Air New Zealand Crash - Atlas Obscura

The first sightseeing flights over Antarctica starting in the 1970s were very popular. Then this happened.

In November 1979, the legendary mountaineer and explorer Sir Edmund Hillary had to cancel his scheduled appointment as guide for one of Air New Zealand’s exciting new Antarctic sightseeing flights. With a replacement guide - a friend and former climbing partner of Hillary’s - in place, the flight took off, giving participants a once in a lifetime view of the southernmost continent’s vast frozen expanse. As it approached one of the trip’s highlights, the smoking volcano discovered and named by James Clarke Ross, the pilots lost visibility. Second later, the plane slammed into the remote icy slopes of Mt. Erebus.

All 237 passengers and 20 crew on board were killed immediately.

Air New Zealand Crash Debris  - Atlas Obscura

The enormous and terrible job of recovering and attempting to identify bodies at the remote site fell to a dedicated team of New Zealand police officers.

“Later, the Skua gulls were eating the bodies in front of us, causing us much mental anguish as well as destroying the chances of identifying the corpses. We tried to shoo them away but to no avail, we then threw flares, also to no avail…”

The grim detail in which Inspector Jim Morgan described the recovery efforts on the slopes of Mt. Erebus are at times shocking, awful and also strangely beautiful. Through it, it is clear that the workers tasked with this horrific undertaking were both mentally and physically exhausted by their ordeal.

Mt Erebus crash - Atlas Obscura

In the end, it was concluded that Air New Zealand Flight 901’s deadly accident was the result of human error. The first investigation blamed pilot error, questioning the pilot’s decision to fly so low in when the location was apparently uncertain. A second investigation laid the blame with Air New Zealand, and their las minute changes to the flight plan. Significantly, the judge involved in this second inquiry further accused the company of “an orchestrated litany of lies” intended to protect the company’s reputation from further harm.

Today, wreckage from the flight still lies on the slopes of Mt. Erebus. A wreath is laid each year at the memorial at the Waikumete Cemetery in West Aukland, New Zealand. Also, it is once again possible to book flights over Antarctica, should you be so bold.


Mt Erebus


Crash debris is still visible on the slopes of the southernmost volcano in the world.


Mt Erebus crash memorial

West Aukland, New Zealand

The unclaimed remains of the crash victims are entombed at a memorial at the Waikumete Cemetery.



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