Erebus and the aftermath – the fallout continues

New Zealand’s worst peacetime disaster:

White Silence is a podcast from Stuff and RNZ on the Erebus disaster, Air New Zealand's darkest hour.

White Silence is a podcast from Stuff and RNZ on the Erebus disaster, Air New Zealand’s darkest hour. Photo: Stuff / Sungmi Kim

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the Erebus tragedy, New Zealand’s worst peace time disaster.Listen duration21′ :38″Add to playlistDownloaPlay MP3 in browser


On November 28, 1979, an Air New Zealand plane carrying 257 people over the wilds of Antarctica crashed into the side of Mt Erebus, killing all on board. 

What followed was attempts at a corporate cover-up, the smearing of the good names of the experienced pilots, tales of anguish, and stories of those who’d been booked on the flight but missed it. And still there are arguments over where a permanent memorial will go.

Stuff reporter Michael Wright, who’s behind the podcast series White Silence, started thinking about marking this anniversary two years ago.

Captain Jim Collins Mt, Erebus pilot. December 04, 1981. (Photo by Fairfax Media NZ)

Captain Jim Collins Photo: Supplied

He tells Sharon Brettkelly he was listening to an eight-episode podcast on Watergate a couple of years ago, called Slow Burn

“Even though you know what Watergate is most people don’t really know very much about it,” he says. “And they told it in a really interesting way – they found characters on the margins and behind the scenes who could offer their opinions  …. telling the story of Watergate but in an interesting way 40-something years on.”

“I thought could you apply that model to New Zealand?”

At the time he didn’t know much about Erebus – he wasn’t born when it happened – but after some research realised there was a story there to tell.

“Once you look into what happened – and more importantly what happened afterwards – there is this huge saga that is quite an important story.”

For those who remember it at the time, Royal Commission of Inquiry chairperson Justice Peter Mahon’s phrase “an orchestrated litany of lies” is probably the standout line.

“That line, that soundbite, it was really snappy, it was really catchy – people remembered it. That’s the reason people like me remembered that and nothing else, 40 years later.”

Proposed Erebus memorial design

The design proposal for the Erebus Memorial – no agreement’s been reached as to where it should go Photo: Ministry of Culture and Heritage

Mahon’s language, and his finding that basically Air New Zealand had stuffed up then tried to cover that up, infuriated the airline and its owner, the government. The finding was legally challenged and a huge second round of fighting on a much larger scale took off.

In 1983 the Privy Council found Mahon had acted outside his jurisdiction in finding a conspiracy by Air New Zealand, on the grounds that those accused of it didn’t get a chance to give evidence.

But the famous phrase wasn’t removed from the report.

“The crash itself almost got lost in this controversy,” says Wright.

There have been several books written on the subject, and Wright got his hands on the 3000-odd pages of Royal Commission documents. He amassed well over a hundred hours of interviews and archival audio. The result can be heard in the six-episode podcast with RNZ’s Katy Gosset, and he talks to The Detail today about how it came about.

Published by peter petterson

Father of four, grandfather of thirteen, and great-grandfather of eight. Resides in Taita, Lower Hutt, Wellington, New Zealand. Living happily in retirement and enjoying the company of my many young descendants.

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