The Search for TE901

A US Helicopter at the crash site in 1979.

Many people will remember waiting for news on the night of 28 November 1979. Several hours had passed since the last radio communication with Air New Zealand Antarctic sightseeing flight TE901. From the final communication with the aircraft , at approximately 12.30pm NZDT, the last known position of the missing aircraft was established as 38 nautical miles north of McMurdo Station.

At 03.43pm the United States began its search for flight TE901 after all attempts to establish radio communication had failed. A US launched LC-130 aircraft and two UH-1N helicopters scoured McMurdo Sound. They were joined a half hour later, at 4.16pm by six more aircraft launched from McMurdo Station.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force P3-B Orion left Auckland to search for the wreckage in the waters between Antarctica and New Zealand. A United States Air Force (USAF) Starlifter captained by Major Bruce Gumble,followed TE901's flight path on it's return to Christchurch from McMurdo Station. Upon arrival at Christchurch the crew of the Starlifter was swarmed by the media. However they were not bearers of good news.

Major Gumble recalled their journey into McMurdo in the interview that night:

“We flew essentially the same route, we descended below the clouds for a landing at McMurdo and we hadn’t heard from them for some time and there was getting to be some suspicion that something might have gone wrong. So we took a look as we went in; we saw nothing.”

In New Zealand, families of the victims had arrived at the international terminals at both Auckland and Christchurch airports. Some of the relatives had already heard the news, others learned of the situation as they arrived at the airport to collect their friends and relatives after what was supposed to be the “flight of a lifetime”. Information available to the relatives at the airports was limited to, “The flight is late and we have not been able to reach them on the radio since midday.” (Hickson, 1980).

In response to the lack of success in locating the aircraft,  the decision was made to expand the search area. The revised area included the east and west of Ross Island where, later that night, they found the wreckage. 

Over the course of the evening, the American military sent several situation report updates (SitReps) to their commanders in the United States and to key people in New Zealand. Situation reports, such as the one below, update commanders on current progress and record the resources used in a search. 

ANZ CEO Morrie Davis announcing that TE901 was believed lost,
28 November 1979.

At an Air New Zealand press conference at 10.00pm, CEO Morrie Davis officially announced that flight TE901 was believed lost because, by then, it had exhausted its fuel supply. 

It was 11.50pm when Commander Victor Pesces and the crew of his ski-equipped C-130 Hercules sighted a black ‘smear’ on the slopes of Mt Erebus about 10 miles away. They moved closer, and made two passes. The crew established it was likely to be the remains of TE901. However, due to weather conditions they could not land at the site. They radioed the position to their commanders in Antarctica, along with the recommendation to dispatch a helicopter to the crash site ASAP.

At 1.25am on November 29 1979, the charred wreckage was formally identified as the remains of flight TE901 by an American helicopter, GENTLE 17, which could not land at the crash site due to poor surface conditions. The crew reported: “Debris at crash site being blown by wind. No apparent survivors.” This statement confirmed the worst fears of the New Zealand public, the families of the victims, and Air New Zealand. The tragedy ultimately became New Zealand’s worst air disaster - a distinction it still holds, 30 years later. 

With the wreckage located, the priorities became the search for survivors and the two flight recorders. The first men at the crash site on the morning of 29 November 1979 were New Zealand mountaineers Daryll Thompson, Hugh Logan and Keith Woodford. They were confronted by a horrific scene scattered with personal possessions and human remains.  

The men established a ‘base camp’ for the recovery operation: eight polar tents, sleeping bags and food for 20 people for a few days. That evening they were joined by the recovery team from New Zealand, but bad weather hampered search efforts for the next two days.