Air New Zealand Flight TE901

Click on the photograph above to see a slide show of images from an Air New Zealand photographic booklet, The Antarctic experience, given to passengers on the Antarctic flights. It includes scenes from the flight over Antarctica, historical information, and images of dog teams and wildlife on the ice.

Air New Zealand Flight TE901

Shortly before 8.30 a.m. NZDT* on 28 November 1979, Air New Zealand Flight TE901 left Māngere airport, Auckland, for an 11-hour return flight to Antarctica. During the journey south TE901 communicated with the air traffic control centre in Auckland (Oceanic Control Centre) before switching to the United States Navy's air traffic control centre at McMurdo Station, Antarctica (Mac Centre) at approximately 11 a.m. NZDT.

Take off

The flight was scheduled to leave Auckland at 8.03 a.m. NZDT, but was delayed for some minutes after a female passenger demanded to leave the aircraft. She eventually reboarded the plane after being assured by Air New Zealand staff that the Antarctic flights were safe.

TE901 was also in communication with a US Air Force Lockheed C-141A Starlifter which was flying approximately 50 minutes behind it. This flight, piloted by Major Bruce Gumble, was carrying dignitaries to McMurdo Station to take part in a flight commemorating the 50th anniversary of Admiral Byrd's South Pole flight.

As TE901 made its way south past via the Balleny Islands and Cape Hallett, passengers were treated to a champagne breakfast, lunch and three films: Amundsen - explorer, The big ice and 140 days under the ice. There was also plenty of reading material, including copies of the airline's domestic and international in-flight magazines, and a brief history, Antarctic fragments. Some of this material made for chilling reading in the aftermath of the tragedy - a 16-page photographic booklet described Mt Erebus as the 'sentinel of McMurdo' and referred to McMurdo Sound as a 'coast of bleak beauty'.

The menu

Passengers were given copies of the in-flight menu as souvenirs. The lunch menu included 'Bay Prawns and Antarctic Scallops' and 'Peach Erebus' - a peach topped with meringue and cream to replicate the icy peak.

TE901 was scheduled to arrive over Antarctica between 12 and 1 p.m. NZST, and from around noon it was in ongoing contact both with Mac Centre and the 'Ice Tower' at nearby Williams Field. At 12.18 NZST, when TE901 was about 140 miles (225 km) from McMurdo Station, the forecaster at Mac Centre advised that there was a low overcast at about 2000 ft (610 m) in the Ross Island area, but that despite some light snow visibility was about 40 miles (64 km). Mac Centre granted permission for a descent to 18,000 ft (5490 m) and advised that once the flight was within 40 miles (64 km) of McMurdo Station they could, if desired, provide a radar controlled let-down to 1500 ft (457 m). The crew accepted this offer.

At 12.32 the crew reported they were 43 miles from McMurdo Station and asked for approval to descend further in visual meteorological conditions (VMC). Mac Centre approved this and asked to be kept advised of their altitude. At 12.35 NZST the crew reported they were at 13,000 ft and advised they were descending to 10,000 ft (3050 m) VMC. Mac Centre asked whether they required a radar-controlled let-down through the cloud at this level and this was accepted. But at 12.42 NZST the crew advised that they were flying VMC and would now proceed visually to McMurdo Station. Mac Centre asked that the aircraft maintain VMC and keep them advised of their altitude. At 12.45 NZST the crew advised Mac Centre that they were at 6000 ft (1830 m) in the course of descending to 2000 ft (610 m), and still VMC. This was the last communication from TE901. Four minutes and 42 seconds later, at 12.49 p.m. NZST, the aircraft crashed into the lower slopes of Mt Erebus, killing all on board.

Last message

A number of contemporary accounts of the crash put the time of the aircraft's last communication at 2.18 p.m. NZDT, almost half an hour after the crash, rather than 1.45 p.m. (NZDT), four minutes and 42 seconds before the crash. Mac Centre and Air New Zealand, which had provided the initial time, later advised that this was incorrect, reporting that confusion had arisen over communications from the US Air Force Starlifter.

* On the day of the Erebus disaster there was a one-hour time difference between New Zealand and McMurdo Station. McMurdo Station was operating under New Zealand Standard Time (NZST), while New Zealand was operating under daylight saving or New Zealand Daylight Time (NZDT). Scott Base and McMurdo Station did not begin observing daylight saving until the summer of 1992/93.

Part of: Timeline to disaster

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