Recovering the flight recorders from Erebus

The two flight recorders shortly after being recovered from the crash site.

Site investigation begins

On the afternoon of 2 December 1979 Colin Fink and Peter Hall, two surveyors who had been stationed at Scott Base at the time of the Erebus disaster, were flown to the crash site. As agreed they were accompanied by members of the accident investigation team and their mountaineer assistants. David Graham, an air accident investigator from the Office of Air Accidents, and Ian Wood and Captain Ian Gemmell from Air New Zealand made up the three-man investigation team. Ron Chippindale, the chief air accident investigator, worked at the site in the days that followed. But he spent most of his time at Scott Base and McMurdo Station interviewing staff at Mac Centre, the US Navy's air traffic control centre at McMurdo Station, the 'Ice Tower', at nearby Williams Field, and US Navy pilots who had flown in the area on the day of the crash.

24 hours of light

During its summer Antarctica experiences 24 hours of daylight so the site investigation and recovery operation could take place at any hour so long as the weather held.

As the surveyors began to survey the site and lay out the grid system, and work on building a helipad, the investigators began searching the wreckage. The parties were assisted by Keith Woodford, Hugh Logan and Daryl Thompson and three other mountaineers from the Face Rescue Squad. The priority was to find the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) and DFDR (Digital Flight Data Recorder). Within a few hours these were located by Gemmell and a mountaineer from the Face Rescue Squad. The weather closed in again but as soon as it cleared the recorders were flown back to McMurdo, arriving late in the morning on 3 December.


The break in the weather allowed another flight from New Zealand to land. It carried a group of American experts representing the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Aviation Authority, and the aircraft and engine manufacturers, McDonnell Douglas Corporation and General Electric Operations. They were accompanied by a further air investigator, Milton Wylie, and another representative of NZ Airline Pilots Association, Captain Anthony (Tony) Foley. They would assist with the investigation both on and off the crash site.

Within five hours Wylie and Dennis Grossi from the NTSB were on their way back to New Zealand with the CVR and DFDR – en route to the United States. Cabinet minister Bill Birch, who had arrived in Antarctica with the first recovery and investigation parties, also returned on this flight and subsequently reported that the recovery effort was ‘in the hands of the weather’.

While the CVR and DFDR were transported back to McMurdo, work continued at the crash site. Those left on site continued work on the helipad and marked bodies with green flags following concerns that they might be covered by the snow.

Next page: Recovery operation begins


Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about Recovering the flight recorders from Erebus

What do you know?

Peter Edwards

Posted: 22 Nov 2018

39 years next week, and I still miss my sister Elizabeth (Lib) who was on the flight.