Holmes lifts lid on Erebus disaster

By LAWRENCE GULLERY


A book that sheds new light on New Zealand's most infamous air accident aims to provide some freedom for a family that has endured more than 30 years of suffering.

Broadcaster Paul Holmes hopes his request to clear the names of the pilots blamed for the DC-10 airliner crash at Mt Erebus three decades ago will have its day in the sun when the new Government sits early next year.

Holmes, in his new book Daughters of Erebus, requests a parliamentary exoneration for Captain Jim Collins and First Officer Greg Cassin, the pilots of the Air New Zealand jet that crashed on November 28, 1979, killing all 257 people on board.

The book tracks in detail how the accident impacted on the lives of the family of Captain Collins, who left behind a wife, Maria, and four daughters, Kathryn, Elizabeth, Phillipa and Adrienne.

Copies of the book were sent to MPs and Holmes said he had received 20 replies, including one from Prime Minister John Key.

"He told me he would read the book over summer ... but it is a big year for Parliament - we've got the [Rugby] World Cup, the general election and then summer, so I'm not expecting anything to mature until next year."

Holmes said it was a "big hurdle to cross" but one he was willing to stride to set the record straight on the events leading up to the Erebus crash and the following inquiry, which concluded the pilots were to blame, clearing Air New Zealand and the Civil Aviation Authority.

His book looks into the technical details of the events and examines the findings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry, which was headed by Justice Peter Mahon, who found it was not pilot error that caused the crash.

In fact, the co-ordinates of the flight had been changed before its departure from Auckland without the two pilots being informed. And Daughters of Erebus looks into why the change was made that sent the aircraft on its fatal journey.

"The Mahon report was rubbished by [then Prime Minister Robert] Muldoon because it placed responsibility on the airline and cleared the pilots," Holmes said.

"The report wasn't tabled in Parliament until 1999, 20 years after, and at the moment it shares the same position on the table as the Chippindale report, which blames the pilots." Ron Chippindale was the chief inspector of air accidents at the time of the Erebus crash and his report was "an opposite account" of the Mahon report.

"There's a chapter in my book called 'It got too hard'. It suited the government of the time to make this story as confusing as possible so it got too hard for people to understand," Holmes said.

"My mission was to write the story clearly about what happened in the air and the aftermath so we can understand it."

New Zealand's fascination with the Erebus incident had inspired previous books, reports, documentaries and a television mini-series in the late 1980s, some of which Holmes referenced for Daughters of Erebus.

"What you have is the destruction of an airliner in an unbelievably out-of-the-way part of the world and the disbelief that it had happened. Then you have the drama of the aftermath."

Holmes was working in Amsterdam when he heard news of the crash via a BBC radio news report in 1979.

In his book, he explains there were three previous tragedies involving mechanical faults on DC-10 aircrafts in the 1970s in Europe and America before Air New Zealand flight TE 901 crashed into Mt Erebus. "So I assumed it was another mechanical fault, but it was nothing like it. It was all human. That was the sad thing about it really. The DC-10 was a beautiful aircraft and pilots loved flying it."

The story also gives an account of other characters who became connected to the disaster, including Professor Nigel Robert, the Scott Base photographer who was eagerly awaiting the airliner to fly over McMurdo Sound on November 28, 1979, to capture the classic flyover photo. That opportunity never came as the DC-10 did not arrive.

"But the picture he did get next day would become of of the most iconic photographs in New Zealand, and aviation history. It was the broken, battered tail section, lying forlorn on the ice, the proud koru in the mist on the Antarctic mountain ice," Holmes wrote in the book.

Peter Mulgrew, an Antarctic explorer who was the in-flight commentator for the round trip to the South Pole, had replaced Sir Edmund Hillary for that particular journey.

Passengers would have taken photographs of the Antarctic landscape as they listened to Mr Mulgrew's commentary and it was those pictures, recovered from cameras found in the crash debris, that offered investigators some clues into the DC-10's flight path.

The book also has interviews with two of the police staff involved in body recovery at the crash site, Sergeant Greg Gilpin who was 33 at the time and Constable Stuart Leighton, who was 22. Both are now police inspectors and said the week they spent on Erebus had impacted on their lives since.

Holmes hoped the book would provide a "sense of fresh air" for Captain Collins' family members, giving them "freedom" rather than just closure. "My book is not aimed at Air New Zealand but at the government, to say it supports the findings that the pilots were completely cleared of blame."

Writing the book had been a harrowing but rewarding experience for Holmes, who said he lost track of time on many occasions when he sat at his home in Poukawa meticulously studying the many reports and accounts on the air accident.

"It was mammoth task really and at one stage very unhealthy because I got so obsessed, not leaving my desk, or getting any exercise, but just reading interviews and testimonies people gave me, re-reading them and cross-referencing."

Feedback on the book from a national tour had been positive although Holmes said there were always a few who wanted to challenge the outcome of the Mahon report.

He wasn't sure if the book could be turned into a television series but agreed there were many other stories connected to the Erebus crash that would no doubt come out in time.

Other story ideas for possible book projects had also developed during the course of promoting Daughters of Erebus to the nation.

"I've had people who know there are other good stories out there come up and suggest them to me. One of them is a really good idea, so already I am thinking about following that up."

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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