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Early on the morning of November 28th, 1979, Air New Zealand Flight 901 departed Auckland carrying 237 passengers and 20 crewmembers. This was no ordinary flight however. Flight 901 was to carry it's passengers on a 12 hour Antarctic journey, flying over either Ross Island and Mt. Erebus or the South magnetic pole and Ninnis glacier, dependent on weather conditions upon arrival before returning to Auckland.

The flight was set up with a party-like atmosphere, a bar and catering were provided and passengers were invited to roam the aircraft in search of the best views. Flight deck visits were encouraged and experts on the Antarctic were onboard to provide commentary as well.

......Captaining Flight 901 would be Jim Collins, a 15 year pilot with Air New Zealand having over 11,000 hours. With him were First Officer Greg Cassin and two flight engineers. All of the crew had been thoroughly briefed on the special procedures used for this route. The DC-10 used on the route was equipped with INS for use over the long water legs to the Antarctic. After leaving New Zealand, the only ground-based navigational facility would be the NDB at the U.S. Navy's McMurdo Station (Mac Centre) near Mt. Erebus. The crew had also been briefed on the use of Grid Navigation which would become necessary beyond 60 degrees of latitude due to the convergence of lines of longitude nearing the pole. The plan was to cruise at 35,000 until contacting Mac Centre and the making a descent for a better view based on reported weather.

......Four hours out of Auckland and at FL350 feet, the first glimpses of white, icebergs drifting in the ocean, were visible from the windows. Shortly after, Captain Collins was able to make contact with Mac Centre for a weather report. McMurdo was reporting some clouds with bases at 3,000ft and 40 miles visibility below the clouds. Based on the report and what he saw from the aircraft, Collins decided to continue on towards McMurdo Station. About an hour later with Flight 901 paralleling the Antarctic coast, the clouds at McMurdo had dropped to 2,000 but visibility was still good.

901 was still in the clear, so Collins asked for a descent and was cleared to 18,000 feet. About 40 miles north of McMurdo, 901 was still in the clear and was approved for a visual descent at the captain's discretion. At this point, Flight 901 had not yet been picked up on Mac Centre's radar. Collins reported that they were descending to 10,000 feet at which point they wanted a radar vectored descent through the clouds. Mac Centre was still unable to acquire 901, but upon reports that the flight was still clear of the clouds, 901 was cleared to continue a visual descent and proceed to McMurdo Station.

The last report heard from Flight 901 was that they were descending through 6,000 feet for 2,000 feet and still in visual conditions. Minutes later, Mac Centre called back 901 several times to confirm that they had reached 2,000 feet, but there was no response.
......Rescue planes and helicopters were dispatched from McMurdo Station and at 12:56 am, 11 hours after the last contact with Flight 901, a C-130 Hercules radioed Mac Centre reporting that they had located the wreckage just north of McMurdo Station on the slope of the 12,450ft Mt. Erebus at a height of only 1,500ft. Experts from around the world dispatched immediately for McMurdo Station to assist in the recovery and investigation. Especially anxious to see the wreckage was McDonnell-Douglas, having lost another DC-10 in the American 191 accident just six months earlier.

The first investigators were taken to the site by helicopter and it became immediately apparent that, unlike American 191, Flight 901 impacted the ground in a nearly level attitude, apparently under control. The length of the crater and wreckage trail indicated that the DC-10 impacted at high speed, followed by a fire. Once investigators were able to reach the crash site, they were able to determine that there were no survivors. Because the flight was a sight-seeing tour, several roles of film and video tapes were recovered from the wreckage that helped investigators put together the chain of events. Most important, though, were the FDR and CVR.

......It became apparent that during 901's descent, two orbits were made, one to the right and then to the left, in order to keep the aircraft in a clear area north of McMurdo in hopes that they could get below the base of the clouds and then proceed visually to McMurdo. On rolling out of the second orbit, 901 was descending through 5700ft for 1500ft on a course direct to McMurdo Station, which they believed to be still 30 miles south. Only three minutes later the aircraft's GPWS sounded and shortly after the aircraft impacted the ground, still doing 260 knots. Just before impact, Captain Collins had called for go-around power and the aircraft had rotated into a climb attitude.

Navy crews in the area at the time of the accident reported that the cloud bases were about 3,500ft, with layers obscuring Mt. Erebus and the ground definition poor. The tragedy was this, for 14 months prior to the accident, the co-ordinates of McMurdo Station were improperly entered on the flight plan route. This had been inconsequential for previous flights as they had all been able to make a visual descent into the area without having to enter clouds. The error was corrected the night before flight 901 departed, but the crew was not briefed on the change. With McMurdo properly identified, the new flight plan would take 901 directly over Mt. Erebus.

The crew still believed that they would be flying into the bay to the west of Mt. Erebus, so they felt no danger in making a descent. McMurdo Station was not notified of the minimum safe altitudes for 901, so they did not question the Captain's decision to descend in what he reported as visual conditions. The lack of awareness of flight plan changes, together with without, were cited as the cause of the accident. Sadly, media and political pressures brought the brunt of the blame on the flight crew for descending when they did. However, without the knowledge of the changed flight plan, it seems hardly fair to say that the same choice would have been made if the crew had all pertinent information.