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

Peter Grundy is something of a reluctant witness. But the retired Air New Zealand executive pilot says that, 40 years after Erebus air crash, it's time to put a few records straight - before it's too late.

Grundy, who was also head of flight operations at the time, had done the Antarctic sightseeing trip himself: he was at the controls of the second flight to the ice. Based on his experience, and despite his initial hesitation, he has decided to speak up on behalf of all those who no longer can.

"A lot of my friends have been accused of things that I know they didn't do. Because there's not many of us left now, it's the last opportunity to present their side of the case. There's only three of us left, now. The rest have all passed on, sadly.

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Jim Collins, captain of flight TE901. Photo / supplied
Jim Collins, captain of flight TE901. Photo / supplied

"Jim [Collins, pilot of Flight TE-901] was a friend of mine. I liked him, but, equally, a number of other friends of mine have had their lives and the lives of their families devastated by the tragedy and its aftermath."

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(However, he was not blind to what he saw as the failings of his friend and colleague.)

"Well, Jim's accountability for the accident - you cannot resile from that. That was, in my view, the fundamental cause of the accident. It was pilot error. I did not agree with the [Justice Peter] Mahon Report (which exonerated Collins and his crew) in any shape or form. Some of those accusations were unconscionable.

"Jim was a very careful pilot. He flew by the book. [But] I think he was under pressure to give passengers a good view. What he did was virtually abandon the tenets of good airmanship at the expense of trying to get the passengers the best view they can.

"He didn't check the terminating waypoint on his flight bay before descending below minimum altitude, before descending below safety altitude. That is a fundamental requirement of all pilots - then and now - before you go below your safety altitude, you must know where you are."

Former Air New Zealand executive pilot Peter Grundy maintains the Erebus disaster was caused by pilot error and Justice Peter Mahon got it wrong. Photo / supplied
Former Air New Zealand executive pilot Peter Grundy maintains the Erebus disaster was caused by pilot error and Justice Peter Mahon got it wrong. Photo / supplied

(It was Grundy who relayed the fact the plane was missing to Air New Zealand chief executive Morrie Davis - who was playing golf in Wellington.)

"Someone had to tell him. I rang and I said: 'You know the aircraft is overdue'. He said: 'Well how sure are you?' I said: '100 per cent'.

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"He was mortified. He just said: 'Well, I'm coming straight up to Auckland.' And he got on an aircraft and came straight to Auckland.

"We couldn't believe that we had lost an aircraft. It was very hard to come to terms with. As flight operations manager, I had to go around to the next-of-kin, to the flight deck. That was the worst day of my life - there are no words that can describe how traumatic that experience is."

In the aftermath of the smash, Grundy and all his executive pilot colleagues were grounded - some for up to three months - and subjected to investigation themselves. "We all suffered from a career point of view subsequently," says Grundy today. His career was effectively ended.