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On November 28, 1979, an Air New Zealand jet took off from Auckland Airport on a sightseeing trip to Antarctica. There were 257 people on board. Hours later everyone was dead.

Somehow, the plane had flown directly into the Erebus volcano. This was a disaster that shattered a country’s psyche.

In the decades since, grief gave way to blame, anger and recrimination. Who was responsible for so many deaths? Was there a cover-up? How could a plane just fly into a mountain?

To mark the 40th anniversary of the disaster, Michael Wright and Katy Gosset explore why New Zealand’s deadliest disaster was also its most controversial; why a nation was incapable of moving on; and how it was captured by one famous phrase: ‘an orchestrated litany of lies’.

01

The break-in

On November 28, 1979, an Air New Zealand DC10 took off from Auckland Airport on a sightseeing trip to Antarctica. It never returned. What do the families remember of that fateful day?

Listen arrow Warning: These podcasts contain some bad language. If you’re viewing this on a mobile you may need to tap twice to start the audio.

Episode 02 available on 9 November

02

The caravan

Whose fault was it? Investigators sift through the evidence and reach a shocking conclusion.

Listen arrow Warning: These podcasts contain some bad language. If you’re viewing this on a mobile you may need to tap twice to start the audio.

Episode 03 available on 10 November

03

All hell

With the pilots’ reputations in tatters, a second investigation into the crash unearths appalling mistakes and a sensational new theory for what caused the crash.

Listen arrow Warning: These podcasts contain some bad language. If you’re viewing this on a mobile you may need to tap twice to start the audio.

Episode 04 available on 11 November

04

The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock

‘An orchestrated litany of lies’ is ingrained into New Zealand’s collective consciousness. Justice Peter Mahon didn’t have to say that, but he did. It would prove the making of him, and the ruin.

Listen arrow Warning: These podcasts contain some bad language. If you’re viewing this on a mobile you may need to tap twice to start the audio.

Episode 05 available on 12 November

05

New World Order

In 1981, New Zealand was changing. The baby boomers had come of age, and the South African rugby tour was about to tear the country apart. When the Mahon report landed right in the middle of this, the country was ready for its first big conspiracy theory.

Listen arrow Warning: These podcasts contain some bad language. If you’re viewing this on a mobile you may need to tap twice to start the audio.

Episode 06 available on 13 November

06

White Silence

40 years after the Erebus disaster, there is still no national memorial to the victims and no consensus on exactly what happened that day in 1979. Why has New Zealand been so hopelessly unable to deal with its worst-ever disaster?

Listen arrow Warning: These podcasts contain some bad language. If you’re viewing this on a mobile you may need to tap twice to start the audio.

07

Playing Through

A special bonus episode of White Silence for November 28 - the anniversary of the Erebus disaster. Bringing together stories from listeners like Air NZ staff who had to work through the tragedy, a teenager's 40-year trauma finally brought to a close and an unlikely golf tournament played in the shadow of Erebus.

Listen arrow Warning: These podcasts contain some bad language. If you’re viewing this on a mobile you may need to tap twice to start the audio.
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video

Map explainer of flight paths

On November 28, 1979, Air New Zealand flight TE901 crashed into Mt Erebus. The pilots believed they were west of the mountain, but flew straight into it. How did this happen? Click next to play the next video.
The DC10 took off from Auckland Airport just after 8.15am. It followed a series of co-ordinates called 'waypoints' down to Antarctica. These divided the flight into legs.
The second-last waypoint was at a place called Cape Hallett. The black line shows the path the Antarctic flights took from here in 1977 - over Ross Island and Mt Erebus.
In 1978, a navigator was entering the flight path into the company computer. BUT, he made a typo. On the co-ordinates for the final waypoint, he entered a '4' instead of a '6'. This moved the flight path to the green line, well west of Erebus. No-one noticed the error
Two weeks before the crash, a pilot finally noticed something odd, and told his bosses. But when navigators followed up, they checked the 1977 flight path (the black line) so they didn't notice the typo. Then they decided to move the final waypoint to a radio beacon nearby - the orange line. They thought this change was just a couple of miles, so no need to tell the pilots.
The change was made on November 27, the night before the fatal flight. The pilots had been briefed weeks earlier, and thought they were following the green line but they were actually on the orange one. As the plane neared Ross Island it flew low - too low to clear Mt Erebus - and did two big loops. With cloud above and white sea ice below, no-one saw the mountain ahead.
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Characters

Collins

Jim Collins

Captain of flight TE901

mahon

Justice Peter Mahon

Erebus royal commissioner

davis

Morrie Davis

Air New Zealand chief executive

chippindale

Ron Chippindale

Chief air accident investigator

gilpin

Sergeant Greg Gilpin

Officer in charge during body recovery

leighton

Constable Stu Leighton

Member of the police body recovery team

arthur

Arthur Cooper

Air NZ pilot, black box transcriber

jim

Sir Jim McLay

Former Attorney-General

dykzeul

Paul Dykzeul

Two brothers and brother-in-law killed on Erebus

maria

Maria Collins

Widow of Captain Jim Collins

margarita

Margarita Mahon

Widow of Justice Peter Mahon

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photo

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Wreckage of the Air New Zealand DC10 on Mt Erebus, 1979.

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Wreckage was scattered nearly 600 metres up the mountainside.

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A memorial cross made of oregon wood is erected near the crash site, December 20, 1979.

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Chief inspector of air accidents Ron Chippindale with a flight data recorder (black box).

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Justice Peter Mahon led the royal commission of inquiry into the Erebus disaster.

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Maria Collins, widow of Captain Jim Collins, is sworn to give evidence at the royal commission.

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Air New Zealand chief executive Morrie Davis resigns, May 1981, after the Mahon report severely criticised Air New Zealand for the crash.

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Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was extremely critical of Justice Mahon's controversial Erebus report.

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The bodies of unidentified victims are buried at Waikumete cemetery in west Auckland , February 1980.

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Springbok rugby tour protesters face down police in Wellington, July 1981.

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DC10 wreckage was still visible in 2004, 25 years after the crash.

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Mt Erebus.

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credits

WHITE SILENCE IS A JOINT PRODUCTION OF STUFF AND RNZ

WRITTEN, PRESENTED AND PRODUCED

Michael Wright and Katy Gosset

EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS

Carol Hirschfeld, Keith Lynch and Kamala Hayman for Stuff and Tim Watkin and Justin Gregory for RNZ

VISUAL JOURNALIST

Jason Dorday

VIDEO EDITOR

Ryan Attwood

DESIGNER AND DEVELOPER

Sungmi Kim

DIGITAL EDITORS

John Hartevelt, Keith Lynch and Cameron Russell

SOUND ENGINEER

Alex Harmer

COMMISSIONING EDITORS

Carol Hirschfeld, Kamala Hayman and Tim Watkin

Thank you to Adam Dudding, Alex Liu, Jude Tewnion, Jeremy Ansell, Julie Glamuzina, Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, Archives NZ, Channel 9, the Chapman archive, Wingnut Films and TVNZ.