Paul Holmes on New Zealand
Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: A few words can finally give closure on Erebus

Maria Collins with daughters (from left) Adrienne, Elizabeth, Kathryn and Pip. Picture / Glenn Jeffrey
Maria Collins with daughters (from left) Adrienne, Elizabeth, Kathryn and Pip. Picture / Glenn Jeffrey

MPs' exoneration of pilots would help heal a festering wrong

I know you've got heaps on your plates, but I feel I have to draw your attention again to the campaign by a few of us for some justice for the families of Jim Collins and Greg Cassin, the captain and first officer respectively on the 1979 Erebus flight.

For 30 years it has been plain as day that neither pilot had any responsibility for that accident. Justice Peter Mahon's report, finally tabled in 1999, holds the pilots absolutely clear of any blame.

I could be asking for a ministerial withdrawal of the Chippindale report from the International Civil Aviation Organisation. I should. But I'm not. I'm not because I think this would be too hard for the Government.

What we're asking for is simple. All I and the Collins family want is a clear, simply worded parliamentary exoneration of the pilots for any responsibility for the accident.

I don't want any aggro. I don't want any relitigation of all the old nasty things that went on. All we want is a simple statement to free the spirits of the two families.

But I'm getting a sense of ... drift. When I published Daughters of Erebus I sent 121 books to the MPs, with an open letter to them. I received 30 replies, some of them generous. From others, I heard nothing. One or two MPs have read the book and been moved and shocked by what they found. Peter Dunne is emphatic that there has to be some kind of statement of exoneration. He has no doubt, and I know Peter has followed the case for years.

But I don't get a sense of any burning parliamentary need to do something. Yet the Erebus aftermath is up there with many of the cruelties inflicted on innocent people in this country. It happened under our very noses. It happened under National. With respect, National has a chance to put it right.

Most of the men involved in it - and they were all men - set out deliberately to bamboozle the public. But Erebus was a very simple bungle of an accident caused by a head office deception of the pilots. But when Justice Mahon dared to tell that truth, the entire Wellington and Auckland legal establishments turned on him.

Daughters of Erebus explores the cruel and wicked machinations that went on after the accident but also explains the human toll endured by the Collins family. When Captain Collins flew that aircraft into the mountain that day, he took 256 others with him, he got the blame and he left behind a wife and four young girls who have never recovered from his receiving the initial blame. The headlines from the chief inspector's report were hugely damaging to Collins. But they suited the Government, Civil Aviation, the Ministry of Transport and the airline perfectly.

The chief inspector's report was reprehensible: the pilots were flying irresponsibly, they were too low and they didn't know where they were. He was wrong on all counts.

The Chippindale version of the crash was given vast publicity in the days before the royal commission started. It had a tremendous effect in confirming to public opinion that the pilots were way too low and they didn't know where they were. To shore his argument up, the chief inspector took himself off to London and made his own copy of the tape, making change after change detrimental to the aircrew. No one knew he was doing it. This is the CVR transcript he published.

Then he said some on the flight deck were trying to get the pilot to straighten up and fly right. This never happened. Chippindale made it up. It seems incredible, I know, but that's what he did. Only in the last 20 or 30 seconds was there concern that something wasn't right.

Mahon showed, with his unassailable logic, how the accident happened. The destination co-ordinates had been changed and the pilots not told. And they had been briefed that they would be flying straight down McMurdo Sound, its flat white sea ice stretching infinitely ahead of them. The mountain was way out to the left. Yeah, right. It was a head office muddle.

And Mahon saw that no one alive in any way related to that flight was going to take the blame. And the blame rested solely with the persons who changed the co-ordinates by miles and did not tell Captain Collins.

This is all fairly well-canvassed, I know. But what happened in the trail of it all was a breathtaking, scandalous, concerted process of cover-ups, coercions, obfuscations and simple bloody lies by the Government, the air accident inspectorate, Civil Aviation and, sorry to say it but it can't be avoided, the most senior people in the state-owned airline.

I implore our MPs to give some effort and thought to the matter of a simple exoneration of the pilots. To be read out in Parliament. For the families of the pilots to be there to see it happen. I believe this is something every member of Parliament would be proud to tell their children they were part of.

I'm imploring our MPs, the House itself, to go some way to mending the hearts of the families of the Erebus flight crew.

- NZ Herald

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