Above: Nigel Roberts' famous photo of the wreckage on Mt Erebus.
A small but significant reunion was held in Wellington last month when three Antarctic veterans, two of them former police officers, gathered to reminisce about their time on the ice in the late 1970s.
Top of mind for the trio was the 40th anniversary of the Erebus crash, due to be commemorated on November 28 next year.
The circumstances surrounding New Zealand’s worst aviation disaster and the ensuing controversial enquiries about its causes are of particular interest to them because they were all there when it happened.
Geophysicist Gary Lewis was the team leader at Vanda Station and Senior Constable Ted Robinson was the second in command at nearby Scott Base, along with Nigel Roberts, who was on leave from Canterbury University working for four months as New Zealand’s information officer and photographer in Antarctica.
Gary, who later joined New Zealand Police’s technical support unit, says commentary on Erebus over the intervening years has generally been based on post-crash analysis and theories. What has been troubling Gary and Ted in that time, however, is what happened before the crash that claimed the lives of 257 people.
“There were some of us in Antarctica who were communicating with the DC10 pilot by HF radio prior to the crash and have recollections that paint a slightly different picture,” Gary says.
Indeed, it’s a picture that has apparently never been fully recorded in official accounts of the tragedy and that has been bothering these men.
Ted says he did tell authorities at the time about their communications with the plane’s crew, warning of whiteout conditions and suggesting an alternative route, but it appears that wasn’t considered relevant to the post-crash inquiries.
The reasons why that might have been the case have also been a source of concern for the two men, now in their late seventies.
The day that Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashed into Mt Erebus during a sightseeing tour, Gary and Ted were both on duty.
They knew about the tourist flight and that it was going to be heading close to them to look at Ross Island in McMurdo Sound. “But,” says Ted, “we knew there were whiteout conditions there. I had already curtailed any activity, such as helicopters, around the island and I advised the TE901 pilot to not come anywhere near Ross Island.”
When the crew was about an hour north of Ross Island, Ted suggested to pilot Jim Collins that he, instead, divert to fly over the dry valley region, near Vanda Station, which was clear.
Ted recollects that the crew acknowledged his call, but he did not hear from them again. “I became quite concerned from then on,” he says.
Meanwhile, 75 nautical miles away at Vanda, Gary had also communicated with the flight crew. Supporting Ted’s stance, he also suggested a change of course.
“I proffered incentives by advising the pilot that our signalling mirrors had the ability to attract the attention of aircraft at 100 miles in clear weather, so there would be no difficulty in pinpointing Vanda among the rocky mountains and valleys due to our ability to project bright flashes over a long distance.”
Gary says he explained that the Ross Island whiteout was local and that there was clear, sunny weather over the Wright Valley with spectacular views to be had from the air. “The pilot’s response was, ‘Sounds good, we might fly over that way’.”
That contact was noted in the station radio log at 1156 on November 28 – 53 minutes before impact.
Over the next several hours, Gary says, Scott Base and Vanda Station put in up to 50 calls trying to reach the plane, “until we realised that it was past their fuel time”.
The Chippindale Report into the crash, released on May 31, 1980, briefly mentions communication between Scott Base and the aircraft offering the advice that “the dry valley area was clear and would be a better prospect for sightseeing than Ross Island”. The captain asked “the commentator” if he could guide them over that way. “The commentator said that would be no trouble and asked if the captain wished to head for that area at that time. The captain replied he ‘would prefer here first’.”
There is no mention of that communication from Scott Base or from Vanda Station in Justice Peter Mahon’s subsequent Royal Commission of Inquiry into the accident.
At the time of the crash, Vanda was hosting six search and rescue specialists from New Zealand on a training course. “We sent them to the site,” says Gary. “They were the first on the scene.”
Before that, Ted had flown over the crash site in a helicopter to assess the terrain for landing and putting up tents for what he could see would be a lengthy body recovery operation. A landing platform would be required and he quickly designed one for the first team on the site to construct.
Eighteen hours after the wreckage was found, Nigel Roberts was flown over the crash site by helicopter to take pictures for news media.
“When I got back to Scott Base and looked into the fixing tray as I developed the films I had taken, I saw the image of the DC10’s tail and its distinctive koru symbol on the snow-and-ice-covered slopes of Mt Erebus.” He knew at once that the simple image summarised the tragedy. It still does.
Gary remembers how impressed he was with the endurance and commitment of those first responders and the police teams that followed. “Those of us going about our normal business, not far from the scene of the disaster, were privy to details of the daunting work and living conditions suffered by police working at the crash site. We heard not one complaint from them who, on top of it all, were thrown in at the deep end of intrepid conditions with brief training and no prior polar experience.”
In the investigative frenzy and furore that followed, Ted said he told investigators working on the initial Chippindale report what had occurred before the crash. “The authorities knew about that contact we had with the crew,” says Ted.
However, Ted says, “they didn’t want to hear it. I also made a phone call to the United States to the people who produced the plane and told them about it. I was surprised when nothing eventuated and surprised to not have been called before the subsequent Mahon Royal Commission of Inquiry.”
He goes further. In his mind, he says, it was a cover-up by Air New Zealand and the government. “They didn’t want the relatives of 257 people suing the government. They intended to overlook the fact that we had spoken to the pilot.”
It’s fair to say that the issue has been “festering” for nearly 40 years, never forgotten by Ted and Gary.
Nigel, now an emeritus professor of political science at Victoria University, says it is a case of “what if?”, but at the time, people were more focused on the “why” of the crash.
Three years ago, Ted wrote and self-published a memoir, On the Ice, in which he talks about his experiences at Scott Base. There were a limited number of copies circulated among friends and family. Ted is planning an updated reprint this year, reinforcing his concern that not everything that happened before the crash at Mt Erebus was acknowledged as it should have been.
Gary, too, has firm theories on what went wrong, including what he calls a momentous early warning landmark that went unseen. He’s referring to Beaufort Island, which he says presents a “crux point” to the crash because the DC10 was reportedly flying on authorised VMC (visual meteorological conditions).
“The distinctive asymmetry of Beaufort, protruding out of the whiteness to the east alongside the glide path into McMurdo, is a significant landmark, and was clearly visible from the DC10 as evidenced by film recovered from passengers’ cameras showing clear photos of Beaufort, but on the wrong side of the aircraft.”
It remains an enigma, he says, that the pilot and his advisers evidently failed to see or recognise what the passengers clearly saw and photographed.
“If the pilot had known TE901 was east of Beaufort Island instead of west of it, he would have realised from his map that they were flying directly towards rising ground, albeit with ample time to take evasive action.”
If Beaufort Island had been properly identified, Gary says, the deadly illusion of whiteout would never have presented itself to TE901. “There is enduring opinion in some circles that a principal ingredient to the crash was a failure to recognise a prominently visible landmark, and that any instrument error should not have mattered.”
In fact, it appears from subsequent inquiries and reports, that observational misidentification of landmarks by the crew and advisers occurred due to “loss of situational awareness”. According to reports on the Erebus Story website (erebus.co.nz), that fatal loss of awareness was set in train before the aircraft left the ground.
The pre-programmed route loaded into the aircraft’s navigational system was not the same as that presented to the crew at their route briefing days before. As a result, they identified landmarks based on where they thought they were, not where they actually were.
They were also flying beneath cloud and the optical illusions created by the whiteout conditions made the terrain in front appear to be the flat open expanse of McMurdo Sound.
They believed they were exactly where they were meant to be.
Ted notes that the crew of TE901 had never flown to Antarctica before and were unfamiliar with whiteout conditions.
“American pilots were required to fly as co-pilots for up to six times before taking control of an aircraft in Antarctic conditions. This was an anomaly by Air New Zealand.”
The Royal Commission of Inquiry concluded that many things had combined to cause the accident, but the most dominant factor was the shifting of the route.
For Gary and Ted, those are haunting words – shifting of the route was exactly what they had wanted the plane to do.
Gary Lewis explains the whiteout phenomenon.
Visualise a weird sensation of being suspended in whiteness with an eerie silence broken only by your footsteps producing a shrieking sound as your mukluks (boots) crush super-dry snow with every step.
A whiteout occurs when suspended ice crystals scatter the polarisation and direction of light.
A whiteout does not identify itself, so you might not even be aware there is one until it is too late.
One clue is when walking on a flat level surface, you suffer a slope illusion and stumble.
Fragile crevasse bridges become invisible, hiding deep chasms that could swallow a bus.
On a flat shelf you can get lost by walking 10 metres from your polar tent, unable to find your way back if you don’t circle the tent with a barrier rope.
That large orange building you see in the far distance is only a sledge box five metres away.
The perfectly clear horizon a pilot sees miles ahead on a clear sunny day is actually very close, the “horizon” being the dividing line between the sea and a high vertical ice shelf.
A search helicopter once reported “wreckage hanging in the sky ahead” after another chopper had flown into an ice shelf at cruising speed shortly after the pilot had radioed “clear and clear” (clear horizon and clear surface definition).
This quite common illusion is deadly for a pilot with no previous polar experience, and it is hauntingly similar to visual conditions around NZ901 minutes before impact, right where the sea meets a vertical ice shelf, presenting a false impression of “clear and clear”.
Even the humble compass is of little use because at such close proximity to the geomagnetic South Pole, the magnetic field lines are no longer horizontal, so the field force that normally turns a compass card is very small compared with a force that tips the card over sideways.
Likewise, the traditional gyrocompass also has its quirks at the bottom of the world, turning through 360 degrees every 24 hours, as the planet rotates around it.
Life on the ice
The main hazard in Antarctica is not flying, says Gary Lewis, it’s fire.
When the humidity in winter falls to less than 2 per cent, you can set fire to a stick of 4x2 timber with a match.
At Vanda Station, where he did four seasons, fuel drums were stored well away from the small huts where the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research team lived and worked.
Likewise, food, meat and emergency clothing were also stored outside.
The workers were conducting scientific programmes, including meteorology, hydrology, seismology and monitoring atmospheric electrification, earth currents and magnetics.
To keep it simple, Gary says, most of the scientific chart recorders were clockwork driven. “We would tramp five hours in the dark to rewind some of them. Even our toilet was an outside dunny with no door, and a fuel drum with wooden seat, and a nail to hang the kerosene lamp on. We each had our own polyurethane foam seat to prevent bum freeze. Hundred per cent reliability, open for business 24/365.”
When the temperature dropped to minus 56 degrees Celsius in calm winter weather, danger lurked in unexpected ways, Gary says.
“For example, in the unlikely event your mouth contacted bare rock during a fall; you would instantly become ‘welded’ to the rock, freezing your head within minutes. People have been known to unthinkingly remove a mitt and pick up an interesting rock, resulting in the rock freezing to their hand. The rock needs to be warmed to release it without tearing the skin off.
“It’s a slow and painful process if it’s a rock you can pick up and tuck into your anorak, but if it’s a rock that can’t be picked up, the consequences are grim.
“Things happen so fast. A pot of boiling water taken outside in winter and thrown into the air freezes instantly with a roaring sound and hits the ground as rattling shards of ice. Sometimes we did it for fun.”
Gary reflects that it would have been a good idea for tourist pilots to spend a stint working on the ice before flying there, so they could experience the place, and its illusions, first hand.
Because, he says, there’s no other place like it.