Cpt. Gordon Vette

A young Alwyn Gordon Vette joined Air New Zealand (then Tasman Empire Airways Ltd) in 1948 as an engineering apprentice, starting his flying training at the Auckland Aero Club at the same time. In 1953 he graduated from engineering school with the Geoffrey Roberts prize for top apprentice. At the same time he accepted a short service commission in the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a flying instructor, working through to the top military and civilian instructor categories (A1 and A, respectively). In 1958 he rejoined Air New Zealand as a first officer on the DC-6, and also obtained his Airline Transport Pilot Licence and Flight Navigator Licence at this time. Only two short years later, Gordon obtained his first command, on the DC-6.

Rapid progression followed. In 1964 he was appointed to Check and Training Captain, DC-3 and Electra, and in 1965 to Check and Training Captain, DC-8. During the period 1964-66 he served as President of the New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association, representing New Zealand at a number of IFALPA conferences and meetings during this time. In 1972 he became a Check and Training Captain, DC-10. Shortly thereafter he was appointed to Flight Instructor, DC-10.

On December 21st, 1978, Gordon was in command of NZ103, a short flight from Fiji to New Zealand. During the flight he and his crew became aware of a light aircraft in trouble on a ferry flight somewhere between American Samoa and Norfolk Is. The pilot of the light aircraft was experiencing navigational difficulty due to a failed ADF. Utilising his navigator’s licence, and that of another navigator who just happened to be travelling as a passenger on the flight, Gordon and his crew issued instructions to the pilot that enabled them to determine that the lost aircraft was somewhere south and west of the DC-10. After issuing further instructions they eventually located the aircraft and helped guide it to a safe landing at Norfolk Is. The incident is remembered in Stanley Stewart’s book Emergency! Crisis on the Flight Deck and in the 1993 American TV movie Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771, starring Robert Loggia who played Gordon, and Scott Bakula as the lost pilot. For this outstanding feat of leadership and airmanship Gordon would receive the Johnston Memorial Award from the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators, and the President's award from McDonnell-Douglas.

By late 1979, Gordon was one of the most senior captains in Air New Zealand. On November 28th of that year he was in Honolulu about to operate a service to Los Angeles when the dreadful news reached him of an Air New Zealand DC-10 that had crashed into Mt Erebus, Antarctica with the loss of all 257 persons on board. Once over the shock, Gordon became disturbed at the speed with which the investigation seemed to be moving toward ‘pilot error’, based on the conclusion that the aircraft must have been flying in cloud at low level in order to have hit a mountain. Knowing that such an act would have required an unlikely level of simultaneous incompetence on behalf of all the crew members, Gordon embarked on a crusade to find the truth. But, as Gordon well knew, sometimes the truth comes at a high personal price. For him, this was to cost him his job, friendships of 30 years’ standing, and ultimately, his health. But find the truth, he did.

Captain Vette receives an IFALPA President Citation from IFALPA President Carlos Limon in Auckland, March 2009.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry into the accident was set up under the Hon P.T. Mahon, a judge of the High Court of New Zealand. The work that Gordon did for the Commission was summarised in his 1983 book Impact Erebus. Despite establishment pressures originating from the Prime Minister and filtering down through all levels of society in New Zealand, Gordon ensured that things such as ‘human factors,’ very much a new term back then, entered the lexicon of aviation world-wide, where they have remained ever since. He was the first to propose that a forward looking Ground Proximity Warning System be developed, and today we have such a tool.

A raft of awards would follow. In 1984 he was made an honorary Life Member of NZALPA, and in 1991 was the inaugural recipient of the Jim Collins Memorial Award for Exceptional Contribution to Flight Safety. In March 2009, Gordon was the recipient of a Presidential Citation from the International Federation of Air line Pilots' Associations (IFALPA) for his contribution to aviation safety.