I'm a pilot obsessed with flying and all things aviation. This podcast series covers more than a century of commercial aviation and how its shaped the world. Aviation is now safer than its ever been, but it took one hundred years of learning and often through accidents and incidents to reduce the risk of flying.
Episode 21 - “An orchestrated litany of lies" the Mount Erebus disaster and a tainted investigation
This is episode 21 and we’re taking a close look at the Mount Erebus disaster where an Air New Zealand McDonald Douglas DC-10 crashed on 28th November 1979, killing all 257 passengers and crew.
At first it looked like straight pilot error - a CFIT or controlled Flight Into Terrain accident.
But that would change as inquiries led to court cases.
Of all the accidents I’ve described, this one has some of the most unfortunate set of circumstances and one of the most difficult recoveries afterwards of any aviation accident in history.
Mount Erebus is on Ross Island part of the Antarctic archipelago and as you’ll hear, a juddge eventually called some evidence presented by Air New Zealand as "an orchestrated litany of lies" and which took 30 years before anyone at the airline formally apologised for that deceit.
To say the court processes which took place were riven by bitterness and a distinct failure of leadership is pretty much an understatement.
In fact, the phrase ‘an orchestrated litany of lies’ entered the Kiwi lexicon for some time and by the end of this episode I hope you’ll see why.
The first aviation inquiry found pilot error caused the accident but then a Judge in a follow up investigation ruled the cause was incorrect data which had been knowingly left in a flight computer despite this error being reported.
When a judge uses a phrase like conspiracy by senior management, then something has gone seriously wrong in terms of governance.
But the legal wrangling didn’t end with the judge – there was an appeal then intervention by the privy council in London as New Zealand is a commonwealth state.
So let’s go over the facts that are not in dispute.
Flight 901 was marketed as a unique sightseeing experience where the passengers paid around $360 US Dollars each to be flown over Antarctica with an experienced guide who pointed out features and landmarks using the plane’s PA system.
Some big names had been involved for example Sir Edmund Hillary had acted as a guide on flights and was actually supposed to be on board 901 that day in November 1979, but cancelled because he had other bookings.
Unfortunately for long-time friend and climbing companion, Peter Mulgrew, he was available and stood in for the hero of Mount Everest. Mulgrew would never return from the Antarctic.
The flight plan was complex compared to a normal commercial route. After the 5,360 miles from Auckland to the frozen south, the pilots would put the DC-10 into a series of low-flying sweeps out to the sea of McMurdo Sound or over the Ross Ice Shelf or both depending on time and the weather, then return home.
There had been 13 previous flights which went off without serious incident and the whole concept had started two years earlier in 1977. It had become a great money-spinner for Air New Zealand, not to mention an excellent marketing tool. Come fly with Air New Zealand and see the world’s least visited Continent for a cool $359 New Zealand Dollars – which now set you back around $1300 US dollars.
The flight left Auckland International Airport 8am on the morning of the 28th November and was due back at 7 that night.
Usually flights would not be filled to capacity so that there would be space allowing passengers to walk about and get a better view of the incredible frozen continent from different places in the cabin.
Cocktails would be served for the travellers as they clicked away on their cameras, many of whom would be puffing away on cigars and cigarettes.
The aircraft that day was Air New Zealand’s McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 trijet and the plane was registered ZK-NZP. It had logged more than 20,700 flight hours prior to the crash.
Episode 20 - A catastrophic Chinook gearbox failure and a mysterious RAF crash in 1994
This is episode 20 and it’s all about helicopters. Thanks first of all to Martin Darlington who hosts History by Hollywood podcast and is a highly experienced helicopter pilot and instructor. He has agreed to help with the more technical aspects of helicopters as we probe two specific accidents and the improved safety that they helped bring about.
It sounds counter intuitive to talk in positive terms about accidents but it is also true to say that most commercial crashes that have been properly investigated have led to improvements in safety.
This episode will focus on two helicopter crashes.
The first took place on 6 November 1986 when Chinook returning workers from the Brent oilfield crashed on approach to land at Sumburgh Airport in the Shetland Islands.
Forty-three passengers and two crew members were killed in the crash; one passenger and one crew member survived with injuries – the captain.
The second was the Chinook crash in June 1994 that was carrying 25 senior intelligence experts which went down on the Mull of Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland.
Leading security personnel from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, MI5 and the Army died, alongside the crew. They had been travelling to a security conference in Inverness, just two months ahead of the 1994 IRA ceasefire. The fact that high level intelligence officers were involved including members who were involved in Ireland has intrigued investigators and conspiracy-mongers since then.
Our expert Martin has some good ideas about what happened there and we’ll tap his immense knowledge about helicopters to get more information in the second half of the podcast.
Episode 18 - The Tenerife disaster, CRM part two & the introduction of read back procedures
This episode we’ll probe the Tenerife disaster on 27 March 1977 which remains the most deadly aviation accident in history.
583 people died when two Boeing 747s collided on the Canary Island of Tenerife - one operated by KLM and the other by Pan Am.
This led to a major aviation safety initiative the known as Cockpit Resource Management or CRM which is now part of pilot training where combined crew input is encouraged and the captain can be questioned. It also led to other changes in communication methodology between planes waiting to take off and the tower as well as setting English as the language of aviation.
The problem with CRM is that it comes up against different cultures in the world, where the decisions by the strong man in charge are generally not contradicted. This is thought to be behind the accident in Pakistan during Covid-19 lockdown in May 2020 where authorities say not only was CRM ignored by the senior pilot, he also apparently tried to land an Airbus at 240 knots – well over its recommended landing speed.
Back to Tenerife 1977 – an incident which still shocks those who hear the details for the first time.
There were no survivors from the KLM aircraft and only 61 of the 396 passengers and crew on the Pan Am aircraft survived.
Pilot error was the primary cause, as the KLM captain began his take-off run without obtaining air traffic control clearance in extremely dense fog. But as you’ll hear, there is more to this story.
The conversation between PanAm, KLM and the ATC was peppered with confusing messages.
Other contributing factors were a terrorist incident at Gran Canaria Airport on a separate island that had caused many flights to be diverted to Los Rodeos, a small airport on the island of Tenerife not well equipped to handle aircraft of such size arriving together.
This increased the stress on the Air Traffic Controller and mistakes were bound to be made.
The Canary Islands are infamous among pilots for the extreme wind and weather conditions that spring up on this archipelago off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. The weather was to play a major role in this catastrophe.
Episode 17 - United Airlines Flight 173 flameout as pilots dither & the May 2020 Karachi crash
This episode explores an accident at a time of Covid-19 – which may be too recent to have a direct effect on civil aviation safety and yet the causes appear to be directly linked to poor Cockpit Resource Management otherwise known as crew resource management. It has caused many an incident and accident, unfortunately.
The Pakistan crash which took place in May in Karachi is also a warning about how airlines go about restarting their services after a lengthy shutdown. Flying is not like riding a bicycle.
It has also led to immediate suspension of Pakistan International Airlines landing rights in the EU after shocking details emerged about systematic Airline Transport Pilot License exam cheating along with other cases of corruption.
So the main point is an Airbus A320 crashed into heavily populated suburban area of Karachi in Pakistan on May 22nd 2020. Flight 8303 was a scheduled domestic flight from Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore to Jinnah International Airport in Karachi.
The plane went down in a residential area near the Airport a few days after Pakistan lifted restrictions imposed over the coronavirus pandemic and resumed domestic flights ahead of the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
Amazingly, two on board survived – both in Business class while at least one person on the ground died - a 13 year-old girl.
As I said, Crew Resource Management failures appear to be behind this crash at least from the initial reports published in Pakistan.
Crew Resource Management is also known as cockpit resource management.
One of my instructors used to chatter to me during important phases of flight and I had to say “sorry Russell, I need to report our position” or reset instruments and he would smile in a knowing way.
Cockpit resource management includes knowing when its time to shut up or shut you fellow pilot up and concentrate extra 100 percent on the job at hand.
Landing an aircraft is one of those crucial moments.
But when did Crew Resource Management start as a thing?
The first person to talk about human interaction on the flight deck was a BOAC captain David Beaty who was a former Royal Air Force pilot. He wrote a book - The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents in the late 1950s.
It became part of the United Airlines pilot training handbook following the crash of a DC-8 in 1978 and eventually was recommended for all pilots by the National Transportation Safety Board.
That was after a United Airlines Flight 173 crashed in Portland Oregon on December 28th 1978.
Episode 16 - The mystery of MH370 & Malaysia’s hapless response
This episode is fraught because we just don’t know what happened to Malaysian Flight MH370 and many pilots would say any sort of scientific conclusion is going to be a jump to a conclusion.
However, I am going to take you through this event again and describe what the likely scenario was on that terrible morning back in 2014. Part of what we do as aviators is to know the truth about risk, then act accordingly.
In this case, we have some truths and then, we have deception. Unfortunately I am going to explain how the deception involved aviation officials in Malaysia who treated both the Chinese and their own citizens shoddily after flight MH370 disappeared.
This compounded an already difficult situation.
As I have previously outlined, Malaysia’s aviation sector is a seething mass of government interference, full of patriarchs who appear to worry more about losing face than losing passengers.
Malaysia suffers from what we call cadre deployment, those ruling party-linked relatives of someone in power who is dropped into a scientific endeavour with not the first clue about how aeroplanes work, nor how they should apply themselves within the sector. Then when things go wrong they think shutting down the truth makes sense – which is the direct opposite of how to fix a broken system.
This is not aimed at citizens of the beautiful country of Malaysia, rather its aimed directly at ramshackle nature of how aviation has been managed in the country.
I will show you how in the case of MH370 a distinct lack of understanding about crucial issues like prompt action, search and rescue, technical descriptions about how aeroplanes work, was worsened by a fraternity of yes-men who basically preferred deliberate obfuscation when they were confronted by bereaved relatives .
Would love for you to record some more, The way you present the data and facts is great.