Queen's birthday honours: Captain Gordon Vette, J.P.

By Juliet Rowan, Mathew Dearnaley

For 15 years after the Erebus crash, Captain Gordon Vettepursued his conviction that an experienced crew would not simply fly straight into a mountain.

Captain Vette was a senior pilot with Air New Zealand when the 1979 disaster occurred and could not accept the official view that pilot error alone was the cause.

Working as a specialist adviser to Justice Peter Mahon, head of the commission of inquiry set up to re-investigate the crash, Captain Vette tirelessly researched the facts and found that managerial deficiencies in the design and operating stages of the aviation system were important contributing factors.

He also revealed new aspects of human visual disorientation that could cause pilots to fly into an obstacle in apparently clear visibility, fooled by an optical illusion called a sector whiteout.

Unbeknown to the crew of Antarctic site-seeing Flight 901, ground staff in Auckland had changed co-ordinates in their DC-10's computer, and the whiteout conditions led them to believe they were flying in safety over McMurdo Sound rather than heading towards a frozen volcano.

Captain Vette resigned from Air NZ in the face of political pressure at his views, but his research changed the approach to airline crash investigations worldwide.

Now, crash investigators take an organisational approach, scrutinising systems under which pilots operate, to improve flight safety rather than just apportion blame.

Captain Vette's work formed the basis of Justice Mahon's report, which was finally tabled in Parliament in 1999 and was hailed as vindication for the pilots.

Now 73, Captain Vette has been appointed an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to aviation.

He suffered a severe stroke four years ago and, although fully cognitive, cannot speak. On his behalf, his wife, Charmaine, said he was delighted with the award.

"It's sad that Gordon can't communicate, but I know how happy he is. It's nice to have his work recognised after all these years."

Captain Vette's son, Mark, said the honour was a "final congratulations from the country" and much deserved by his father.

"He's certainly done a lot of wonderful things in his life," Mark Vette said.

After the Erebus inquiry, Captain Vette continued his research on crashes into terrain, developing and enhancing ground-proximity warning systems.

He also wrote a book, Impact Erebus, which was followed by a video/DVD of the same name and an updated version of the book.

All proceeds of the books and film go to a flight safety trust fund which Captain Vette established to help prospective aviation safety investigators and researchers.

"That [flight safety] has been his passion really ever since Erebus," Mrs Vette said.

In 1998, Captain Vette was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow.

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