P_7878

Mount Erebus Disaster - what we know & learned (I)

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It took me two flights to get this story right, so here is Part I...

A controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) is an accident in which an airworthy aircraft, under pilot control, is unintentionally flown into the ground, a mountain, a body of water or an obstacle. In a typical CFIT scenario, the crew is unaware of the impending disaster until it is too late. The topic and images of this story (in 2 Parts) cover the case of a well-known CFIT accident.

On 28 November 1979, Air New Zealand Flight (TE-901), designed and marketed as a unique sightseeing experience, left Auckland International Airport at 8:00 am for the continent of Antarctica. It was expected to arrive back at Christchurch International Airport at 7:00 pm after flying a total of 5,360 miles. The aircraft would make a 45-minute stop at Christchurch for refueling and crew change, before flying the remaining leg back to Auckland, arriving at 9:00 pm. The aircraft used on this Antarctic flight was Air New Zealand's (own) McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 trijet with registration ZK-NZP (Note: For this story here, the exact livery/color is used including the correct Registration (credit to HJG) - this registration has not been reissued since). Carrying an experienced Antarctic guide (e.g. Sir Edmund Hillary, of Mt Everest fame, was actually scheduled to act as the guide for this flight, but had to cancel owing to other commitments), the flight would point out the scenic features and landmarks using the aircraft's public-address system, while passengers enjoyed a low-flying sweep of the McMurdo Sound. Please see the screenshot of the applicable/actual Map/Route (sourced from Wiki) of the flight below - shown before the final few images.

At 12.49 pm. (NZST), the aircraft flew into Mt Erebus, the 12,448-foot tall mountain, on the small Ross Island (formed by four volcanoes), just off the main landmass, near Antarctica. All 237 passengers and 20 crew on board lost their lives. Flight 901 had collided with the mountain at an altitude of approximately 1,500 feet, on the lower slopes of it. It was the worst civil disaster in New Zealand's history, and is especially noteworthy because it happened in one of the remotest parts of the world - the iceberg continent of Antarctica, most of which is usually covered by greater than a mile thick ice shield. It's a perpetually cold place, and also dark much of the year (nearly 6-months), with no conventional ATC/communication, navaid, charts, or rescue support available.

The root cause of the accident was that, the departure airport Navigation unit had changed the McMurdo (Antarctica) waypoint coordinate stored in the ground computer system at approximately 1:40 am on the morning of the flight, and more crucially, the flight crew was not notified of this change. The flight plan printout given to the crew on the morning of the flight, which was subsequently entered by them into the aircraft's INS, differed from the flight plan presented at the earlier briefing and the map mark-ups which the Captain himself had prepared the night before the fatal flight. The flight plan printed on the morning of the flight corresponded to a track that coincided directly with Mount Erebus, and this per-programmed INS waypoint would then navigate the plane on a course pre-set for a deadly collision with the mountain. The latitude/longitude of the impact point is believed to be S77°30.46 E167°12.19. For this SIM flight with HJG's DC-10-30 (aided by AS “Antarctica X”, a scenery I've had for sometime, but had not explored till now), I have input five INS waypoints into the custom-added (single) CIVA INS of this DC-10 including one for the impact point, stated above, as the last (5th) INS waypoint. The actual Flight 901 had performed a hold-pattern type loop (see Screenshot Route on Map below) close to McMurdo Sound (to afford greater visibility to the passengers), before proceeding on to the rest of the fatal flight. On the “Antarctica X” scenery, due to ethical reasons, and (rightly so), AS has (intentionally) excluded any of the wreckage being visible on the mountain slopes, although most of it is still there, intermittently visible when the cover of snow and ice melts.

The flight crew believed they were flying over McMurdo Sound, well to the west of Mount Erebus (supposed to be 27 miles west over McMudo Sound), when in reality they were flying directly toward Mt Erebus (over Lewis Bay). Despite most of the crew being engaged in identifying visual landmarks at the time, they never perceived the mountain directly in front of them (a puzzle that was later explained by an independent (also remarkable and extra-ordinary) analysis carried out by NZ Captain Gordon Vette. Outside, there was a layer of clouds that blended with the white of the snow-covered volcano, forming, what came to be known as "Sector Whiteout" – there was no contrast between the two to warn the pilots (see the final screenshot images below). The effect deceived everyone on the flight deck, making them believe that the white mountainside was the Ross Ice Shelf, a huge expanse of floating ice derived from the great ice sheets of Antarctica. "Sector whiteout" has since become part of the training for pilots navigating into the Continent. Captain Vette's research was heralded internationally as ground-breaking, and his theory played a pivotal role in understanding the causes of the accident and, more importantly, in preventing recurrences.

I've included two sets of images in this story. The first set (in this post) is flown with DC-10-30/ZK-NZP. I have, of course, terminated the flight at RA=400', short of the impact. You may monitor the Radio Altitude gauge at top RHS of the final few images (along with the actual altitude (=1500') on the info-gauge, at top LHS). I'm not able to reproduce the sounds of my custom (SIM) RA-call-outs (added to the DC-10) here, but, the text of the actual-flight's GPWS call-outs is quoted below.

Thanks for viewing these images, and reading the account of the multi-faceted nature of the causes of this disaster that makes the Erebus story eternally relevant and compelling for aviation in general, and especially for future flight operations into this continent. [AS(Antarctica)/HJG(DC10)/REX]

GPWS/CVR Record (Note the incomplete "Pull-"):

"GPWS: "Whoop whoop. Pull up. Whoop whoop..."
FE: "500 feet (150 m)."
GPWS: "...Pull up."
FE: "400 feet (120 m)."
GPWS: "Whoop, whoop. Pull up. Whoop whoop. Pull up."
CA: "Go-around power please."
GPWS: "Whoop, whoop. Pull-""

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Nice shots and description of events. Just one comment, as it was spring/ summer time the morning was bright while they departed.

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Posted (edited)

A fun flight that ended in a tragedy. R.I.P.

Thanks for these fascinating stories, P_7878, keep them coming, please.

Cheers

edit: btw, I REALLY want a good DC-10 in P3D v4....

Edited by pedrotrindade
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Well, i am using CLS HD modded to the limits with increadibly good flight dynamics and thats my favorite plane. Ohh, and btw, i own all study level planes in my hangar which i enjoy but still, Dc10 is the one.

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Naturally they tried to pin all the blame on the pilot.

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Sector whiteout - a term that will direct to NZ901 for ever now.

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Posted (edited)

Just watched a documentary about this the other day.

As with most airplane accidents and other major disasters, they are oftentimes the result of a series of mistakes or faults instead of just a single thing.

In this case you have the coordinate change, the failure to inform the flight crew of the change, and the failure of the flight crew to heed the weather/visibility warnings.

Although multiple things contributed to the crash, I primarily blame the Captain here as he should have never gotten so low when he couldn't see anything.  It was his first flight to this area so he was inexperienced, yet he assumed he knew exactly where the airplane was. He was even warned by someone on the ground that conditions were poor.

Dave

 

Edited by dave2013

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2 hours ago, KrisJ said:

Well, i am using CLS HD modded to the limits with increadibly good flight dynamics and thats my favorite plane. Ohh, and btw, i own all study level planes in my hangar which i enjoy but still, Dc10 is the one.

Does it work in p3d v4?

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Folks: Thanks much for the notes and comments! My idea here is to get a feeling for myself of the actual flight, and share it with you (myself being nowhere near to what the real pilots do or experience!)...Still, from the learning perspective (one of my primary objectives), it helps me to plan/execute a flight like this...

This was very complex case. Regarding whose fault it is (or is not), there's clearly some remnants of controversy still, but I would prefer to leave it to you to make your own conclusions (there is plenty of materials available these days on-line). I have done a bit of study myself, but, my knowledge is limited (especially compared to someone e.g. from NZ, itself, who may be a lot more familiar with this tragic incidence..)...And, of course, as long as the final result is to improve safety-levels so such an occurrence never happens again...!

But, Captain Vette has impressed me great deal. There is a small and interesting side-story about him, btw, that exhibits his determination and strength of character. He had saved the life of an American C188 pilot - lost in the Pacific and running out of fuel... (If you wish, search for "Flight771 Rescue/Mercy Mission"). He was the right person to take on the challenge of another critical-analysis of NZ Flight-901 (against the reports of the higher authorities). He deserves credit for that, but, it did not come free for him...

Regarding a good DC-10, the CLS is the closest, probably, but it's nowhere near "study". However, it appears, KrisJ (above) has been able to do some "modded" updates...if (Pedro) you're interested in it...(until then for a look-alike, PMDG MD-11 will do for me...🙂.)...

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16 hours ago, pedrotrindade said:

Does it work in p3d v4?

Yes, but there is no click sound in the cockpit. I managed to fix that partially using some freeware cockpit sounds replacement addon.

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