The crash of Flight 901 was the loneliest of the world’s air disasters. On 28 November 1979, the Air New Zealand DC10 with 257 people aboard took off from Auckland International Airport and flew 2000 miles southwards to the Antarctic, to plunge into the slopes of Mt Erebus, a 20,000-foot volcano. Nine hours later, a US Navy aircraft from McMurdo Station sighted the wreckage – a brown smear on the ice. Nobody survived.
Yet for all its isolation it was one of the best documented catastrophes. The aircraft’s electronics sensors were working and decipherable. Almost every passenger on the sightseeing trip carried cameras and shot film up to the last second. This was a painstakingly salvaged and developed. And Antarctic weather scientists were monitoring local weather patterns, and receiving sophisticated film from satellites. But still the cause eluded investigators. Why should a skilled crew, with an Antarctic explorer on the flight deck, fly straight into a mountain wall in clear weather? The crew was blamed. It took nearly two years for the fog to lift from the mystery. Gordon Vette, a fellow pilot of Captain Jim Collins, the man in command, could not accept the ‘pilot error’ verdict, and began his own study and investigations.
A Royal Commission headed by a forthright High Court Judge, dug deep into the planning and execution of the flight.
The result was a story which is eerie in its implications for airmen. Even with the most modern instruments available, nature can still spring traps beyond prediction and even the best run airline could become the victim of a computer error.
Pilot, qualified navigator and engineer, Gordon Vette’s involvement with aviation is as broad as it is deep. His research into the Erebus disaster was prompted by his strong sense of fair play and the sure knowledge that a re-enactment of the tragedy can only be prevented by finding its true cause, regardless of how much masking takes place as a result of political or economic considerations. His scientific investigations of the accident brought to light the way a sequence of error and unforeseen natural phenomena combined to entrap the Flight 901 crew.
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