Go-around power please
December 3, 2008 1:24 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by szechuan (12 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome post. Tons of great information.
posted by Bageena at 1:29 PM on December 3, 2008

I've always found the relationship with Antarctica and commercial aviation interesting. For example the first passenger flight occurred earlier this year. I think it was the first commercial flight since the 1960s when a Modern Air Convair 990 did land at McMurdo. Really interesting to ponder what it's like to fly in and out of there like that, and compare that to what Shackleton and his men had to endure to get out of there. I know Qantas has been doing some flights recently like the ANZ flight.
posted by crapmatic at 1:45 PM on December 3, 2008

Yeah, great post.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:59 PM on December 3, 2008

Nice post. The link "the computer navigation track of TE901 had been altered just before the flight" goes to a 190-page, 66 MB scan of the Report of the Royal commision, which is downloading very slowly for me at the moment, but I look forward to checking it out later.

Last I heard about the recent crash was speculation that a new paint job had fouled one or more sensors.
posted by exogenous at 3:21 PM on December 3, 2008

The slogan Air New Zealand was running at the time of the Erebus Tragedy: Air New Zealand, nobody does it better was surpassed for bitter irony during the SARS outbreak in 2003 by the Hong Kong Tourism board with the gem: Hong Kong will take your breath away.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 4:05 PM on December 3, 2008

Believe it or not, I was thinking about making a post on this myself... If you're interested in this, be sure to watch the 1996 documentary on the subject, on YouTube in five parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:11 PM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Thanks, Johnny Assay. I was hoping to find Erebus:The Aftermath online somewhere, but have had no luck.
posted by szechuan at 5:46 PM on December 3, 2008

An Air New Zealand Airbus A320 crashed in the Meditarreanean last week while on an acceptance testing flight at the end of a lease.

Just a news tip for you all: whenever I hear of airline news and want more details, I head straight to the airliners.net forums. Those guys are hardcore, and will have the latest information (and will quickly swat down misinformation). It's jargon heavy and they use IATA codes like crazee.

Here's the A320 crash thread from the beginning, and the latest news there.

Great post, thanks szechuan!

Oh, and worst spelling of "Mediterranean" EVAR.
posted by intermod at 8:27 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mod note: added giant pdf warning, fixed some spelling, carry on
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:42 PM on December 3, 2008

Excellent post, thank you! There's a lot of new stuff here which I hadn't seen. I was only a litttle tacker when this happened but I remember a lot of the news stories - it was big news at the time.

Justice Peter Mahon's Verdict on Erebus is a great detailed look at the Royal Commission into what went wrong. I had no idea the original CVR was missing, and it's a shame - one of Mahon's assertions is that rather than saying "Bit thick eh Bert?", which would indicate the flight crew was seeing bad weather or overcast conditions, the phrase was "This is Cape Bird", which would indicate the flight crew were mistaken about their location (there was no Bert on the flight deck.)

For a really interesting technical look at the disaster including diagrams and examples of white-out conditions you can't beat the chapter on the Erebus disaster in Macarthur Job's Air Disaster Volume 2 (which also includes chapters on other fascinating crashes like JAL123 and Aloha 243).
posted by andraste at 11:22 PM on December 3, 2008

Mucho thanko, Johnny Assay -- 1:30 in to part 5 features my grandfather swearing my dad's boss in as a witness in the Royal Commission of Enquiry. My grandfather's just got a laptop and will enjoying seeing himself in archival footage on "the YouTube".
posted by John Shaft at 11:43 PM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

It sounds like the Erebus recovery crew's job was hell:
Initially, there was very little water at the site and we had only one bowl between all of us to wash our hands in before eating. The water was black. In the first days on site we did not wash plates and utensils after eating but handed them on to the next shift because we were unable to wash them. I could not eat my first meal on site because it was a meat stew. Our polar clothing became covered in black human grease (a result of burns on the bodies). [...]

Later, the Skua gulls were eating the bodies in front of us, causing us much mental anguish as well as destroying the chances of identifying the corpses. We tried to shoo them away but to no avail, we then threw flares, also to no avail. Because of this we had to pick up all the bodies/parts that had been bagged and create 11 large piles of human remains around the crash site in order to bury them under snow to keep the birds off. [...]
In Antarctic blizzard conditions on the side of a mountain. Fuck.
posted by pracowity at 11:06 AM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

« Older We'll remember you.   |   Strange funeral customs from around the world Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments