News & Opinions of Peter Tremayne VSHP - 2019

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Death on the Ice

Trespassers at the End of the World

Altitude is life insurance. No one has ever collided with the sky.


Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold

Thanks to a fortuitous meeting in early October 1979 at my Singapore apartment, I was able to save the lives of my parents by advising them not to make reservations on any of the Air New Zealand (ANZ) charter flights to Antarctica planned for the southern summer of that year. 
I was living in Singapore, employed by an Australian aviation company as a demonstration and delivery pilot. 

The chance meeting was with longtime friends from New Zealand Air Force days who had joined ANZ in the mid-1970s and were now flying DC-10 airliners on the Pacific routes. I’d been absent from the New Zealand aviation scene for a few years but had heard the rumors of the Antarctic Charters for “tourists in street clothes,” and couldn’t believe the New Zealand Civil Aviation Department (CAD) would continue approving these potentially dangerous flights. My visitors told me otherwise: the airline had advertised four Antarctic charters during November 1979.

My visitors, like me, came from similar backgrounds in the RNZAF. We’d trained on AT-6 Harvard's in Christchurch in the mid to late 1950s. Then moved on to fly Bristol Freighters in Auckland and Singapore with No. 41 Squadron. Then finally to fly C-130 Hercules with No. 40 Squadron in Auckland. Each springtime at 40 Squadron (1968-1972), we took part in Operation Ice Cube, which involved multiple flights between Christchurch and McMurdo Sound, landing on the ice runway at Williams Field. When my visitors raised the subject of the next scheduled ANZ Antarctic flights, I assumed that they, and other RNZAF Ice Cube veterans then flying for ANZ, would be involved in planning these flights. Sadly that was not the case. From what I recall, they said that none of the ex-RNZAF Antarctic pilots were volunteering for the trips and had not been approached for their input by ANZ flight operations staff? 

Whatever the case, hypothetically placing myself in their shoes, I imagined ANZ ignoring even my experienced input, particularly if I recommended that they scrap the whole idea unless some serious omissions were corrected. For starters, I was astounded that ANZ had no intention of providing cold weather survival clothing and equipment on board for passengers and crew. Had they planned to request experienced ‘Ice Cube’ C-130 pilots from the RNZAF to fly in the DC-10 cockpits (or vice versa), who could make valuable suggestions on the approach and descent to McMurdo Sound? Had they planned to install in their DC-10’s a temporary TACAN radio-nav receiver that would enhance low-level navigation within the McMurdo area?  I believe the answer was no to all. I could only assume that ANZ flight crews didn’t need any help from either the New Zealand or United States military aviators. 

Maybe they were too bloody arrogant for that, or more likely, ANZ Management realized that briefing passengers about cold-weather clothing and survival equipment (tents, gas-stoves, ropes, ice axes, etc.) onboard, would expose the Company’s unspoken concerns that these Antarctic flights were potentially hazardous. The result would be a stampede to get off the airplane before departure, and a subsequent loss of interest by future passengers. Therefore, in my opinion, it was a Public Relations decision not to have the equipment onboard. Nor was it in the Company’s best interest to have their crews checked out on RNZAF Ice Cube flights because of the possibility that the ANZ pilots would return from these exploratory flights demanding many necessary fixes to reduce the level of risk. From the vocabulary of the Home Computer world two decades later, a handbook produced by ANZ for the charter crews would have been called Antarctic Flying for Dummies.

When the ANZ visitors left my Singapore apartment, I wasted no time in phoning my parents in New Zealand. From a recent letter I’d received in Singapore, my Dad had expressed a plan for him and Mom to take the last November charter flight by ANZ to see a small piece of the Antarctic Continent. Dad was a retired Air Force officer, so when I explained my unease about how reckless these flights were, he took my concerns seriously. A few days later I departed Singapore on a flight to San Antonio in the USA, hoping that Dad would bow out of his Antarctic dreams.

On November 28, 1979, I’d flown from Guam to Saipan and returned to Guam on demonstration flights of a new Swearingen Metroliner, a twenty-seat, twin-engine commuter airplane. Back in Guam that evening, I saw on the local TV station the stunning news that an Air New Zealand DC-10 airplane had crashed in Antarctica. My immediate response was to phone my parents in New Zealand, concerned that Dad may have ignored my warning about the Antarctic flights. Many desperate hours passed before the call went through from the somewhat primitive phone system in Guam. What a great relief when Dad answered, only for him to provide a horror story of the crash as early reports arrived in New Zealand from the US Naval Support Force at McMurdo Sound. The foreboding and prescience that I’d experienced at the Singapore meeting had saved the lives of my parents, but sadly not the 20 crew and 237 passengers that were on this doomed flight.


The Wisdom of an Experienced Antarctic Aviator

In the forty years since the crash, I’ve often wondered whether I could have influenced the fatal outcome of these poorly planned and executed charter flights. In reality, if ANZ management would not listen to their own pilots, some of whom had excellent Antarctic flight credentials, they’d never listen to an outsider like me. If you’re wondering why I've only now come out of the sands of Nevada, making educated judgments on the fate of TE 901? It’s because I’m writing a memoir about my forty-two years in professional aviation, and part of that story was the wisdom to warn my parents about the hazards of the ANZ charters. So, where did that personal knowledge come from? The answer is in this website at: Flying in Antarctica.


A Disaster Looking for a Place to Happen

My professional opinion: The flight crew decided it was safe to descend below the Minimum Safe Altitude (MSA) of 16,000 feet in poor visibility, unsure of their actual position, using as their sole navigation aid a system (AINS) specifically excluded in their Operations Manual for the conduct of descent below safe sector or enroute altitudes. Ron Chippendale’s Aircraft Accident Report No. 79-139 as Chief Inspector of Air Accidents for the Ministry of Transport, New Zealand, released on 12 June 1980 contains the most logical reasons for the crash of ANZ Flight 901. I believed the findings of the Report in 1980, and still do in this year of 2020, forty years after the accident. The final act in a an escalating series of crew errors was the tragic CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) event while running low-level (1500 feet) below cloud at 260 knots (300 mph). For me, this action by the crew still remains unbelievable. 

The pilots flying the DC-10 were like me, trained in the Harvard AT-6 in the RNZAF, which included lessons in Bad Weather Low Flying, so why didn’t they slow the aircraft down by lowering its high-lift devices, thus giving them more time to avoid the impact, following the  “Terrain” warning they received from the installed GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System)?  That answer lies in the Accident Report:  Their Airline Operations instructions for Antarctic flights included the recommendation to not extend high-lift devices in case those devices became stuck in the extended position.  If so, the DC-10 would be incapable of returning to New Zealand (high drag -insufficient fuel), and the crew would have no option but to attempt a landing on the Ice Runway at McMurdo Sound.  This high-lift device exclusion is perhaps the best example that ANZ clearly understood the abnormal hazards associated with these commercial flights over Antarctica.

Note on the Royal Commission's erroneous waypoint theory: Since the AINS was excluded explicitly for use as the sole method of navigation below the MSA of 16,000 feet, all waypoints entered in the system were irrelevant and should have been ignored. However, if any of the crew had been plotting on a paper chart, the readily available Lat/Long position readout from the AINS, they would have seen that Ross Island was coming up fast, and straight ahead.

Having recently reread the tedious flawed assertions in the Report of the Royal Commission, compiled by a bunch of ambulance chasing lawyers, what I see is the deliberate obfuscation of factual information provided in Chippendale’s Report. I had absconded from the relatively small aviation world of New Zealand after the accident, realizing that any desire I had retained to be hired as a pilot with ANZ, was gone. But I’ve wondered all these years, what was the purpose of creating a false narrative about the reason for the crash? I can understand the pilot’s union, NZALPA, trying to protect its turf, and the families of the Flight Deck Crew, but that surely didn’t justify a Royal Commission. 

So what was it for?  Perhaps to insure that ANZ continued to be seen as a safe airline, and not put on the Never Fly With list with Garuda, Korean Air and other Third World airlines from those days? Or maybe it had something to do with Compensation payments when the litigation lawyers showed up from the USA, Europe and Japan? One fact I recall about New Zealand insurance coverage was the sensible  limited liability clauses, unlike in the USA, where the sky’s the limit. So I keep thinking, was there a lower liability limit for the crash victims if the pilots were cleared of blame? If so, it would have been a powerful justification for creating the false narrative. Or perhaps the Commission was simply a cover-up, hiding the ultimate responsibility of the Minister of Transport, the Civil Aviation Division, and Air New Zealand’s Management, all entities who approved the flights. If this simple country boy from Papatoetoe had the knowledge to warn his parents about flying over Antarctica with ANZ, one month before the worst air accident in New Zealand’s history, then what were these entities thinking when they signed off on Antarctica for Wannabe Polar Explorers?


©Peter Tremayne, July 13, 2020, Reno, Nevada USA



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