Erebus flight overdue

Erebus flight overdue

This still frame from the TVNZ documentary Erebus disaster investigation shows a couple waiting for passengers at Auckland Airport on the evening of the Erebus disaster.


Air New Zealand's Antarctic Flight TE901 was scheduled to make a refuelling stop in Christchurch at 7.05 p.m. NZDT*. Around 50 passengers and the flight and cabin crew were expected to disembark. Friends and family of the disembarking passengers were waiting, as was the new crew that would take the aircraft on to Auckland.

People arriving to meet passengers were initially told that it was not unusual for the flight to run a little late if the pilots had spent extra time sightseeing. But as time went by it became clear to all that something was wrong. Friends and family were closeted in a VIP lounge and given refreshments by Air New Zealand staff. They were eventually joined by members of the Salvation Army.

By this time the news that something was wrong with the flight had been relayed to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre’s headquarters in Auckland and Police national headquarters in Wellington. Auckland Special Operations were given responsibility for confirming the passenger list, notifying next of kin that the flight was overdue, and obtaining information from them. They passed details of overseas passengers to Interpol’s Wellington office, which contacted its international counterparts to ask that they notify next of kin.

Oceanic Control was coordinating the New Zealand end of the search and rescue operations. By 8 p.m. NZDT an RNZAF Orion had left Whenuapai airbase, Auckland, to check the waters south of New Zealand. The Navy frigate Taranaki was instructed to head to Dunedin to take on extra fuel and then join the search.

It is unclear which media first broke the news, but some journalists knew something was wrong by around 7 p.m. NZDT. Warren Head, a Christchurch Star journalist covering the Air New Zealand-Shell Open Golf Championship, heard there was a problem just after 7. He rang his editor, Michael Forbes, and the paper’s Wellington correspondent, Ian Templeton, to advise them of the situation.

As Air New Zealand chief executive Morrie Davis packed for an immediate return to Auckland, a reporter entered his hotel room and asked him to comment on the overdue flight. Davis declined to do so, but news of a problem with the flight was possibly announced in radio bulletins from this time onwards.

Other newspapers had certainly heard that the flight was overdue by approximately 8.20 p.m. NZDT, and TVNZ interrupted its normal broadcasting with a special news bulletin just after 8.30. Newsreader Bill McCarthy stated that concerns were held for the flight, which had been out of touch for several hours, but noted that these were ‘unconfirmed reports’. Air New Zealand didn’t issue its first statement – confirming that the aircraft was overdue – until approximately 9 p.m., around the flight’s scheduled arrival time at Māngere airport, Auckland.

*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: Hearing the news

Next page: Out of fuel


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