Peter Dunne: Time to heal Erebus wounds after all these years

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The families of the Air New Zealand TE901 flight crew need the closure a formal exoneration would bring. Photo / NZ Herald
The families of the Air New Zealand TE901 flight crew need the closure a formal exoneration would bring. Photo / NZ Herald

Among the many comments following the announcement by Air New Zealand's chief executive Rob Fyfe that he would be stepping down was a reference to the fact he was the first Air New Zealand chief executive to apologise for the airline's handling of the Mt Erebus tragedy more than 30 years ago.

However, as this and Paul Holmes' recent powerful book poignantly remind us, there is still unfinished business with the Erebus affair - specifically the exoneration of Captain Jim Collins, First Officer Greg Cassin and the crew of TE901 for what happened on November 28, 1979.

Erebus is our version of the Kennedy assassination - an event that scarred our nation. An event that all who were alive at the time have vivid memories of, where we were when we heard the news, and the controversies, conspiracies, and suspicions that have played such a significant role in the unfolding of subsequent events.

Justice Peter Mahon's seminal commission of inquiry conclusion that a navigational programming error, of which the flight crew was unaware and that sent TE901 winging its way into a mountain, has never been credibly challenged.

This is despite the uproar at the time and the successful legal proceedings over the judge's colourful descriptions of the airline's actions as "a predetermined plan of deception" and "an orchestrated litany of lies".

The fact remains that it was the navigational programming errors that predetermined TE901's fate that awful day, not the actions of Captain Collins and his crew.

Over the years, various loose ends in this saga have been resolved. Nearly two decades after the crash, Justice Mahon's report was tabled formally in Parliament, implying official recognition at last of its conclusions.

Air New Zealand's apology and the 30th anniversary memorial visits to the site in November 2009 were a further step forward. But through all this, one step has remained untaken - there has been no formal exoneration of Captain Collins and his crew for their actions, and consequently no real lifting of the burden their families have had to carry ever since.

So while no one today accepts the preposterous notion put forward at the time that they deliberately and knowingly flew their aircraft into the side of a mountain, the absence of an exoneration has allowed the lingering suspicion to remain that maybe there was more to this after all than Justice Mahon's findings, despite the fact no evidence was produced to support this.

Some may say Erebus was a long time ago, and taking action now to exonerate the crew simply opens up old wounds. Well, the crew's families have had to live with those wounds for more than 30 years now, and it is time to heal them. Besides that, Captain Collins and his crew did not cause the crash, the navigational co-ordinates programming error did.

While Air New Zealand's belated apology was a good start, it needs to be backed up by a formal exoneration by Parliament of the flight crew.

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