of flight 901 arrived bright and early in Auckland for the all-day sightseeing extravaganza. Excited tourists filed on board with cameras in hand, dispersing themselves throughout the huge DC-10, which had been deliberately under-booked to prevent crowding around the windows. In the cockpit, Captain Collins and First Officer Cassin programmed their flight path into the navigation computer by copying the coordinates of the waypoints off their flight plan. A copy of the plan was radioed ahead to McMurdo Station, the American research base on Ross Island, whose air traffic controllers would be responsible for handling the plane while it was in Antarctic airspace. Once all 257 passengers and crew had boarded, the flight departed Auckland at 8:17 a.m. and climbed away into the summer sky. No one who watched it go could have predicted that they would be the last living souls to see the DC-10.
Five hours later, already proceeding down the coast of Victoria Land, flight 901 made contact with air traffic controllers at McMurdo Station to receive weather information. At 12:18 p.m. local time, the controller informed flight 901 that there was an overcast layer at 2,000 feet with 40 miles (74km) visibility at ground level, with possible clear skies over the Dry Valleys west of McMurdo Sound. The controller suggested that once the flight entered radar range, he could guide it down to 1,500 feet, where the unlimited visibility would afford the passengers a better view. The crew accepted this suggestion, but at 12:32, they spotted a gap in the clouds through which they could descend in visual meteorological conditions, or VMC, where they would not need radar guidance from McMurdo. They advised “Mac Center,” as the McMurdo ATC station was known, that they were descending in VMC from 18,000 feet to 10,000 feet at a distance of about 43 miles (69km) from McMurdo. In order to stay within the clear area, the crew performed two loops, one to the left and one to the right, as they descended. At 12:45, having straightened back out onto their original course, the crew reported that they were in the process of descending to 2,000 feet and were still in VMC, and Mac Center acknowledged, expecting to hear from the DC-10 again in just a few minutes.
But as the minutes rolled by with no more calls from the DC-10, the controllers began to worry. All further attempts to contact flight 901 went unanswered, and after approximately one hour, authorities at McMurdo Station sent out a handful of aircraft to search for the plane along its expected flight path. Despite their efforts, nothing was found. Mac Center then informed authorities in New Zealand that they had lost contact with the DC-10, and a dreadful waiting game began.
At 4:00 p.m., the plane was supposed to make contact with Auckland Centre on its way back from the Antarctic, but this time passed with no word from the plane. Controllers waited to see if it would land as scheduled in Christchurch at 7:00, but it did not. Fearing that something had gone terribly wrong, authorities informed Air New Zealand that flight 901 was “overdue,” and the first news reports about the situation began to hit the radio waves. The magnitude of the story was difficult to comprehend: a DC-10 with 257 people on board had gone down somewhere in Antarctica, and no one knew where it was.
As word of the missing plane spread, more and more New Zealanders tuned in for updates, but there was little information to give them; at that point, Air New Zealand was still waiting to see if the plane might show up, against all odds, with a broken radio and a crew with a great story to tell. But even if the plane was still in the air, its fuel would run out by 9:30. When 9:30 came and went with no sign of the plane, only one conclusion remained. At 10:00, Air New Zealand CEO Morrie Davis made a televised announcement. “It is with great regret that we now must accept that the aircraft is lost,” he said. “Fuel reserves were exhausted approximately half an hour ago, and the aircraft has to be down.”
Meanwhile in Antarctica, American search and rescue teams continued to scour the area near the DC-10’s last known position, flying around Ross Island and McMurdo Sound beneath the eerie twilight of the summer night. At approximately 1:25 a.m., a search team spotted a brown streak of wreckage on the snow, at an elevation of some 1,465 feet (447m) on the lower slopes of Mount Erebus. By radio, the crew reported, “Debris at crash site being blown by wind. No apparent survivors.”
That morning, the world awoke to the grim news that the missing airliner had been found on Mount Erebus, with all 257 passengers and crew presumed dead. At 9:30 a.m., a search and rescue team reached the site on foot and confirmed what everyone already knew — all those on board had died instantly on impact, and there were no survivors. It was the worst peacetime disaster in the history of New Zealand, and in a country of just three million people, it seemed that almost everyone knew someone who was on the plane. New Zealanders wanted desperately to know what happened to flight 901 — but it was obvious that just getting to the crash site would be an enormous challenge.
Ron Chippindale, New Zealand’s Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, knew as soon as word of the missing plane reached him that he would be called upon to determine the cause. But the New Zealand Office of Air Accidents Investigation typically only investigated minor accidents involving small airplanes, and they had no experience working on a major disaster. By far the largest accident anyone at the agency had helped investigate was the 1963 crash of a Douglas DC-3 propeller plane in which 23 people died. The flight 901 disaster was many orders of magnitude larger, and the eyes of the world were upon them. Chippindale could only hope he had what it took to get it right.
As soon as the crash site was located, New Zealand launched a massive response code-named “Operation Overdue.” Operation Overdue featured a hardy team of police officers, accident investigators, mountaineers, and body recovery and identification experts who would camp out at the crash site until their work was complete.
After several frustrating days waiting for a break in the weather, the team was finally able to reach the wreckage on the 3rd of December. Those who were there described the scene as hellish beyond all imagination. Pieces of the plane were scattered for several hundred meters up the mountainside, lying half-buried amid snow stained black by jet fuel. A fire had clearly burned at the site for some time after impact, reducing several areas to charred rubble. Pieces of human bodies lay strewn about the wreckage field, some of them burned, others somewhat recognizable: here was an arm, there was a leg, over there was a torso. For a week, the team struggled under unimaginable conditions to locate all the bodies and prepare them for extraction and identification, a task which was frequently interrupted by bad weather, attacks by skua gulls, and severe mental distress. On the 9th of December, having collected all the bodies they could find, the team was finally able to leave the site forever — but not before almost everyone involved in the mission had developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
Operation Overdue didn’t just recover human remains, however: alongside the body recovery efforts, police and investigators brought back as much physical evidence as they could carry, including charts and notebooks from the cockpit, passengers’ cameras with undeveloped film inside, and the plane’s two black boxes. By examining the contents of the flight recorders, conducting numerous interviews, and developing the photographs taken by passengers, Ron Chippindale and his team began to put together what they thought might have happened to Air New Zealand flight 901.
In Chippindale’s opinion, the sequence of events leading to the crash began when Captain Collins agreed to descend to 1,500 feet over the Ross Sea. According to materials provided at the briefing attended by the pilots on November 9th, the minimum safe altitude along most of the route was 16,000 feet, except for a small area where a descent to 6,000 feet was permitted so long as the cloud base was higher than 7,000 feet and there was no precipitation. In the area where the crew of flight 901 descended to 1,500 feet, 16,000 feet was the minimum safe altitude according to the rules under which the Antarctic flights had been approved by New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Division. As far as Chippindale was concerned, this was one of the smoking guns which would explain the crash. Obviously, the 16,000-foot minimum existed because of the 12,448-foot volcano only a few kilometers to the south, and it was the violation of this minimum which put the aircraft into danger.
After descending to 1,500 feet, Captain Collins apparently instructed the autopilot to lock onto the “nav track,” the series of coordinates programmed into the inertial navigation system by the pilots before the flight. Based on the coordinates provided to investigators, this nav track took the flight directly over Mount Erebus, and the plane stayed on this course perfectly until it collided with the mountain. Air New Zealand confirmed that this course was correct. However, the airline noted that it had updated the coordinates of the final waypoint the night before the flight, apparently to correct a 43-kilometer error in its recorded position. Prior to the update, the nav track ran down the middle of McMurdo Sound, not over Mount Erebus. According to Air New Zealand, this old nav track — which was used on all 14 previous Antarctic flights — had been in error all along, but no one had noticed because crews invariably stopped following the nav track and flew in VMC down McMurdo Sound before reaching the final waypoint. It was this earlier, erroneous flight path down the sound that had been presented to the pilots during their November 9th briefing, and there was no evidence that Captain Collins and First Officer Cassin were informed of the change prior to the departure of flight 901. Nevertheless, Chippindale needed evidence to show that the pilots expected the nav track to go one way or the other, and he didn’t have it.
Having established that the plane was on the programmed course when it collided with Mount Erebus, investigators still had to explain why no attempt was made to avoid the volcano. Although the so-called “Chippindale Report” is widely believed to state that the aircraft was in cloud when it struck the mountain, nowhere did it actually say this. Chippindale acknowledged evidence based on weather reports and photographs taken by passengers which clearly indicated that the plane was below the cloud base in good visibility conditions immediately prior to the crash. Instead, he suspected that the crew had fallen victim to a phenomenon known as white-out. Light filtering through the clouds was continuously reflected off both the snow-covered ground and the light-colored overcast layer, diffusing it evenly across the landscape. This created a white-out effect, where no shadows could be discerned, terrain features disappeared into a blank sheet of white, and the horizon became impossible to identify. Even though Collins and Cassin were flying right at Mount Erebus, the glaciated mountainside would have been indistinguishable from the flat sea ice below it and the cloud ceiling above it. And despite the fact that they would be operating in an environment where white-out was common, Air New Zealand had neglected to train its Antarctic pilots to recognize the phenomenon, even though Antarctic experts had suggested that they do so.
The pilots’ last line of defense therefore would have been the ground proximity warning system, which could be heard calling out “WHOOP WHOOP, PULL UP!” in the final six seconds before the crash. Unfortunately, the mountain slope rose up so suddenly beneath the plane that the warning was of little use. Although Captain Collins responded promptly to the alarm by applying maximum thrust and pulling up to climb, it was too late to avoid the mountain. The DC-10 plowed headlong into the glacier in a nose-high position, sending the shattered remains of the plane tumbling across the ice in a halo of fire. As far as pathologists were able to tell, all 257 passengers and crew died instantly upon impact. A single grainy photograph of a black liquid spraying across an airplane window, recovered from a passenger’s camera after the accident, immortalized the final second of their lives.
In summarizing their findings, Chippindale and his investigation team concluded that the main cause of the crash was the captain’s decision to remain below the minimum safe altitude while the crew was uncertain of its position. Chippindale also felt that the crew had missed several key indications that they were in danger, including the geographic coordinates for their position provided via the inertial navigation system; the relative location of Beaufort Island; and the fact that they struggled to maintain a radio connection with McMurdo in the final minutes of the flight, due to the presence of the volcano between their position and the tower. While acknowledging that the pilots had been provided with information suggesting that the nav track would take them down McMurdo Sound, when in reality it went over Mount Erebus, Chippindale dismissed the significance of this finding with a single sentence: “In the case of this crew,” he wrote, “no evidence was found to suggest that they had been misled by this error.”
To anyone who paid attention while reading the report, this statement made little sense. By definition, the pilots must not have known that they were flying toward Mount Erebus, or else they surely would have taken some action to avoid colliding with it. This was why Chippindale’s assertion that they were “uncertain of their position” was so critical to his findings. But as the report itself acknowledged, the pilots appeared “composed and confident” in the minutes immediately prior to the accident, and the transcript of the cockpit voice recording didn’t conclusively substantiate the assertion that they didn’t know where they were. Although various crewmembers had pointed out that conditions didn’t look good for low-level flight, and a plan to climb to a higher altitude seemed to be taking shape, neither Collins nor Cassin ever questioned their position relative to any obstacle.
All the statements appearing to express uncertainty about their location had been ascribed to the flight engineers in the back of the cockpit. But the quality of these conversations was extremely poor. Although the microphones picked up Collins, Cassin, and the public address announcements quite clearly, the back of the cockpit was a muddled mess of different conversations all running simultaneously, which included the two flight engineers and Peter Mulgrew, as well as statements made beyond the open cockpit door by both flight attendants and passengers. Among these various background comments, some of them attributed to flight engineers Brooks and Moloney, there appeared to be expressions of doubt as to the location of Mount Erebus, comments asking where they were, and other lines which seemed to contrast with the air of confidence given off by Collins and Cassin. These quotations were largely responsible for Chippindale’s belief that the crew was uncertain of their position, and indeed that was the impression that they gave to anyone who read the transcript.
However, some of Chippindale’s conclusions just didn’t add up. Any astute layman, upon reading the report, would at least be left wondering why Chippindale refused to say that the pilots were misled by the change to the nav track. Was it not equally possible that the pilots were certain of their position, but had it wrong? Couldn’t they have believed the nav track would take them down McMurdo Sound, as the map provided to them at the November 9th briefing had suggested? Did Air New Zealand really intend for the flight to pass directly over Mount Erebus? Considering the size of the change to the nav track, why didn’t Air New Zealand inform the pilots? The report didn’t answer any of these questions.
Shortly before the official publication of Chippindale’s report on the 12th of June 1980, New Zealand’s governor general, with approval from Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, appointed Justice Peter Mahon to head a Royal Commission of Inquiry tasked with finding the cause of the crash. (Such a move was typical in New Zealand in response to any incident causing injury or death to members of the public.) In a series of court hearings that stretched through fall 1980 and into the spring of 1981, Justice Mahon called upon dozens of witnesses, heard testimony from a wide array of experts, and viewed vast troves of evidence — much of which seemed to point to an entirely new conclusion about what happened to Air New Zealand flight 901.
The first point which Mahon felt needed clarification was the role of the last-minute change to the nav track. It emerged during testimony before the commission that the nav track — really just a list of coordinates that could be programmed into the plane’s navigation system — had been drafted in 1978 by Air New Zealand’s Chief Navigator, C. B. Hewitt. The plan at the time had been to route the track along a straight line stretching 600 kilometers from Cape Hallett all the way to the non-directional beacon (NDB) located at McMurdo Station, a route which would pass directly over Mount Erebus. But Hewitt admitted that he made two mistakes while typing up the set of coordinates. First, he used the coordinates of Williams Field, an airport near McMurdo Station, instead of the coordinates of the NDB, probably because Williams Field had been the point used for the first two flights in 1977. The actual difference between Williams Field and the McMurdo NDB was a relatively insignificant distance of about three kilometers. The second mistake was much more significant — he accidentally typed 164˚48’ east instead of 166˚48’ east, placing the waypoint a full 43 kilometers west of where the airline had intended. This location just so happened to be in the middle of McMurdo Sound, and any plane which followed this nav track would fly straight down the sound with Victoria Land on the right and Mount Erebus on the left. This path made enough sense that nobody questioned it, and the route down McMurdo Sound was incorporated into maps and other materials provided to pilots during each of the subsequent Antarctic briefings, including the one attended by Captain Collins and First Officer Cassin. Other pilots who attended the briefing confirmed that this was the route they were shown.
Over the next several Antarctic flights in 1978 and 1979, no one noticed the error in part because it looked intentional, but also because pilots invariably switched off the INS and flew by hand in the McMurdo area. But on the Antarctic flight on the 14th of November 1979, pilot Les Simpson happened to check the location of the final waypoint and found that it was much farther out in the sound than he expected it to be. His estimation based on the materials provided in the briefing suggested that it was about 16 kilometers west of McMurdo Station, but when he plotted out the coordinates he was surprised to discover that it was actually 43 kilometers out, not 16. After the flight, Simpson informed Ross Johnson, Air New Zealand’s director of Antarctic flights, and suggested that maybe the pilots should know about this.
Ross Johnson’s recollection of the telephone call with Les Simpson was quite different. He recalled Simpson suggesting that the final waypoint be changed to the McMurdo NDB, which Simpson denied. Johnson then met with Air New Zealand’s navigation department, and they looked at an old map of the nav track which predated the draft written up in 1978. This map indicated that the final waypoint was at Williams Field. Johnson therefore thought Simpson wanted him to change the location of the waypoint from Williams Field to the McMurdo NDB, a move which was consistent with Air New Zealand’s policy of using ground-based navigational aids as INS waypoints wherever possible. This was a minor adjustment of just three kilometers, which didn’t affect the proximity of the nav track to Mount Erebus. Therefore, Johnson didn’t think it was important to inform the pilots of the change, and the updated coordinates were provided to Captain Collins and First Officer Cassin on the day of the flight without anyone realizing that the final waypoint had actually been moved east by a full two degrees of longitude, significantly altering the terrain beneath the nav track. The pilots then entered the coordinates into the inertial navigation system, falsely assuming that they would guide the plane along the route down McMurdo Sound as they were shown during the briefing on the 9th of November. Amid the sea of numbers, neither pilot noticed that a single 4 had turned into a 6.
Mahon also carefully reviewed the cockpit voice recording and its various transcripts and came to believe that there was no evidence that any crewmembers had been uncertain of their position prior to the crash. Chippindale had relied entirely on transcriptions of poorly recorded statements heard in the background which did seem to point toward “mounting alarm” about the situation. In reality, however, these quotations attributed to the flight engineers might have been nothing more than wishful thinking. The pilots who initially transcribed the tape, listening carefully to distinguish the voices of their deceased colleagues, had not been able to make out much of what was said by the flight engineers, even with help from sound isolation technology. These lines had in fact been added by a British voice analysis expert whom Chippindale had called upon to clarify the transcript. Pilots who knew Gordon Brooks and Nicholas Moloney didn’t think these quotations were correct, but — contrary to protocol — they were never consulted about the changes made by the outside expert.
The preposterousness of some of the deciphered lines was perhaps best exemplified by the sentence, “Bit thick here, eh Bert,” a line which seemed to express doubt about the weather conditions. Originally marked as unintelligible by the group of Air New Zealand pilots, this line had been added by the British expert based on his interpretation of the faint voices heard on the tape. But there were several problems with this rendering. There was no evidence that the word “here” had ever been used, as there was no pause between “thick” and “eh.” There was also considerable doubt about the word “thick.” And finally, there was no one on the flight deck named “Bert,” even as a nickname, so who did the expert think the speaker was talking to? Colleagues of the dead pilots were outraged. How could the investigation have made such a mockery of the transcript? The Air Line Pilots Association even argued that Chippindale had altered or outright invented snippets of cockpit conversation to support his pre-conceived line of reasoning. Although Mahon didn’t think Chippindale had deliberately fabricated any part of the transcript, he agreed that there was no evidence that anyone had expressed any uncertainty about their location at any point before impact.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this was that when Captain Collins re-engaged the nav track as flight 901 descended toward 1,500 feet, he and the other crewmembers were certain that it would take them down McMurdo Sound. When they entered Lewis Bay on the north side of Ross Island, the two peninsulas jutting out on either side looked like the pair of capes marking the entrance to McMurdo Sound. Finally, the white-out which obscured the mountain sealed their fate. As the crew flew straight at the gently sloping side of the volcano, the absence of a clear horizon or any visible terrain features would have rendered the mountainside indistinguishable from the flat expanse of sea ice which they were expecting to see.
In the course of this part of the inquiry, Justice Mahon looked into why Ron Chippindale did not put any weight on the nav track change. As it turned out, Chippindale didn’t mean to say that such a possibility had been ruled out — only that he had not turned up any evidence by which he could conclude that Captain Collins had plotted out the coordinates provided to him at the briefing, which would in turn have led him to believe that the nav track went down McMurdo Sound.
Chippindale had in fact paid a visit to Captain Collins’ widow to ask for his atlas to see if he had plotted the coordinates there. Mrs. Collins told him that her husband had indeed plotted out the coordinates in the atlas the night before the flight, but had subsequently taken the atlas with him on the plane. However, Chippindale refused to believe her, insisting that the atlas must be somewhere in her house, even as Mrs. Collins grew more and more agitated. Eventually he left, convinced that Mrs. Collins had kept the atlas from him, and unable to prove that Captain Collins ever used it to plot out the nav track. Mahon decided to follow up on this matter and found that not only did Collins definitely take the atlas with him on the flight, both his wife and two daughters had seen him plotting the course on it the night before, and the daughters had even engaged in discussion with him about the track. According to them, the course he plotted most definitely went down McMurdo Sound, not over Mount Erebus. None of the lawyers for Air New Zealand or the Civil Aviation Division argued this point, and it was accepted as proof that Collins had indeed been relying on the outdated nav track when he departed for Antarctica.
The next matter to come before the commission was whether the crew had made an error in descending below the minimum safe altitude prescribed by the New Zealand Civil Aviation Division in its agreement with Air New Zealand. While Chippindale had simply taken the published minimums at face value, Mahon sought to understand what the pilots of Antarctic sightseeing flights actually did. He found that not only did every previous Antarctic flight descend below the minimum altitudes of 16,000 and 6,000 feet, they did so with approval from Air New Zealand behind the back of the Civil Aviation Division. In fact, the pilot who gave Antarctic briefings in 1978 and 1979 testified that he had told pilots to descend “to whatever level was authorized by McMurdo Air Traffic Control.”
Although airline representatives attempted to deny that they knew anything about flights descending below the minimum safe altitudes, considerable evidence suggested that this was a lie. In fact, this low flying was hardly a secret. Journalists who had written articles about their experiences on Antarctic flights included references to the aircraft’s height above the ground, which in some cases had been as low as 650 feet. Passenger photographs from previous flights had clearly been taken from low altitudes. An Air New Zealand publication advertised the sightseeing flights as “cruising at 2,000 feet,” and one article even quoted the airline’s director of flight operations praising the view from this altitude. (Said director of flight operations, in testimony before the commission, denied knowing that there had ever been a minimum safe altitude of 16,000 feet.) At one point, the president of McDonnell Douglas flew on one of the Antarctic flights and was so impressed that he wrote a story about it and sent it to his friend Morrie Davis, the CEO of Air New Zealand. Naturally, his story included references to flight as low as 3,000 feet. The story was published in Traveling Times, a magazine owned by Air New Zealand, and a copy was sent to every household in the country. Incredibly, Morrie Davis and other members of Air New Zealand’s high-level management all claimed that they had never read the story, even though it had been sent to Davis personally by an important CEO, was distributed by the company, and was delivered individually to the family homes of each of the executives, along with everyone else in New Zealand. Mahon was left completely incredulous by the airline’s dubious attempts to suggest that the pilots had been acting without the airline’s knowledge or permission when they chose to descend below 16,000 feet.
This blatant obfuscation was rendered even more pathetic because Justice Mahon in fact agreed that flight down to 1,500 feet would have been justified. After all, these were sightseeing flights, and in clear conditions there was nothing dangerous about taking the plane down to such a low altitude in order to give the passengers a better view. A minimum descent altitude of 1,500 feet would have been permitted under New Zealand law, and Air New Zealand certainly would have received approval from the Civil Aviation Division to use such a minimum, had they asked, but they never did. Instead, the airline simply disregarded the previously agreed minimums, then feigned ignorance whenever the Civil Aviation Division received reports of low-flying airplanes in the McMurdo area.
Similarly, Justice Mahon questioned why Air New Zealand changed the nav track to overfly Mount Erebus in the first place. From a sightseeing perspective, flying down the middle of McMurdo Sound was clearly superior, since it afforded the passengers a much better view of the mountain. It also would have been safer, since no special effort would have been needed to avoid the high terrain — not to mention the fact that Mount Erebus is a highly active volcano which frequently sends columns of steam several thousand feet up into the air, directly into the path of any overflying aircraft. The absurdity of the supposedly correct nav track led Justice Mahon to believe that there might not have been a typo at all — that Air New Zealand in fact intended to send flights down McMurdo Sound all along.
This view was supported by the fact that there were no documents whatsoever which could corroborate the story provided by C.B. Hewitt and Ross Johnson, and the number of mistakes that had to have occurred for their story to be true — Mahon counted eight — was implausibly high. Mahon noted that the route over Mount Erebus had been used only in an initial proof-of-concept flight to test the suitability of the navigation system for use in Antarctica, and it was this flight path which received approval from the Civil Aviation Division. A new edition of the Ross Sea Chart, which would depict all flight paths in the area including Air New Zealand’s, was scheduled to be released soon, and in Justice Mahon’s opinion, the airline wanted to make sure the chart showed the same flight path that the Civil Aviation Division had earlier approved. The failure to inform the pilots of the change therefore was not because the navigation department thought it was a minor alteration, but because, in the absence of any proper documentation of the move, they simply forgot. The complicated story about the typo, Mahon felt, was made up to cover for whoever suffered that crucial memory lapse. But without any physical evidence documenting what actually happened, Mahon did not make a determination on this matter, and the story of the typo is still the most commonly referenced explanation for the origin of the nav track change.
The weight of the evidence presented before the Royal Commission also suggested that Air New Zealand had not prepared adequately to conduct Antarctic flights. The first flights were arranged on such short notice that some omissions were inevitable, but the initial guidelines set up for those first two flights in February 1977 were scarcely altered over the subsequent years. The briefings given to pilots were missing key information, such as the authority of the McMurdo air traffic controllers, maps of the topography in the McMurdo area, procedures for making an emergency landing in the Antarctic, or how to survive after successfully performing such a landing. Nor was there any discussion of white-out, which Air New Zealand appeared not to fully understand, and which had been written off by the company as operationally irrelevant because none of the flights would land in Antarctica. Some of the briefing materials were not internally consistent; for example, written descriptions of the route stated that the flight path would proceed directly from Cape Hallett to the McMurdo NDB, but the accompanying maps showed the track proceeding to a random point in McMurdo Sound.
Clearly, the amount of planning that the airline had done before sending airliners full of people to Antarctica was deeply inadequate. Contributing to these failures were deficiencies in the airline’s administrative structure which resulted in spotty or non-existent communication between departments, even regarding critical matters like the change to the nav track. Nor was there a paper trail for anything, as all orders from the CEO on down were given verbally with no accompanying documentation. There wasn’t even so much as a memorandum outlining the proposal to conduct Antarctic flights in the first place.
Having heard all of this evidence, Justice Mahon was forced to conclude that Ron Chippindale had gotten it wrong. Captain Collins and First Officer Cassin didn’t make any serious mistakes; rather, the responsibility for the disaster lay entirely with Air New Zealand’s last minute change to the nav track and its failure to inform the pilots. In closing statements, Air New Zealand argued that the change to the nav track was irrelevant, because Captain Collins was responsible for keeping track of his own position. Mahon disagreed: in all likelihood, he wrote, Collins had been keeping track of his position, by continually checking his distance from the next waypoint and plotting it on the map of where he thought the nav track would take him. He was not uncertain of his position, nor was anyone else on the flight deck, and he had no reason to question the assumption that the nav track was the same one that the airline had given him on the 9th of November. Captain Collins, whose name and reputation had been dragged through the mud by the media in the aftermath of the Chippindale report, was in Mahon’s opinion the innocent victim of a colossal corporate mistake.
But while Mahon conducted hearing after hearing in the interest of finding the cause of the crash, he began to notice an entirely different story developing in the background. Some of the evidence presented by Air New Zealand and its lawyers struck him as questionable if not outright false, and he began to grow concerned that the airline was deliberately trying to deceive him. Ross Johnson, the director of Antarctic flights, claimed he had told the pilots during the November 9th briefing that the nav track went over Mount Erebus, a claim which everyone else who was present fervently denied. CEO Morrie Davis had twisted himself into a knot trying to deny that he knew of flights below the minimum altitude. Captain Collins’ flight logbook, which had been recovered from the crash site in good condition and handed over to the police, was presented before the inquiry with its pages having been inexplicably removed. Paperwork disappeared from First Officer Cassin’s house and was never seen again, and someone broke into Captain Collins’ home and stole passports and documents, leaving valuables untouched.
It also appeared that Air New Zealand had undertaken a shredding operation shortly after the crash, destroying all extraneous copies of any documents deemed related to the disaster, save for those kept in a single file where they could not be leaked to the media. Some of the very same people whom Mahon would later implicate in the disaster had been in charge of deciding which documents would be handed over to the investigation and which would be shredded. As the hearings progressed, Mahon grew so concerned that he arranged a private meeting with Air New Zealand’s legal counsel, during which he told them to be aware that some of their evidence would not stand up to scrutiny.
After extensive cross-examination of witnesses, Justice Mahon eventually concluded that not only had Air New Zealand been trying to deceive him, it had in fact known of the true cause of the crash since the night of the 28th of November, and had thereafter engaged in a frantic effort to cover up its involvement. To those who knew of the nav track change, it would have been obvious that this had played a key role in the crash. Executives feared financial fallout: at the time, Air New Zealand was in dire economic straits, and it expected to have to pay out tens of thousands of dollars in compensation to each of the victims’ families. If it was found that the company had engaged in willful misconduct, it could expect to see those settlements doubled. It was thus in their interest to avoid any perception that the company might be at fault in the crash. Documents were therefore rounded up and shredded to prevent any information about the nav track change from being leaked to the press. When the Auckland Star found out about it anyway in early 1980, CEO Morrie Davis issued a straight-faced denial of the entire story.
Over the course of the Royal Commission of Inquiry, this behavior fueled an increasingly bitter feud between Air New Zealand management and the Air Line Pilots’ Association. Violent verbal altercations broke out between the two sides as each sought to blame the crash wholly on the other. Air New Zealand began to break proper protocol by denying ALPA a chance to review evidence prior to its presentation before the commission. Justice Mahon tried his best to stay above the fray, but he couldn’t help but let the ugly dispute start to get under his skin.
As the Commission of Inquiry drew to a close, Justice Mahon retreated to a rural vacation home to hammer out his final report. In his righteous, flamboyant style, he penned what might be the only aircraft accident report in history that could be described as literary — in dramatic terms, he laid out not only what he thought happened to flight 901, but how exactly Air New Zealand had tried to stop him from finding out. At the very crescendo of his masterwork, he penned the lines which would change New Zealand forever. “No judicial officer,” he began, “ever wishes to be compelled to say that he has listened to evidence which is false. He always prefers to say, as the hundreds of judgments which I have written will illustrate, that he cannot accept the relevant explanation, or that he prefers a contrary version set out in the evidence.
“But in this case, the palpably false sections of evidence which I heard could not have been the result of any mistake, or faulty recollection. They originated, I am compelled to say, in a pre-determined plan of deception. They were very clearly part of an attempt to conceal a series of disastrous administrative blunders and so, in regard to the particular items of evidence to which I have referred, I am forced reluctantly to say that I had to listen to an orchestrated litany of lies.”
The release of Justice Mahon’s report on the 27th of April 1981 ignited a political firestorm the likes of which New Zealand had never seen. Mahon’s sensational accusations shocked the nation, stirring it forth from a perhaps naïve presumption that gross corporate malfeasance and malicious conspiracies only happened in other countries. Copies of Mahon’s report flew off the shelves of bookstores all over New Zealand. Overnight, the narrative shifted: Captain Collins had been exculpated, and Air New Zealand suddenly became the focus of intense public anger. CEO Morrie Davis immediately faced calls to resign, which he defiantly rebuffed, accusing Justice Mahon of prosecuting a false case against the airline. But his heavy-handed, out-of-touch response to the report threatened to irreversibly harm Air New Zealand’s reputation, and within a week the board of directors forced him to step down.
The resignation of Morrie Davis did little to stop the ugly political slugfest that the report had ignited. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, leader of the National Party, had many friends in executive positions at Air New Zealand, and the accusations made in the Royal Commission’s report left him positively apoplectic. He publicly attacked Justice Mahon (whose appointment he had personally approved), acting on the hot-headed advice of his personal lawyer, who also happened to sit on Air New Zealand’s board of directors. He disparaged the findings of the report and blamed the pilots for the crash, which outraged large segments of the public. The move reeked of corruption, and the opposition Labour Party immediately accused Prime Minister Muldoon of covering up for his friends in high places. Within days, it was apparent that Justice Peter Mahon had turned the crash of Air New Zealand flight 901 into one of the most salient issues in national politics.
Air New Zealand was even more incensed by the accusations than Prime Minister Muldoon, and the company swiftly transitioned into a counterattack. It could not directly appeal Mahon’s findings, since the Royal Commission of Inquiry was only a fact-finding mission and not a criminal trial. But they could try to get Mahon on a technicality. On the 20th of May, Air New Zealand asked the High Court of New Zealand to conduct a judicial review of Mahon’s judgment. The airline’s lawyers argued that Justice Mahon had committed a “breach of natural justice” by alleging a conspiracy without allowing Air New Zealand to present potentially exculpatory evidence before the commission.
The High Court of New Zealand deferred the case to the Court of Appeals, which ultimately sided with Air New Zealand. Accepting the grounds put forward by the airline, the court unanimously ruled that such a breach of natural justice had indeed occurred when Mahon wrote an appendix to the report which ordered Air New Zealand to pay for more than half the cost of the inquiry. According to proper legal procedure, he should have informed Air New Zealand that such a ruling could be made, so that they could argue their case against the penalty. The five-member court also agreed that while Justice Mahon might have had the right under the rules of the Commission to allege a cover-up, his “vehement and pungent” denouncements of the conduct of individual witnesses was uncalled for and outside the bounds of his mission. As for whether a conspiracy had in fact taken place, the court could not agree on a unanimous position. Three justices did not find grounds to throw out the allegation, while two argued that not only was the finding outside the scope of his mission, it was also factually incorrect. These two justices (who both had relatives who worked for Air New Zealand, but had not recused themselves) excoriated Justice Mahon, declared that his evidence was wrong, and publicly questioned his capability as a judge.
Deeply hurt by their words and still convinced he was in the right, Mahon appealed to the Privy Council in London, which ultimately upheld the ruling. The Law Lords of the Privy Council agreed that an allegation of a conspiracy was outside the scope of the Commission of Inquiry, and that the evidence used to come to that conclusion was insufficient. However, the Lords did take pains to note that they were sympathetic to Mahon and his cause, and came to this conclusion with great reluctance.
The decisions of the two courts did not end the debate around Justice Mahon’s findings. As the phrase “an orchestrated litany of lies” imbued itself into New Zealand’s popular consciousness, the political debate continued. Mahon attempted to resign, but his resignation was rejected. He began giving regular television interviews, in which he insinuated that Prime Minister Muldoon had not read his report and was reflexively defending his friends at Air New Zealand. Ron Chippindale tried to re-insert himself into the debate, releasing follow-up reports claiming that he was right and Mahon was wrong, which were duly ignored. And the Labour Party started calling for Air New Zealand to apologize for its actions during the inquiry. Labour Party president Jim Anderton even attended an Air New Zealand board meeting, asked the chair of the board of directors to apologize to the victims, and refused to allow the meeting to progress until he did so. The board chair ended up calling security to forcibly eject Anderton from the building.
While the debate raged in New Zealand’s halls of power, on the streets the narrative was different. The public overwhelmingly supported Justice Mahon, sometimes to a fanatical extent. Ordinary people had flowers sent to Mahon’s house and paid for his meals after recognizing him in restaurants. The judge had found himself playing the unlikely role of folk hero — he had “stuck it to the man” and people loved him for it. Of course, every folk hero has a corresponding folk villain, and that part fell to former Air New Zealand CEO Morrie Davis. Like a perverse mirror image of the adulation afforded to Mahon, people sent hate mail and death threats to Davis’s house, penned anonymous letters encouraging him to commit suicide, and bullied his daughter in university.
Amid the storm of controversy that followed the crash, the safety implications of the disaster largely disappeared from the public eye. But that didn’t mean there weren’t lessons that needed to be learned. The largest single change that came from the crash of flight 901 was the indefinite cancellation of all future Antarctic sightseeing flights by both Air New Zealand and Qantas, the only carriers offering such services. The fact that Air New Zealand had lost a plane full of people on only its fifteenth flight to Antarctica was testament to the fact that the mindset needed to operate these flights safely did not yet exist. It was not until the 1990s that Qantas eventually resumed Antarctic sightseeing flights with much more robust safety measures in place. Air New Zealand stated that it had no plans to do the same, “for obvious reasons.”
Ron Chippindale, to his credit, also issued quite a few safety recommendations alongside his official report. These included suggestions that aircraft engaged in long-range operations over remote areas carry emergency locator beacons (such equipment is standard on all aircraft today); that New Zealand adopt a cockpit voice recorder configuration, in use in Britain at the time, which provided better audio quality; that the number of people on the flight deck not exceed the number of seats therein, except during cruise; and (a little incredulously) that flight plans for commercial passenger flights refrain from routing aircraft over the tops of active volcanoes. However, the vast majority of the recommendations concerned the improvement of safety on Antarctic flights, which proved irrelevant as no New Zealand air carrier ever again offered any.
Despite its magnitude, the crash of Air New Zealand flight 901 left a legacy not of safety improvements but of political strife. Much of that legacy originates from the words of Justice Peter Mahon, who died only a few years after the release of his report. His decisions polarized New Zealand’s aviation industry for decades to come, but many questions about those decisions remain unanswered. For example, how much of the debate surrounding the Mahon report was really just political theater? Years later, both the chair of the Air New Zealand board of directors and former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon would privately confide that the airline bore at least 60% of the blame. And was there really a conspiracy to hide the truth — as Mahon so famously put it, an orchestrated litany of lies?
To this day, we still don’t know for sure. Air New Zealand and the New Zealand government finally apologized for their actions on the 40th anniversary of the crash, in November 2019, long after most of the major players in the story had passed on. But the apology didn’t come with any new information about whether Air New Zealand executives actually conspired to mislead Chief Inspector Chippindale and, subsequently, Justice Mahon. In the opinion of many experts today, the answer is “probably not.” Both Chippindale and Mahon relied on testimony from witnesses who might have borne some portion of the blame for the disaster, and all would understandably have been reluctant to incriminate themselves. If enough witnesses independently decided to protect their own skin, it could have looked like an orchestrated effort, when in fact the litany of lies was entirely unorchestrated. People who knew Peter Mahon also felt that while his heart was in the right place, he was something of a drama queen, and his compulsively readable report with its shocking conclusion was imbued from the start with a sort of journalistic sensationalism.
Nevertheless, Mahon certainly did not think that Chippindale, despite his questionable conclusions, ever conspired with Air New Zealand to cover up the truth. Quite on the contrary, he praised Chippindale for conducting a relatively thorough investigation of an accident that was extremely difficult to investigate. In hindsight, the fact that this was the first time his agency had ever investigated a major accident largely explains Chippindale’s failure to pursue some of the leads which eventually unraveled his conclusions.
There is perhaps no other commercial plane crash which inserted itself more thoroughly into the collective consciousness of a nation than Air New Zealand flight 901. Even New Zealanders born long after the accident know Justice Mahon’s infamous concluding line. Pilots still debate the cause of the crash in online forums and magazine editorials, refusing to let a 42-year-old case settle into the annals of history. Maybe this fascination lingers because flight 901 is the only airline disaster ever to occur in Antarctica, or maybe because Mahon’s report stirred up such powerful emotions, or because some of Mahon’s more sensational allegations haven’t stood the test of time. But most experts agree that the core of his argument, that Air New Zealand was at fault in the crash, remains as solid as ever.
In the aftermath of the Royal Commission of Inquiry, kiwi comedy duo McPhail and Gadsby took a serious social risk and wrote a song about the crash and its fallout. The most memorable line of the humorous ditty went, “But time is like a DC-10 — amazing how it flies! We’ll soon forget the orchestrated litany of lies.” It is perhaps ironic that the orchestrated litany of lies has in fact become the most lasting cultural legacy of the whole flight 901 saga. As the disaster fades ever deeper into memory, it might serve us well to also remember the 257 souls who perished on that icy mountainside, and the cold, unfeeling wind which still sweeps eternally across the hellish place in which they died.
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