Today’s Collab Week post by Samar Dikshit is on the colour White. He chose to portray this through an exhilarating narrative about Flight 901, an Air New Zealand Antarctic sightseeing flight that operated in 1979. You can tweet at Samar here.
12th December 1974, Long Beach
The sky was cloudless and blue. The sun was shining brightly on this warm December day as the pilot and engineer walked around the new DC-10.
“I can’t wait to get her off the ground”, said the pilot.
“Especially with these new GE engines, flying her should be a treat”, replied the engineer.
“Forget about the damn engines, look at the sky. It’s a perfect day to fly. Anyways, I’m going in to start pre-flight. You get your crew in within ten minutes or we’ll leave all of you here”.
“Don’t worry about us, we’ll be there”, said the engineer as the pilot walked up the stairs.
After seeing him enter the aircraft, the engineer turned and stared at the registration.
“ZK-NZP”, he said out loud. Something about that troubled him. He stood there for a few moments before convincing himself that it was all in his head and then turning, went to find the rest of the engineering crew.
ZK-NZP in 1977 at London-Heathrow
November 1976, The Hub, Auckland
“I’ve called this short meeting today because I would like to see an old plan quite literally take flight. Apart from Argentine and Chilean territory on Tierra del Fuego, New Zealand is the closest country to Antarctica. However, it is a generally accepted fact that not only are these countries less safe than New Zealand, but so are their airlines. I propose that we exploit these factors and introduce Air New Zealand sightseeing flights over Antarctica.”
“But Mr. Chairman, will the government give us permission to operate these flights? If something goes wrong on the flight, help would be hours away. The safety risks are enormous.”
“My dear fellow”, replied the Chairman, “although there have been more aviation related casualties this year than in 1975, it’s still less than the number of people who died in 1972, 1973 or 1974. This general downward trend in deaths tells us that flying is becoming safer each year. As for the government, I’m sure they will agree. The influx of people would increase tourism in all parts of New Zealand because let’s face it: If you come all the way from Europe or America you’re going to visit other parts of the country too. No one is going to travel for almost two days to look only at Antarctica. These people will visit the rest of the country. Also think about what we can offer on these flights. Bars, entertainment, celebrity tour guides, the best meals and the chance to see the unconquered continent. How will someone be able to resist? Mark my words gentlemen, these will be a success.”
“Now let us conduct a primary vote. All in favour?”
“You should’ve been a politician”, said someone softly as he watched the entire room raise their hands while doing so himself.
Air New Zealand had first considered operating Antarctic sightseeing flights in the late Sixties, however their fleet of DC-8’s led to the idea being economically unviable. This was due to the fact that the aircraft would have to be land for refueling at McMurdo Station, an American research station on the southern tip of Ross Island in Antarctica. Although the base had existing snow runways which a DC-8 could land on, Air New Zealand would have had to build a permanent passenger facility which would only be used a few times in the summer months of Antarctica. However this proved too costly and the idea was dropped.
An Air New Zealand DC-8
The purchase of DC-10’s in the early Seventies ultimately led to reconsideration of the idea because of their improved fuel consumption, greater range and capacity. Apart from McMurdo Station, New Zealand’s Antarctic research station, Scott Base, would be near the proposed flight path. This led to the idea being deemed safe after it was agreed that in case of an emergency both bases would cooperate and the aircraft could land at either base if it had too.
The idea was formally proposed in late 1976 and the Ministry of Transport’s Civil Aviation Division granted approval for two flights. These flights quickly proved popular and Air New Zealand applied to operate more flights.
By the summer of 1979, they were operating up to four flights a month. The flights would take off in Auckland at around 8am and fly towards the Balleny Islands after which it would fly around Mt. Erebus, past McMurdo Station and back to Christchurch on South Island. After a short halt there and following a crew change, Flight 901 would head to Auckland and land there by 9pm.
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Proposed flight path for Flight 901
9 November 1979, Air New Zealand Pilots Briefing, Auckland
This was the first time in years that Captain Jim Collins actually had to listen to what was being said. 15 years and almost 11,000 hours of flying had taught him that these briefings weren’t very helpful if something happened during flight.
‘Give a pilot a plane and route and he’ll do the rest’ was his belief.
But this flight was different. It was one of those silly ideas that some oaf with no flying experience had to increase profits. When he first heard about the Antarctic flights, he laughed and told his friends that it would never happen. He knew it was some sort of publicity stunt and he tried to make sure that he would never have to fly one of these flights.
“After 15 years, you do make some friends in Logistic and Human Resources”, he thought to himself.
Ultimately however, he had to fly the route. He was to fly Flight 901 on the 28th of November.
“It’s easy Jim”, another pilot told him few days back. “Take off, fly south, a few circles around a mountain and back to Christchurch. And the food you’ll get is much better than usual.”
“Well at least I have Greg for company”, he thought and looked at the man on his right.
First Officer Greg Cassin was another pilot who had never flown the Antarctic route. However unlike Collins, he had always wanted to, but it was never assigned to him.
“You’re just unlucky”, he used to tell himself until the call came.
28th November 1979, on board ZK-NZP, Auckland Airport
“Auxiliary fuel pumps off, magnetos checked and flaps set for takeoff. Pre-flight checklist complete Captain”, said Cassin.
“Okay Greg, take control and continue taxi to runway 05R. I’m making the announcement”, said Collins as the DC-10 taxied towards the runway.
“I have control”, replied Cassin.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome on board Air New Zealand flight 901, non-stop service from Auckland to Christchurch with a slight detour over the snowy and icy continent of Antarctica. We should be airborne within a few minutes and it will take us around four hours to reach Ross Island. We’ll be flying at 35,000 feet after which we will descend to 18,000 feet so that all of you can get a better view of Mt. Erebus, McMurdo and the Ross Ice Shelf. If weather permits, we will descend to 2,000 feet as we pass around the snow clad mountain after which we’ll fly back to Christchurch. As you know, the renowned mountaineer Edmund Hillary was supposed to be our tour guide today. However, he has had to cancel due to prior commitments. In place of him, we have on board Peter Mulgrew, who has embarked upon several Himalayan, Alpine and Trans-Antarctic expeditions. I hope you all will have a comfortable flight, and I will talk to you all shortly”, finished the captain.
Turning to Cassin he said, “Can you believe they’ve paid $275 per person just to see tons and tons of snow, ice and hopefully some penguins?”
And all Cassin did was smile.
Unknown to anyone at the time, Flight 901’s computer had the wrong flight plan programmed into it. On 14th November, Captain Leslie Simpson was in command of Flight 901. He noticed that that there was a considerable distance between the waypoint he had programmed into the aircraft computer and the one he had been briefed on with the crew that would fly Flight 901 on the 28th later that month. On returning, he reported this and the airlines navigational department set to work to remove the error. However they compared Simpson’s flight plan with a flight plan that had not been used in 14 months. They then made an adjustment of 2.1 nautical miles (around 3.9km) to that waypoint. But because they used the old flight plan, it led to a 27 nautical mile (around 50km) correction in the flight plan that would be used on the 28th of November.
This would mean that Flight 901 would be able to descend to a minimum of 16,000 feet (even if it was a clear day) to fly safely above the lofty snow clad peak of Mt Erebus, which is at 13,000 feet. If they flew at 2,000 feet like they had been briefed to do on a clear day, they would crash into the mountain.
The airline’s ground computer updated the route at 1:40 am on November 28th and this was handed to the crew later that morning.
The airline then made one more mistake. No one informed anyone in the crew that the route had been changed and they could not descend below 16,000 feet in any circumstances. None of the 257 people on board Flight 901 knew about either of these incidents, or that they would be flying to their deaths
28th November 1979, on board ZK-NZP, around four hours later
The first ice bergs slowly came into view. From 35,000 feet, they looked like small ice cubes in a glass. Although they were more than half submerged in the frigid waters of the Ross Sea, their aura and power could still be felt in the cabin. As Mulgrew spoke about how the great ice cliffs broke over time because of the strength of the waves to form these wedged and pinnacled structures, Collins couldn’t believe what he was seeing in front of him.
“Wow,” he said. He could say no more.
In front of him laid a land of only ice and snow. It stretched from the left to the right as far as the eye could see. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The blue sea was replaced by a white land. There was no green grass, nor any brown soil. There were no grey roads, nor any red roofed houses. Just miles and miles of pure white snow and ice. An inhospitable land. A land only home to seals, penguins, whales and other creatures evolved to survive the ice, the blizzards and the snow. No human could survive here for an extended period. It was the unconquered continent.
He looked at Cassin and the flight engineer. Both said nothing either and just stared out of the cockpit window.
“Alright boys,” said the captain a few minutes later, “back to work. Time to contact Mac Centre.”
Mac Centre was the air traffic control centre of McMurdo Station. They reported that Flight 901 descended to 18,000 feet, and later to 10,000 feet. 40 miles north of McMurdo, Flight 901 executed a double loop turn of a large radius to descend to a lower altitude and keep clear of what they thought was the western slope of Mt. Erebus. According to their last report to Mac centre, the weather was clear and they were descending on autopilot from 5,700 feet to 1,500 feet and would make a circular pass of Mt. Erebus before flying past McMurdo.
A few minutes later, sometime after 12:50pm, Mac Centre repeatedly attempted to contact Flight 901. On not receiving any reply, Mac Centre informed Air New Zealand headquarters that contact with Flight 901 had been lost.
Around 11 hours later, the US Navy found the remains of Flight 901. Wreckage littered the slopes of Mt. Erebus. It was only later that morning at 9am, twenty hours after the crash, that helicopter search and rescue teams landed at the crash site and confirmed their worst fear: The unconquered continent had claimed 257 more victims.