History Hour: Air New Zealand crash in Antarctica
This article was written by Bryan R. Swopes and first published on This Day in Aviation.
On November 28, 1979 Air New Zealand sightseeing flight to Antarctica, Flight TE 901, departed Auckland Airport (AKL) on the North Island of New Zealand, at 1917 GMT, 27 November (8:17 a.m., 28 November, local time). The flight was planned to proceed to the vicinity of McMurdo Station at the south end of Ross Island, off the continent of Antarctica, and then return to Christchurch International Airport (CHC) on New Zealand’s South Island. The duration of the flight was estimated to be 11 hours and would travel a total of 5,360 miles (8,626 kilometers), all during daylight hours.
Air New Zealand had previously flown thirteen Antarctic excursions. On this date, the airliner operated as Flight TE 901 was a five year old McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30, registration ZK-NZP. On board the airliner were a flight crew of five, cabin crew of fifteen and 237 passengers.
The pilot in command (PIC) was Captain Thomas James Collins. Captain Collins held an airline transport pilot license with a DC-10 type rating. He had flown a total of 11,151 flight hours, of which 2,872 had been aboard DC-10s. Because of the flight’s planned duration, the crew included two more pilots, First Officer Gregory Mark Cassin and First Officer Graham Neville Lucas. There were also two flight engineers, Flight Engineer Gordon Barrett Brooks and Flight Engineer Nicholas John Maloney. All were very experienced pilots, type-rated in the DC-10. None, however, had previously flown the Antarctic route.
19 days before the flight, Captain Collins and First Officer Cassin had received an audio-visual briefing of the planned flight. They also flew the route in a cockpit simulator. The route of previous flights had taken the airliners from the Ross Sea into McMurdo Sound, well west of Ross Island and its 12,448 foot (3,794 meters) active volcano, Mount Erebus. At a pre-determined waypoint, the airliner turned left toward McMurdo Station. The airline’s minimum altitude through this area was 16,000 feet (4,877 meters) until south of McMurdo Station, and then only if certain weather conditions were present.
DC-10 navigation console. (Unattributed)
Air New Zealand flight planners had discovered that data which had been entered into the aircraft’s Area Inertial Navigation System (AINS) computer was incorrect. The coordinates of the for the destination waypoint were actually 2˚10′ west of the intended destination waypoint. The intended route was to take TE 901 directly over Mount Erebus to the emergency whiteout landing area near Williams Field (ICAO: NZWD) about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from McMurdo Station on the Ross Ice Shelf. Because of the data error, however, all previous flights had approached from well west of Ross Island before turning toward McMurdo Station at West Dailey Island. The navigation data was corrected, but the flight crew had not been informed of the change or the reason for it.
The flight toward Antarctica proceeded normally. Exactly five hours after takeoff, Captain Collins began a descent from TE 901’s cruising altitude. At this point the airliner was approximately 140 miles (225 kilometers) north of McMurdo Station. First Officer Cassin advised air traffic control, Mac Center, of their descent. The controller acknowledged and gave the current weather at McMurdo as “…low overcast in the area at about 2,000 feet [607 meters] and … some snow but our visibility is still about 40 miles [64 kilometers]…” In the cockpit, Captain Collins commented that the clouds were lower than previously reported, and that it would be “Very hard to tell the difference between the cloud and the ice”.
Satellite image of Ross Island. McMurdo Station is at the tip of the narrow peninsula in the lower left quadrant. (NASA)
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