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Cover-up alleged in New Zealand's worst air disaster

By Alastair CarthewSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 1981



Wellington

A royal commission of inquiry looking into New Zealand's worst air disaster has found evidence of a cover-up by Air New Zealand executives. Supreme Court Justice Peter Thomas Mahon, who conducted the inquiry into the Nov. 28 crash of an air New Zealand DC-10 high above the icy wastes of Antarctica, branded evidence by airline officials "an orchestrated litany of lies." The crash took the lives of 257 New Zealanders, Americans, Australians, and Japanese.

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Mr. Justice Mahon's report was eagerly awaited in New Zealand as an earlier report by the chief inspector of air accidents, Ron Chippendale, suggested pilot error was the cause of the crash.

But the commission of inquiry exonerates Capt. J. T. Collins and his crew, who had taken 237 passengers on a routine sightseeing flight to the Antarctic.

The plane tragically plowed into the side of towering Mt. Erebus, miles off course and only 1,500 feet above the ice. All on board died.

Mr. Justice Mahon finds Air New Zealand at fault for the crash. The controversial report, released by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's administration , finds a flight path originally given to the crew was subsequently altered without their being told. The new flight path fed into the plane's computer led directly over Mt. Erebus.

"The commission has found this to be the single dominant reason for the disaster," says Mr. Justice Mahon.

But it is Air New Zealand's chief executive, the tough, autocratic Morrie Davis, who collected several broadsides for his behavior after the disaster was revealed.

Mr. Davis is alleged to have ordered some documents to be destroyed and to have adopted the attitude for the outset that the pilot and crew were to blame for the crash, not the airline's administrative and operational systems.

Declared Mr. Justice Mahon: "The palpably false sections of evidence which I heard could not have been the result of mistake, or faulty recollection. They originated, I am compelled to say, in a predetermined plan of deception."

Immediately after the report's release Mr. Davis said he would not resign, and he received the backing of the Air New Zealand board.

The government is to discuss the report with the US National Transportation Safety Board and with the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Transport Minister Colin McLachlan will discuss establishing an aviation advisory board on safety, similar to the American board.

Meanwhile Attorney General James McLay has given the police the green light to investigate any criminal offenses that may have been committed by airline officials.

The Ministry of Transport, which is blamed for some errors, is to review its safety and flight regulations. Mr. Mahon says the ministry should not have approved a flight path over Mt. Erebus -- "It seems to me the division [civil aviation] was always too ready to approve whatever proposal was put to it by the airline."

The report will be a relief to the families and friends of the aircraft crew, who have insisted on their innocence from the start.

But lengthy legal cases involving the families of many of the crash victims are still pending. The Mahon report clears up many questions, but for some affected by the disaster it is only the beginning.