Airplanes · Disasters · Exploration · New Zealand

November 28, 1979 – Sightseeing Plane Crashes in Antarctica With No Survivors

Image Source: Youtube

Antarctica is a massive frozen southern continent covered in ice. It is the home to the South Pole and penguins. It is the fifth largest continent at 5,400,000 square miles (14,000,000 square kilometers). It is nearly twice the size of Australia and 1/3 the size of Asia.

98% of Antarctica is covered in ice and the layers of ice hold thousands of years of information.

Captain James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle with his ships the HMS Resolution and Adventure in 1773.

Now this guys I really like –he did bad things like everyone else– and I have always had a soft spot for Captain Cook.

The first documented landing on Antarctica was on February 7, 1821 by an American sealer John Davis. After the several explorers charted and explored the Antarctic regions.

Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer and his crew became the first to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd became the first to fly over the South Pole on November 29, 1929. The Admiral made several more expeditions to Antarctica to fly over the pole, and to map the continent.

On Halloween day 1956 US Navy Rear Admiral George J. Dufek became the second person to step foot on the South Pole when he landed a plan there.

This landing of an airplane at the South Pole really piqued the curiosity of the world about this strange continent to the south.

In the 1950’s Argentina and Chile would take tourists on naval transports down to the northern edges of the continent.

In 1966 Swedish explorer Lars Eric Linblad took the first tourist onto the continent. The world’s first expedition ship the MS Lindblad Explorer started the expedition cruise industry in 1969.

Antarctica has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Since 1969, the average number of visitors to the continent has increased from several hundred to over 34,000 today. All activities in Antarctica are heavily regulated by the Antarctic Treaty for environmental protection purposes and the industry is largely managed by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).

In 1977, both Australia and New Zealand started to offer scenic flights to Antarctica through Qantas and Air New Zealand. These flights would not land. They would be return flights lasting 12 -14 hours with 4 hours spent circling over the continent.

These flights were extremely popular with tourists and could be incredibly dangerous. The vast white emptiness the ice shelfs do not provide any visual landmarks. Because you are flying over the south pole, magnetic compasses do not work.

Air New Zealand DC-10 tail number ZK-NZP
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On November 28, 1979 Air New Zealand flight 901 –A DC-10 with tail number ZK-NZP crashed into Mt. Erebus killing all 257 people on board. As a result of the many high-profile crashes of DC-10s during the 1970’s it was assumed the the plane suffered mechanical failure.

The five crew members were not experienced with flying over the continent. The heart of this disaster was a computer flight programming change.

The crew was briefed and went through mock flights 19 days prior to their flying flight 901. The pilots had to ensure that they were reaching the appropriate way points during the flight, and the aircraft computer would handle the flying over McMurdo Sound.

Captain Jim Collins plotted the course at home for his daughter showing her McMurdo sound and telling her that they would keep close to the western side.

The night before the flight, engineers fixed what they thought was a minor glitch in the programming. The engineers knew that the route had them flying over Mt. Erebus, so in their mind the two mile change was not a big deal. The new course took the flight over Mt. Erebus which was a 30 mile change to the flight plan not a two mile change. Captain Collins had no idea that he was flying anywhere near Mt. Erebus.

Originally, the route was over Mt Erebus, and the first few flights were planned and operated that way. Most of these initial flights were able to operate away from the planned nav track in brilliant weather conditions ensuring good surface and horizon definition. Then, some 18 months after Antarctic flights began, 14 months prior to the accident, the airline computerised its method of storing and producing flight plans. At this time, an error was made; the data entry operator keyed a 4 instead of a 6 into the machine, and this error had never been noticed as such. The effect of this erroneous keystroke was to shift the route nearly 30 miles to the west, so that it ran down McMurdo Sound. One of the reasons that no-one saw this as an error was that it seemed a logical change to make; shifting the route away from an active volcano and down over the flat sea ice of McMurdo Sound actually produced a better, safer result. This produced an end waypoint near the Dailey Islands, and was sometimes referred to as the “Dailey Islands” waypoint. But previous aircraft seldom  had to fly all the way to that point. It became almost normal practice to disengage this mode of navigation, known as “navigation (or nav.) mode” and fly in “heading mode” which, rather than fly along the “nav. track,” allowed the crew to steer simply by selecting directions to fly at random, that is, pointing the aircraft in the direction they wanted to go. This facilitated sightseeing.

Expected vs. Actual flight paths
Expected vs. Actual flight paths
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As Captain Collins was flying over the Ross Ice Shelf weather was a substantial factor. He was supposed to keep his aircraft over 6,000 feet.

Aside: They blame Captain Collins for this accident but his flying below 6,000 feet would not have mattered.

The 14 months of prior flights did not end in disaster because those flights all took place with clear skies and good weather.

Captain Collins “knew” that he was over the McMurdo Sound so when he reduced the altitude to 1,500 feet to get below the storm he should have been fine.

When flight 901 cleared the clouds it flew directly into the side of the 12,444 foot tall volcano at 300 mph killing everyone onboard.

The crash of flight 901 is the loneliest aircraft disaster in aviation history. The crash site was 40 miles from the American research base, McMurdo Station. It took nine hours for US Navy aircraft to reach the crash site. The crash site was a brown smear on the side of the mountain.

Despite its extreme isolation, the crash of TE901 is one of the most comprehensively documented aviation catastrophes. Investigations revealed that the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder “black boxes” were working and information retrieved from the recorders was decipherable. Almost every passenger on the sightseeing flight carried a camera and up to the last second shot films, which were painstakingly salvaged and carefully developed. Antarctic weather scientists had monitored local weather patterns, and received sophisticated film from satellites providing much information.

The search and rescue effort was finally stopped on December 10, 1979. Personal accounts of the search effort can be found here.

The chief investigator Air New Zealand’s Captain Gordon Vette went out of his way to understand, and to help others understand the white-out effects in the area.

The weather played the largest part of the accident, and the investigation went a long way to preventing the same kind of accident from happening again. Air New Zealand, and Qantas airline stopped flying sightseeing tours over Antarctica.

Tourism flights over Antarctica resumed again in 1994

Additional Resources:

I had wanted to include photographs of the flight crew. I thought that is would not be fair to the passengers if I did that. You can find photos in the Roll of Remembrance link above.



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