In 1989, during a speech commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Erebus tragedy, NZALPA President Peter Hensby-Bennett announced the creation of a memorial trophy to be called the “NZALPA Aviation Safety Trophy”. The trophy was to be awarded for significant contributions to aviation safety or for exceptional valour during an emergency.
In 1991 the family of Captain Jim Collins, pilot in command of the Erebus flight, joined with NZALPA to model the Aviation Safety Trophy into the Collins Family Award (since renamed the Jim Collins Memorial Award) for Exceptional Contribution to Aviation Safety. Collins’ eldest daughter presented the new award to NZALPA on 8th October of that year. Kathryn Collins said: “As a conscientious pilot, Captain Jim Collins was always concerned with the absolute safety of his aircraft, passengers and crew and the maintenance of their well-being. As a family, we feel that our father and husband would wish that anyone who had made a significant contribution to aircraft and aviation safety should be encouraged and shown the recognition that they deserve.” Nominations were called for the first conferment of the Award planned for November 28, 1991 – 12 years to the day following the accident.
The first awardee was none other than Captain A. Gordon Vette, discoverer of the optical phenomenon “sector whiteout” and the prime mover towards discovering the deeper malaise affecting the air transportation industry that allowed the Erebus tragedy to occur. Gordon sacrificed his career in this endeavour. While that would have destroyed most men he was hardly fazed, going on to found the Captain A.G. Vette Flight Safety Research Fund. This body’s first task was to find ways in which a forward-facing Ground Proximity Warning System could be developed. As a last resort, had it been available the Erebus accident may have been prevented. Nowadays we have just such a tool, Terrain Awareness Warning System. Up until March 2009, there have been no “controlled flight into terrain” accidents to any aircraft fitted with this invaluable safety device since their introduction in 1996. Gordon’s vision that such a device would indeed provide a strong safety net has been proven by this simple statistic.
Gordon was also instrumental in organising a mid-ocean rescue in 1978 while he was en-route to New Zealand from Fiji whilst in command of his DC10. A ferry pilot in a single-engined Cessna 188 aircraft had become lost en-route from Pago Pago to Norfolk Island. On being informed of this Gordon turned his airliner around and began looking for him. By using old navigation rules of thumb he managed to get close enough to the aircraft to establish VHF radio contact with him and direct him to Norfolk Island. The story was told in the film “Mercy Mission” (1993) starring Scott Bakula as the lost pilot Jay Prochnow, (in the film called Jay Parkins), and Robert Loggia playing Gordon.