One of the worst air disasters happened in Antarctica?

That was The Cupcake’s reaction the first time he stumbled across the story of Air New Zealand TE901, an Antarctic tourism flight that took off for the remotest of continents on November 28, 1979 and never returned.  Loaded with 257 passengers and crew and, unfortunately, a computerized flight plan that was different from the one used to brief the pilots prior to the flight, the Air New Zealand DC-10 simply vanished north of the American research base, McMurdo Station, just off of Ross Island. 

Nearly 12 hours passed before search planes located an ominous “black smear” on the face of Mount Erebus, a 12, 500 ft. volcano that, under certain conditions – at any altitude – would appear non-existent given its permanent blanket of snow.  Combine this phenomenon (known as sector whiteout) with the incorrect programming and you have a recipe for disaster that would bring a permanent end to the Champagne-laden sightseeing flights over Antarctica and expose malfeasance within the initial investigation process that covered up the navigational computing errors and placed blame squarely on the flight crew.

Exacerbating the situation, the location of the wreckage was so remote that removal of anything other than the flight recorders and human remains was impossible.  To this day, during certain times of year, thawing snow exposes sections of the fuselage to visibility – an eerie reminder of the accident. 

Ultimately, it took two inquiries/investigations to expose the organizational cover-ups and mistakes committed by both Air New Zealand and regulatory agencies.  Just one example?  Early in the tourism program a “6” had been incorrectly keyed as a “4” in the master navigational program, throwing all subsequent flights off by 30 miles – a life-threatening mistake, one would assume, given the presence of a 12,000 ft. volcano in the area. 

The second, more authoritative (and, frankly, more independent) inquiry convened by New Zealand’s Attorney-General concluded that errors in flight path and extreme weather conditions were the likely causes of the crash, ruling out completely pilot error and/or structural/mechanical failure.

From the details of the accident to the horrendous miscarriage of management and cover-up that ensued in its aftermath, this is an extremely intriguing chapter in passenger aviation history.

Details:

Comprehensive website containing every possible angle of the event

TVNZ documentary on YouTube (Parts 1 – 4)

The Smoking Cupcake, October 2011

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