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 below or catch up on all our coverage of the disaster at nzherald.co.nz/erebus

For the first time ever, a US navigator has revealed his panicked alert to the crew of the doomed Air NZ flight to Erebus. First lieutenant Marlin Knock was flying 40 minutes behind Flight 901 on a C-141 Starlifter.

Picture from the 1979 recovery operation collection, Pictured is central fuselage wreckage. Photo / Supplied
Picture from the 1979 recovery operation collection, Pictured is central fuselage wreckage. Photo / Supplied

It was Wednesday November 28 1979. As they reached Antarctica, the pilots of both planes were in regular contact. But when Knock plotted the Air New Zealand DC10 course, he realised they were headed straight for Erebus in cloud conditions. "What I had realised [was] they were headed straight for the mountain going down," says Knock. Forty years later he says his heart still races when he recalls urging his crew on the flight deck to: "call them back now".

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Knock recounts the scene on the Starlifter in the moments before the crash. "We called them [Flight 901], we got a hold of them and we were talking with them, saying 'how was it?' They said 'well we're here now and we're flying, but it's overcast over the area'. So our guys go: 'Where are you located?' They gave me a position which I plotted and they said they were descending to 5000 feet. Which made my heart stop, because I stopped and I went 'they're pretty close to Erebus.' I said 'call them back, call them back now'. What I realised, they were headed straight for the mountain, going down. I said 'they're headed towards the mountain and they're descending. There's no way they're going to make it'.

"That's when they got back on the horn to call them. One of my pilots called; we got no answer. [I was] in shock, pretty much. Because I knew that they were gone, but there was no proof of it. But I had this feeling, and I was like 'I can't believe this.'

Marlin Knock, a US navigator on board a C-141 Starlifter, tried to send a warning to the doomed AIR NZ plane. Photo / supplied
Marlin Knock, a US navigator on board a C-141 Starlifter, tried to send a warning to the doomed AIR NZ plane. Photo / supplied

"Basically we heard nothing else from them. When we landed [at McMurdo Base], we talked to the tower. We said: 'have you heard anything from them'? They said no. They said 'we're going to need some help. We think they've …' And I said 'I think I know'.

"I brought in an aeronautical chart that I have. It gives the whole terrain on the map and the area. I put a little mark on the chart, saying 'here's where they were, and the direction, whatever. Here's where I think you're going to find them'.

Wreckage of the Air New Zealand crash on Mt Erebus. Photo /supplied
Wreckage of the Air New Zealand crash on Mt Erebus. Photo /supplied

"Pilots aren't navigators. Pilots use radio aids to figure out approximately where they are. They do not have the charts. They don't have the terrain charts. They have what's called the aerial knowledge of where they are in the whole works … But as far as being able to plot it on a chart, I don't believe they had a chance."