New Zealand's worst air disasters

Mt Erebus, 1979
Fatalities: 257

The worst air crash in New Zealand's history was on 28 November 1979, when Flight 901 slammed into the side of Mt Erebus on a sightseeing flight to Antarctica.

At 8:20 am the DC-10 left Auckland Airport. On board were 237 passengers and 20 crew, looking forward to the 11-hour return flight to Antarctica.

These sightseeing flights had been operating since February, 1977, and took the passengers on a low-flying sweep over McMurdo Sound, returning to New Zealand on the same day.

Captain Jim Collins and his co-pilot Greg Cassin had not flown the Antarctic flight before, but the flight was considered to be straightforward and they were both experienced pilots.

19 days earlier the pilots had attended a briefing session where they were shown the printouts of a flight plan used by previous flights to the Antarctic. The plan gave co-ordinates for the trip to Antarctica and across McMurdo Sound which when entered into the computerised navigation system, would be flown automatically by the plane.

However, a change in the co-ordinates led to the pilots trusting erroneous information, and the plane was actually around 50 kilometres to the east of where it should have been.

Due to the 'white-out' conditions that day, there was no visual cue for the pilots to discern the slopes of Mt Erebus from the icy plateau.

At 12.49pm, with less than 5 seconds' warning on the ground proximity indicator, the aircraft hit the mountainside.

20 hours after the crash, helicopter search parties were able to land at the site and confirm that the wreckage was the remains of Flight 901.

All 257 people on board had died.

The Erebus tragedy is remembered not only for its terrible loss of life but for the debate that raged over who or what was to blame.

The chief inspector of air accidents attributed the disaster to pilot error.

Justice Peter Mahon's Royal Commission of Inquiry disagreed, placing the blame on Air New Zealand and its systems. He accused company executives and management of covering up evidence and misleading investigators via the notorious phrase, "an orchestrated litany of lies".

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Kaimai Ranges, 1963
Fatalities: 23

In July 1963, a DC-3 Skyliner left Whenuapai Airport, Auckland, at 8:21 am on a scheduled 50-minute flight to Tauranga.

Conditions were stormy, with wind and low cloud. 22 passengers were supposed to be on the flight, but 3 passengers made last-minute changes to their plans and did not catch the flight.

At 9:06 am the pilot contacted the Tauranga aircraft control tower and gave an estimated arrival time of 9:08 am, and requested permission to begin his descent.

When the control tower tried to make contact at 9:14 am and again at 9:16 am, there was no reply from ZK-AYZ. People on the ground reported seeing the plane flying low.

At 11:58 am the crew of a searching Bristol Freighter found the wreckage of the missing plane in a ravine high in the Kaimai Ranges, and difficult to reach on foot.

The plane had flown into a vertical rock face. Fire had destroyed almost all of the plane wreckage, and all 23 on board perished.

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Mt Ruapehu, 1948
Fatalities: 13

In October, 1948, a Lockheed Electra left Palmerston North airport on a return flight to Hamilton. Conditions were windy, with thick cloud and rain.

At 1:38 pm the aircraft passed over Wanganui in heavy cloud and rain. It was due to arrive at Hamilton an hour later, but did not contact Hamilton when expected.

Ground and air searches were carried out in different places for several days without finding a trace of the missing plane.

A group of deerstalkers had reported hearing a plane near Mount Ruapehu on the day ZK-AGK went missing. A search on the mountain found wreckage near the summit.

A recovery party finally reached the crash site one week after the accident, but it was confirmed that all 13 on board the plane would have died instantly.

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Waikanae, 1949
Fatalities: 15

In March, 1949, a Lockheed Lodestar left Whenuapai Airport, Auckland on a flight to Christchurch and then Dunedin, with the first stop in Paraparaumu.

Conditions were windy, with low cloud and mist.

Again, as in the Mt Ruapehu accident a year earlier, there was no immediate indication that a problem had occurred.

When it was clear the plane was lost, RNZAF aircraft began searching the area and found smoking wreckage from the missing plane on the ridge behind Waikanae.

Fire had destroyed almost all of the plane wreckage, with all 15 on board found dead.

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Marlborough Sounds, 1985
Fatalities: 8

In October 1985 a Cessna 402 carrying a couple of family groups crashed into the Tory Channel in the Marlborough Sounds after striking power cables.

The pilot was Roger Phipps.

11 year old Cindy Mosey was the sole survivor of the crash which claimed eight lives including her parents and two sisters.

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Christchurch, 2003
Fatalities: 8

In June, 2003, a group of managers and researchers from the CRI Crop & Food were returning to Christchurch by charter flight after a conference in Palmerston North.

The pilot was Michael Bannerman.

The Piper Chieftain aircraft crashed in heavy fog just short of Christchurch International Airport in the early evening, killing the pilot and seven of his passengers.

Crop & Food managers Tim Lindley and Richard Barton survived but were seriously injured.

A subsequent inquiry found the the pilot was "inexperienced in night flying" and had made several errors in the approach to Christchurch airport in darkness.

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