The magnitude of the Mount Erebus accident, with 257 fatalities (237 passengers and 20 crew) was the world's fourth-worst aviation disaster and an accident unforgettable in New Zealand history.
It is still the worst aviation accident in the Southern Hemisphere.
The tragic accident occurred 41 years ago on November 28, 1979, when Air New Zealand McDonnell Douglas DC-10 ZK-NZP, operating a scenic flight, crashed on the north-facing slope of Mount Erebus in Antarctica.
The disaster generated an air accident report, a Royal Commission of Inquiry, countless newspaper stories, articles, learned papers, many books, and television documentaries.
Controversy about the cause(s) of the accident has continued for over 40 years; probably like few other air accidents in the world.
At its core are opposing views of the main cause of the accident, further exacerbated by political maneuvering and cover-up.
The 1980 air accident report by Chief Inspector of Air Accidents Ron Chippendale blamed the pilots. The Chippendale Report claimed they were unsure of their position, made a premature descent, and continued to fly toward an area of poor surface and horizon definition.
In contrast, Judge Peter Mahon in his findings from the 1981 Royal Commission of Inquiry laid the blame for the accident squarely on the airline. He determined the accident was due to organisational failures, both navigational and management, including that the airline had altered the course that was programmed into the aircraft's navigational computer without advising Captain Jim Collins and crew of the change.
This primary reason for the accident was contributed to by "sector whiteout" and crew "mental set", elaborating on pioneering work done by Captain Gordon Vette, and supported by other experts.
Some aspects of the Royal Commission Report were successfully legally challenged, but not the substantive argument about the cause of the accident, as identified by Mahon. Parliament officially received Mahon's report in 1999, 20 years after the accident.
In an unusual situation, the 1980 accident report and the contrasting 1981 Royal Commission findings both continue to have official recognition.
Unnecessary controversy and the problematic judgment of the Privy Council for a number of years inhibited the ability of safety professionals to openly promulgate learnings from this tragic accident.
Lessons from the Mahon report included groundbreaking work on organisational failure and human factors science. Such work helped change international air accident investigation from apportioning blame to consideration of more comprehensive systemic failures.
The concept of systemic error has become ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) doctrine. Insights about human factors and mental set have also been influential as well as greater awareness of the sector whiteout phenomenon.
Flying today is that much safer because of learnings from the Erebus accident.
• Rev. Dr Richard Waugh of Howick is an aviation historian and chaplain and has organised memorial services for the Erebus air disaster.