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What was the Mount Erebus air
On 28 November 1979, Flight 901 of Air New
Zealand collided with Mount Erebus on Ross
Islands, Antarctica instantaneously killing all
237 passengers and 20 crew members on
board (New Zealand Air Line Pilots'
Association, n.d.).
After more than three decades, it is
still New Zealands worst disaster in history
(Mount Erebus air disaster, n.d.)
What is the history of flights to
In the late 70s, It was Air New Zealands
perfect opportunity to start scenic flights over
Antarctica since New Zealand was within a
close range and the new McDonnel Douglas
DC-10 was a well-developed aircraft, ready
for the job (New Zealand Air Line Pilots'
Association, n.d.). This opportunity to visit
Antarctica was attractive for people since it
was the only way possible for most of them to
experience the wonders of the cold and
lonely land.
Air New Zealand commenced flights
over Antarctica in February 1977. Upon
successfully gaining popularity, they applied
to Civil Aviation Division of the Ministry of
Transport for approval of flights in the
summer of 1978 and 1979 (Tourist flights to
Antarctica, 2012). Before flight 901, about
10,000 tourists had already flown over
Antarctica (Tourist flights to Antarctica, 2012).
The purpose of these flights was to
give the tourists a good view of Antarctica by
flying at low altitudes. Although Air New
Zealand claims that no flight except TE901
descended below the stated minimums, there
is evidence that most flights went at the
same altitude as flight 901 (Mahon, Verdict
on Erebus, 1984).
What was the difference between
previous flights and flight 901?
There was a difference of 48km. 19 days ago,
it was explained to the pilots, verbally and

visually, that the flight will be going over the
low McMurdo Sound like the few previous
flights but this was not true. (New Zealand
Airline Pilots' Association, n.d.)
How did this lie go undetected?
The lie was invented 6 hours before the flight
at 1.40am. Initially, the navigation staff
computerised the flight path to run over
Mount Erebus. Fourteen months before the
disaster, the intention was to make a slight
adjustment of approximately 3km from the
original flight path. Therefore, after this
adjustment, in the navigation staffs mind,
the flights were still going more or less over
Mt Erebus. However, in reality, the navigation
staff had accidently shifted the flight path
48km to the west by pressing 4 instead of 6
into machine, so the flights were now going
over the flat sea ice of McMurdo (The flight
path controversy, n.d.,para.5). It was thought,
that this change was deliberate because it
gave a better experience and was safer too.
This explains why the pilots were told that the
navigation system will take them over low
McMurdo Sound, away from the high Mt
Erebus. However, just few hours before the
mishap, the flight path in the aircrafts
computer was changed without letting the
pilots mind know.
What was identified as the main cause
of the crash?
Initially, the main reason identified for the
crash was the captains decision to descend
visually below the specified safety height
(Chippindale, 1979). However, the more
recent official report shows that the alteration
of the flights navigation track without the
awareness of the aircrew was the single
dominant and effective cause of the disaster
(Mahon, 1981, p.159). There was a lack of
communication and cross-checking.
The pilots are not to be blamed for
this incident; rather the blame should go to
Air New Zealands administrative procedures,
which allowed such a large error to remain
unnoticed (Mahon, Report of the Royal
Commission to report upon the crash on
Mount Erebus, Antarctica, 1981). This is why,


it is a must to have a competent system,
which makes sure everyone is on the same
Couldnt the pilots see where they were
The pilots could barely see due to bad
weather conditions. However, they were able
to identify mountain peaks. The peaks were
at angles they would expect after the briefing
19 days ago. The picture below explains how
they thought they were safe but were
actually heading for Mt Erebus.

The left side of

figure 1 shows the track

What is the whiteout visual illusion and

how it additionally mislead the pilots?
A whiteout is a severe weather condition
where visibility reduces, and it becomes
challenging for the human eye to
differentiate between the snow and the

Figure 3. Example of a whiteout (Albrecht, 2010)

Figure 2 shows the how the rays of

light can be reflected many times because of
the icy terrain. It is known and observed that
white objects or surfaces reflect all colours.
(Lankford, 2013)
The cause of a whiteout in the
scenario of flight 901 was the blockage of
sunlight by clouds. The sunlight was reflected

that the pilots thought they were on, and the

right side of the photo shows the actual track
that the plane was flying on.
The dotted lines on the left side show
angles from which the pilots expected to see
elevated lands. Whereas, the dotted lines on
the right side show that the pilots were
observing peaks at the same angles. For
example, the pilots believed Cape Bird was
Cape Bernacchi. Note that estimation of
distance is difficult in polar conditions and
that the lower height of Cape Bird
counterbalanced the closer distance. The
little they could see, deceived them more.
On top of this, the weather conditions
were such that the pilots could not tell if
there was a mountain up ahead. This
condition is known as the whiteout visual

Figure 1. Expected track (left) vs Actual

track (right) (New Zealand Air Line Pilots'
Association, n.d.)

from the ground and was scattered by water

droplets in the cloud. This scattering of light
made the sky blend in with the surroundings,
i.e. the horizon was camouflaging with Mt
Figure 3 on the right side shows that it
is almost impossible to tell where the land
ends and the sky begins.
Figure 2. Side view of people
standing on slope during a whiteout


It is because of this visual illusion, the

aircrew didnt see Mount Erebus until 5
seconds before impact, and even then, it was
mostly because of the warning system.
What should be done to improve the
system of the organization?
Every effort should be made to get a proper
system. It should be ensured that all rules
and regulations are being followed, health
and safety should always be the top priority.
Proper training should be given to employees,
and all vital information should be clearly
conveyed. Communication should be as clear
as possible, leaving no room for
In case of flight 901:

Topographical map, showing flight

path was not given to Captain Collins.
Captain Collins plotted it himself based on a
previous briefing (Mahon, Verdict on Erebus,

The direction of the last leg of the

flight was shifted from McMurdo sounds to Mt
Erebus about 6 hours before the flight, and
the pilots and the Air Traffic Control were not
informed. (Mahon, Report of the Royal
Commission to report upon the crash on
Mount Erebus, Antarctica, 1981)

The pilots were experienced but were

given no training to fly in Antarctica (Mahon,
Report of the Royal Commission to report
upon the crash on Mount Erebus, Antarctica,
1981), which is a completely different terrain
and requires staff to identify and react to
hazards unique to icy terrains.

These were some blunders that
increased the likelihood of the incident.
Heads of Air New Zealand and Civil Aviation
Division are blameworthy for not keeping
required standards in a professional industry.
(Mahon, Report of the Royal Commission to
report upon the crash on Mount Erebus,
Antarctica, 1981)

Works Cited
Albrecht, J. (2010). Aviation safety letter.
Retrieved from Transport Canada:
Chippindale, R. (1979). Aircraft accident.
Wellington: Office of Air Accidents
Investigation, Ministry of Transport.
Retrieved from
Lankford. (2013). Why do black materials
absorb light and white materials
reflect it? Columbia Daily Tribune.
Retrieved from chromeextension://oemmndcbldboiebfnlad
Mahon, P. (1981). Report of the Royal
Commission to report upon the
crash on Mount Erebus, Antarctica.
Wellington: Royal Commission.
Mahon, P. (1984). Verdict on Erebus.
William Collins.
Mount Erebus air disaster. (n.d.).
Retrieved from Christchurch City
New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association.
(n.d.). The Story. Retrieved April
18, 2016, from The Erebus Story:

New Zealand Airline Pilots' Association.
(n.d.). The flight path controversy.
Retrieved from The Erebus Story:
Tourist flights to Antarctica. (2012).
Retrieved from New Zealand