The History of Erebus
15 February 1977: First Air New Zealand sightseeing flight to Antarctica
Air New Zealand first considered operating flights to Antarctica in the late 1960s. The addition of the DC-10 to the airline’s fleet in 1973 made such flights possible. It would be a further four years before flights began. Air New Zealand’s flight package proved to be very popular. Passengers enjoyed meals and refreshments, complimentary bar service, in-flight entertainment and expert commentary.
28 November 1979: Erebus disaster
At 12.49 p.m. NZST, one such sightseeing flight, Air New Zealand Flight TE901, crashed into the lower slopes of Mt Erebus killing all 237 passengers and 20 crew on board.
When TE901 failed to arrive at Christchurch on schedule, authorities feared the worst. Search and rescue operations began in Antarctica and at midnight (NZST), aircraft spotted the wreckage. It was the worst civil disaster in New Zealand's history.
29 November–10 December 1979: Operation Overdue: Antarctica
Operation Overdue’s primary objectives were the gathering of evidence, and the recovery of human remains. Ron Chippindale, Chief Air Accident Investigator led the site investigation. Police search and rescue coordinator, Inspector Robert (Bob) Mitchell, led the recovery operation.
By 10 December the site investigation and recovery operation was complete. Disaster Victim Identification teams recovered 114 substantially intact bodies, 133 bags of human remains, and countless personal belongings.
December 1979–22 February 1980: Operation Overdue: New Zealand
Chief Inspector Jim Morgan led the team that carried out the painstaking and traumatic process of victim identification. Post-mortems were completed by 21 December. In the end 213 of the 257 victims were identified. The 44 unidentified bodies were buried in 16 caskets during a joint ceremony at Waikumete Cemetery in West Auckland on 22 February 1980.
31 May–19 June 1980: The Chippindale Report
On 31 May 1980, Ron Chippindale submitted his accident report to Colin McLachlan, the Minister of Transport. The report was made public on 19 June 1980. Chippindale concluded that the ‘probable cause’ of the disaster was pilot error.
July 1980–April 1981: Royal Commission of Inquiry
Justice Peter Mahon’s inquiry began on 7 July. He heard from 52 witnesses over 75 days, accumulating over 3000 pages of evidence, 284 documentary exhibits and 368 pages of closing submissions. The final report released in April 1981 found that Air New Zealand was primarily to blame for the tragedy. Mahon asserted that Air New Zealand had intentionally misled the inquiry through an ‘orchestrated litany of lies’.
December 1981–October 1983: Court action following Erebus disaster inquiry
Air New Zealand successfully challenged Mahon’s findings in the Court of Appeal which ruled he had breached natural justice by not allowing those accused to respond to the allegations and had acted outside his jurisdiction. Mahon resigned from the High Court bench but later appealed to the Privy Council. He lost his appeal in October 1983 but was thanked for his 'brilliant and painstaking investigative work’.
6 November 2006: Recognition of individual contributions during Erebus operation
In 1980 and again in 1982, the New Zealand Police recognised those who had assisted them during Operation Overdue. In 1981, Robert Mitchell and Jim Morgan, who coordinated the operation, were made MBEs in recognition of their work. Greater official recognition did not come until November 2006 with the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus).
23 October 2009: Air New Zealand apology
At the unveiling of the sculpture Momentum, marking significant events in Air New Zealand’s history, Air New Zealand Chief Executive Rob Fyfe apologised to those the airline had let down in the aftermath of the Erebus tragedy. But for many this apology did not go far enough. Maria Collins, the wife of Captain Jim Collins, the pilot of Flight TE901, told the media that she still hoped to clear her husband's name.
2017: Government commits to a National Erebus Memorial
On the 38th anniversary of the Erebus disaster, Prime Minister Rt Hon. Jacinda Ardern announced she would progress a long overdue national memorial.
5 April 2019: Memorial design announced
Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song, by Wellington firm Studio Pacific Architecture in collaboration with artists Jason O’Hara and Warren Maxwell, is selected as the design for the National Erebus Memorial to the 257 Erebus victims, to be built at Taurarua Dove-Myer Robinson Park in Auckland.
28 November 2019: Government apology
Prime Minister Rt Hon. Jacinda Ardern, at a private ceremony marking 40 years since the disaster, said that ‘the time has come to apologise for the actions of an airline then in full state ownership, which ultimately caused the loss of the aircraft and the loss of those you loved.’ Air New Zealand Board Chair Dame Therese Walsh also gave a fulsome apology. Taurarua Dove-Myer Robinson Park was announced as the proposed site for a national memorial to the 257 Erebus victims.
2023: Ministry seeks new, enduring site for memorial
Extreme weather events in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland in February 2023 results in significant damage to the coastline near original memorial site Dove Myer Robinson Park. Secretary and Chief Executive for Culture and Heritage, Leauanae Laulu Mac Leauanae makes the decision to seek a new enduring home for the memorial. Government reiterates its absolute commitment to securing an enduring site for the memorial, for present and future generations.
For more detailed information of the Erebus disaster visit our NZ History website
Updated on 21st June 2023