The podcast and video series Erebus Flight 901: Litany of Lies? runs on nzherald.co.nz on weekdays from Monday November 18 to Thursday November 28, the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster. Each day we'll highlight a key moment from the podcast transcript of that episode. You can listen to all the episodes in the NZ On Air-funded series in the iHeart player below or catch up on all our coverage of the disaster at nzherald.co.nz/erebus
Gary Harrison was an Auckland junior barrister and doing a lot of traffic appeal work for the Auckland City Council Traffic Department. Then he was chosen by Justice Peter Mahon, who headed the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Erebus crash, as junior counsel to assist him. The inquiry began in July 1980, eight months after the disaster.
Says Harrison, now a District Court Judge: "This was supposed to be a search for the truth, for exactly what happened. But it began to be more like litigation, with Air New Zealand adopting a fairly entrenched position, and the airline pilots and the representatives of the estates of Captain Collins and the co-pilot in a different camp. And so certainly a search for the truth began in earnest."
(There were plenty of loose ends to mop up, after witnesses gave their evidence, he explains.) "I remember one fairly extraordinary moment when I was cross-examining one of the airline pilots who had recovered Captain Collins' notebook. And we had the cover of the notebook, but there were no pages in it. And, of course, there was intense interest to see what notes he'd made for the flight. And I said to the witness did he know what had happened to the notes within the folder. And he said 'oh yes, I destroyed them'."
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(There were more such incidents.) "There had to be some sort of cover-up."
"There was this undercurrent the whole time that something is not right here. And the more we inquired into it, the more that emerged."
(Asked if he has a theory as to who did the orchestrating, Harrison says he does.)
"My theory was that when the chief pilot came back from the ice … we heard there was an immediate meeting with Mr [Morrie] Davis [Air New Zealand chief executive] and Captain [David] Eden, who was the director of flight operations. And that was just my personal theory, but that is where I believe they decided they would adopt the stance that Air New Zealand would adopt the approach that the only route over the active volcano was the true flight path."
(Justice Mahon always came to his own conclusions and never asked Harrison about them, he says. And when the report came out): "I remember reading the fateful paragraph and the reference to the predetermined plan of deception and the orchestrated litany of lies. I thought to myself: 'oh no, I think they might have gone too far. But that was a personal view."