Mount Erebus’s Tragic Disaster

Some of the most amazing and unique aspects of planet Earth come in the most extreme and harsh conditions. Mount Erebus, Antarctica’s second highest peak, after Mount Sidley is the southernmost volcano on Earth.  This is one of the few locations on Earth where fire meets ice.

Mount Erebus

Surrounding Mount Erebus is a huge network of hidden caves – some scientists believe that this might be home to an exciting range of plants and animals. This is for a number of of reasons – the main one being that this network of caves are surprisingly hot. Heat of course can help to unlock a huge level of biodiversity. The caves can reach 25 degrees celsius which is incredibly hot for a huge expanse of land surrounded by ice. This kind of heat is called geothermal heat. Geothermal heat led to the formation of vents with a volcanic stream. This then means that an ever more complex network of caves can continue to form. This particular volcano is particularly famous for its active boiling lava lake.

The reason scientists are so excited by this possible new world is through investigation. Scientists at the Australia National University took DNA samples from the cave network and tried to tie this DNA to known species. Some of this DNA wasn’t fully identified. This means that there could well be unidentified species living in these extreme glacial conditions.

This volcano is situated on an incredibly unique island – Ross Island. It’s formed by 4 volcanoes in the heart of Antarctica. For many years photographers and tourists continue to flock to the island to take in some of the incredible scenery.  In November 1979 the world was well and truly reminded of the harsh reality of the icy plains of Antarctica.

Air New Zealand flight 901 crashed into Mount Erebus instantly killing the 257 people on board.

In the years before this event, flights over the Antarctic were an incredibly exciting breakthrough in airborne tourism. At this time – Antarctica was a little photographed section of land full of wildlife all while being an incredibly harsh environment.

In the 1950s the science community had taken a huge interest in Antarctica – but to the general public the Antarctica was simply something of mystery, only something a select few could experience. To open the Antarctic up, Air New Zealand put their new long range aircraft into use. The aircraft may have been capable of longer flights but during the 1970s there were several high profile and fatality incidents involving the aircraft. When the aircraft went down – it was easy to jump to conclusions and say the aircraft malfunctioned but there’s much more to the story than that.

The Flight Path

When any crash happens there’s an immediate investigation, right from the engineering of the aircraft to flight paths and cockpit voice recordings. Flight paths were the source of the first bit of controversy. A flight plan was loaded onto the aircraft’s machinery which was different to the one the crew had been briefed about 19 days beforehand. No one said anything.

It’s difficult to understand how something seemingly so simple as changing the route could have such disastrous consequences. Before a crew flies there’s a whole range of steps they need to undertake first. 45-60 minutes before departure the crew gathers to go through planning like air traffic control, weather forecasts, VIPs on board and particular cargo. They also double check maintenance of the aircraft and technical issues. Essentially, it’s all about doing the last final checks.

This particular crew had an additional task. Before departure, they needed to make sure that the programmed flight was correctly stored on the aircraft. They do this in essentially the same way, even today. They input various landmarks, waymarks checking that they’re in the expected location – at the correct duration during the flight. This also means that the aircraft could – in theory, fly automatically, without human input in some areas. The crew had identified the 40 mile wide McMurdo Sound as somewhere where the craft could fly without human input. They had chosen this area because 19 days beforehand they were briefed by flight operations personnel who had walked them through the route – the exact flight down the McMurdo Sound. They’d also been given hard copies of the relevant coordinates, essentially as backup.

The McMurdo Sound

Captain Jim Collins plotted the route using the relevant coordinates at home so he could show his daughters where he would be going – he made no mention of Mount Erebus

Flight planners, on the night before the flight made what they thought was one small correction to the route – tiny and insignificant, simply a small correction to counteract the computerisation of the flight plans. This would be little more than two miles. If you compare that to other flights – two miles would have been the standard level of error on flights of that duration. The actual change – 30 nautical miles, how did that happen? How did one change, seemingly ridiculously small become so huge?

Initially, as flight plans became computerised, they operated in a safe and logical way – there was nothing abnormal about them. This was, until people began to change them! A computer operator keyed a 4 instead of a 6 into the flight plan. This was what introduced the change of 30 nautical miles but no one noticed! This was because the route would  avoid Mount Erebus and travel down the McMurdo Sound. This would appear safer – flying down over an icy plain appeared safer than directly over a volcano.

This change in the flight plan resulted in an end landmark near the Dailey Islands – a small group of volcanic islands. Although the route was arguably safer, previous aircraft hardly ever flew to that point. For 14 months, crews flew this altered route – and everything went smoothly.

After the incident, the airline still upheld their thoughts – that the flight planners and management staff still thought the route went directly over Mount Erebus. This was surprising considering it was common knowledge amongst flight crews and publicity officers that the track ran down the McMurdo Sound.

The aviation industry constantly talks about “situational awareness” – simply that individuals in control of a task should have an awareness of not just the bare bones of the job in hand but other factors which might impact how someone can carry out the task in hand. Through no fault of their own, the crew had lost all situational awareness before they’d even left the ground. Flight planners made a small change – the path went from the McMurdo Sound to right over Mount Erebus. The crew’s minds were programmed for the other route, their pre-flight briefing was geared towards the other route. They were just not prepared for the change that later followed.

This is roughly what their paper flight plan would have looked like.

Tragic Consequences

30 nautical miles, putting in 4 rather than a 6 and communication issues were all that stood between the crew, passengers and death. The plane struck the mountain and in an instant all 257 staff and crew died.
New Zealand and American personnel were involved in the search and rescue operation. The operation was both physically and emotionally draining. The years following the incident, the rescuers have recounted tales of retrieving bodies from amongst the debris. In addition to retrieving the bodies, one of the early goals of the operation was to retrieve both the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) in the hope they would hold some kind of explanation for the disaster. Controversy followed as some published transcripts didn’t match other versions of events.
Similarly to a lot of other airline disasters, we may never know exactly what happened and the direct actions which led to such tragic consequences. There’s a number of probable issues with the flight – and a number of lessons we can learn to apply to today’s air travel.

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