Radio contact lost with Flight TE901

This US Navy situation report shows their attempts to contact Flight TE901, and the search and rescue efforts that were planned after contact with the aircraft was lost. 

Out of touch

Morrie Davis

Shortly after Mac Centre and Oceanic Control agreed to issue an ‘alert’, the news that TE901 had been out of radio contact for some time was conveyed to the airline's chief executive, Morrie Davis. He was at Wellington Golf Club at Heretaunga, Lower Hutt, having participated in a warm-up event for the Air New Zealand-Shell Open Golf Championship, which was to begin the following day.

The crash of Air New Zealand's Antarctic Flight TE901 happened so quickly that the crew had no opportunity to react, let alone send a radio message. But staff at Williams Field 'Ice Tower' in Antarctica soon grew concerned. They had expected to sight the aircraft within minutes of a transmission from TE901 at 12.45 p.m. NZST*. In this message the crew advised they were at 6000 ft (1830 m) in the course of descending to 2000 ft (610 m), and that they were still operating in visual meterological conditions (VMC).

When the aircraft failed to appear without radioing a change in heading, Ice Tower and staff at Mac Centre, the United States Navy's air traffic control centre at McMurdo Station, made a series of radio calls to the aircraft. They had had problems communicating with TE901 on VHF earlier in the flight, but had been able to get through on HF. This time, there was no response to several calls on both frequencies. Mac Centre then asked all local stations, local aircraft, and the air traffic control centre in Auckland, Oceanic Control, to radio the aircraft. No one received a response.

Maria Collins

Maria Collins, the wife of TE901's Captain Jim Collins, first learnt that something was wrong at around 6.45 p.m. NZDT, when Captain David Eden, Air New Zealand's director of flight operations, phoned to let her know that Jim had been out of radio contact for several hours. While he said she shouldn't be concerned, he also suggested that she get someone to keep her company. Anne Cassin, the wife of one of the first officers on the flight, Greg Cassin, received a similar phone call from David Eden at around 7 p.m.

By 2 p.m. NZST the flight had been radio silent for over an hour despite an expectation that aircraft report to Mac Centre at intervals of not less than 30 minutes. Mac Centre informed Air New Zealand headquarters in Auckland and advised them that search and rescue aircraft had been activated. Less than an hour later, at 3.41 NZDT, Mac Centre and Oceanic Control agreed to declare an ‘uncertainty phase'. This was upgraded to ‘alert' at 4.27 NZDT, and to ‘distress' at 5.55 NZDT.

At 4.16 p.m. NZST a US Navy Lockheed LC-130 Hercules, XD-01, left McMurdo for TE901's last known coordinates. Twelve minutes later, a US Air Force Lockheed C-141A Starlifter that had flown to Antarctica approximately 50 minutes behind TE901 left to search along the aircraft's proposed flight track on its way to Christchurch. At 5.21 NZST a UH-1N helicopter, Gentle 17, was dispatched to search the nearby Dry Valleys. Five minutes later another helicopter, Gentle 14, was sent to search Ross Island.

*On the day of the Erebus disaster there was a one-hour time difference between New Zealand and McMurdo Station. McMurdo Station was operating under New Zealand Standard Time (NZST) while New Zealand was operating under daylight saving or New Zealand Daylight Time (NZDT). Scott Base and McMurdo Station did not begin observing daylight saving until the summer of 1992/93.   

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