No one who lived through that evening forgot it. The DC-10, flight TE-901 with 257 souls aboard, was overdue. By midnight it was obvious it was down. Somewhere. The drama captured a nation.
Then it was found, a black smear across the slopes of Mount Erebus. Nigel Roberts’s picture of the DC-10’s broken tail and koru emblem amid the snow remains one of the iconic images of New Zealand’s 20th century.
So began years of argument in which the pilots were officially blamed by air investigator Ron Chippendale, but later found innocent by Royal Commissioner Justice Peter Mahon – who found fault with the airline. And triggered a political hailstorm.
The politics were palpable, but ultimately it was a human story. And the fact that Paul Holmes’s new book, Daughters of Erebus, shot into the best-selling lists tells us, over 30 years on, this drama remains close to our hearts.
His writing carries more than a little of his tell-you-three-times broadcasting style, but that is no bad thing when it comes to Erebus. It is a story of angles – of nuance. And he captures the reader. In over 400 well-crafted pages, Holmes gives us the story of Erebus, interleaved with the story of pilot Jim Collins’s wife and four daughters, and their appalling experience coping with the loss of a husband and father among the gyrations of blame.
Why write it, a generation on? He wants justice. The book’s media release tells us he wants Parliament to officially exonerate Collins and co-pilot Greg Cassin.
The story has all the elements of a dramatic thriller. Holmes has his heroes – Peter Mahon, the high court judge who gave us the immortal phrase “orchestrated litany of lies”. Holmes has his villains – notably Chippendale, who Holmes utterly excoriates. Is that just? Chippendale died in 2008 and cannot defend himself. Another of Holmes’s dark characters is Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who, Holmes tells us, was a “brooding, vindictive, ruthless thug”.
Overstated? Certainly there are elements of polemic in such portrayals. But Holmes also covers the options, including the notion that the whole cascade of events was an almighty cock-up by the airline.
That Holmes looked at the wider picture makes his argument for the pilots far stronger. One of the many failings of the human condition is our tendency to find patterns, post-fact. Or to reduce arguments to either-or positions. Whereas reality is always more complex. And complex systems always fail in complex ways.
Holmes argues, following Mahon, that the pilots of TE-901 followed procedures – indeed, Collins apparently plotted their course per the track down McMurdo Sound that he had been given three weeks earlier. They were never told they had been re-routed over Erebus, courtesy of a last minute course-change. When that was combined with sector whiteout, they were en route to disaster. And as Holmes points out, if any one other factor had been different – such as being sent on a familiarisation flight, or a briefing on sector whiteout – they would probably not have crashed.
These points have all been raised before, but to the reports and books by Mahon and Gordon Vette, Holmes adds something new and poignant: the story of the Collins family, interwoven with the story of Peter Mahon. Through this he pulls off the hardest of all tasks – making the drama real. He paints a compelling picture of real people and true emotion. It is as gripping as any novel. More so. The last chapters, covering Mahon’s death and Pip Collins’s 2009 journey to the ice, are among the most moving of any non-fiction I have read.
DAUGHTERS OF EREBUS, by Paul Holmes (HarperCollins $49.99).
Matthew Wright’s latest book is Guns and Utu: a Short History of the Musket Wars. He blogs at mjwrightnz.wordpress.com