An Air New Zealand Airbus A320 crashed in the Mediterranean last week
while on an acceptance testing flight at the end of a lease. The tragedy occurred on the 29th anniversary of the airline's worst disaster, the crash of sightseeing flight TE901 in the Antarctic
. Beginning in 1977, the popular one-day flights
took passengers on low level flights over the Ross Dependency, with experienced guides providing commentary. TE 901
flew on beautiful, clear day, and yet the DC-10 collided with the side of Mt Erebus
, killing all 257 on board. The original accident report cited pilot error, but that was only the beginning.
With no mechanical reason for the crash, and the cockpit voice recorder showing no emergency in the cockpit
, The report blamed pilot Jim Collins
for descending below a minimum safe altitude of 16,000ft. A subsequent Royal Commission of Inquiry was launched, and after 75 days of evidence, Justice Peter Mahon concluded that "I am forced reluctantly to say that I had to listen to an orchestrated litany of lies."
Exonerating the pilots, Justice Mahon found the computer navigation track of TE901 had been altered just before the flight
(giant pdf), shifting the flightpath from the safe, flat expanse of McMurdo Sound to a collision course with Mt Erebus, without the pilots being told of the change. The pilots had fallen victim to a phenomenon known as sector whiteout
rendering the mountain indistinguishable from the cloud cover. Air New Zealand appealed the decision, and political establishment turned on Mahon, resulting in his eventual resignation. He was posthumously awarded for changing the way air accidents are investigated worldwide
His findings remain controversial
decades later, with claims that Air New Zealand employees have attempted to sanitise the Wikipedia entry on the crash
, the original cockpit voice recorder tape missing
(leaving inconsistent transcripts), and the Prime Minister at the time working to counter Mahon's findings
before they were ever released. The wreckage remains on the ice
. During warm seasons, it can still be seen from the air.