Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Right, where was I?

Listening to: Audioslave-Audioslave

As I was saying last night this article in yesterday's Dom, conveniently reproduced on Stuff, detailing apparent 'tampering' with Wikipedia's account of the Erebus disaster by someone using Air New Zealand's server caught my eye.

Caution: the below contains opinions. Please don't start a flame war in my comments if you disagree. Constructive comments only will be allowed.

What's interesting isn't that the entry was altered, it is what it was allegedly altered to.
According to Stuff the amendment said "pilots are divided to this day as to whether the responsibility ... should rest with the pilot or the flight planning department".

For those not familiar with the subject, on 28 November 1979 an Air New Zealand DC-10 on a sightseeing flight to Antarctica crashed into the lower slopes of Mount Erebus, on Antarctica's Ross Island. All 257 aboard were killed instantly, making this by one fatality more than the 1931 Napier Earthquake the worst single loss of life event in New Zealand history.

It has been often said that everyone in New Zealand at the time either knew personally or was connected to one of the victims (certainly true in my family's case).

The official Ministry of Transport accident investigation report listed the cause as (massive summarisation here, so as not to spend days writing this thing) pilot error in descending to an altitude below that of surrounding terrain when he may not have been certain of his position (the crash occurred 1500 feet up the side of a 12,000 foot mountain). This was compounded by a change to the pre programmed flight path by ANZ's navigation department to fix an incorrect set of coordinates for a navigation waypoint, the effect of which was to place the DC-10 flying over Mt Erebus instead of some distance to one side. The change in track was not communicated to the crew, meaning they may have thought they were in one place when in fact they were in another. Whiteout conditions ahead created the illusion of flat land ahead, meaning they never saw the mountain which killed them. Many many more factors were detailed, but those are the main ones.

Are you with me so far? This is where it gets complicated.

As would be fairly normal practice for an event of this kind, in 1980 a formal commission of inquiry was set up to investigate the circumstances. It's findings disagreed completely with the accident report, exonerating the flight crew and blaming ANZ for the accident (changing the flight track without telling the crew basically), going so far as to accuse the airline of a conspiracy to avoid blame and hide evidence (the famous 'orchestrated litany of lies' referred to by the inquiry judge), ordering the airline to pay $150,000 in costs.

This was overturned on appeal (on the grounds that the inquiry judge had considerably exceeded his remit and not allowed ANZ a fair hearing), and reinforced by a Privy Council hearing which overturned the inquiry judge's counter appeal.

As you can imagine, there is a fair amount of history and opinion to this. So my thoughts on seeing the quoted wikipedia amendment were "fair enough". I didn't think that statement was particularly inaccurate.

The quotes from The Right Honourable Jim Anderton, if accurate, that the amendment was "outrageous (and) entirely erroneous", and "to suggest there was disagreement over blame for the Erebus crash was unjustifiable and wrong" are completely laughable and absurd. At least three books have been published about the inquiry and its aftermath, and the fairly definitive "New Zealand tragedies: Aviation accidents and disasters" devotes an entire chapter (55 pages out of 300) to discussing the argument.

Also nonsensical is Anderton's proposal that the government "make a formal declaration that Captain Jim Collins and co-pilot Greg Cassin were not to blame for the crash". I'm not sure they can, as the accident report is the only official statement of facts (and that is all it is meant to be, rather than the assignment of blame it has been used for) about the disaster (it was not overturned by the commission report as the item claims. It has never been properly challenged in court). The Commission of Inquiry report is legally opinion only.

In all fairness to the spokesman from the Airline Pilots Association who is quoted as saying "Justice Mahon's finding, that was the official finding of the Royal Commission and that was accepted in Parliament. Our pilots are completely happy with that finding, that it was not pilot error", he is pretty much bound to say that. The statement that other pilots associations agree with the commission findings, while it may be true now is not exactly accurate historically (an article strongly criticising the commission was published in a British pilots association journal after the Privy Council hearing).

In my admittedly lay experience, there has been a huge amount of debate amongst pilots and others about Erebus, so this whole item appears somewhat under informed and misleading, as well as being hijacked for some soundbite time by a member of cabinet.

I feel sorry for the relatives of the who have had to put up with this crap periodically for 28 years now, especially the families of the crew. My personal viewpoint based on what I've read is that a combination of circumstances put those people into the wrong place at the wrong time.


Anonymous said...

have you ever thought about living in another country?

Nobby said...

Has anyone got a theory for why so many visitors to blogs feel the urge to tell you all the ways in which you are wrong, dumb, suck etc, but don't feel enough conviction to have their name associated with their opinions?

It seems strange to me that someone would want to give another the benefit of their wisdom but not take credit for it.