Tourist Flight Returns to Antarctica's Mount Erebus

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There are many 'out and back' flights you can take -- ranging from a simple, local, sightseeing flight to the supersonic (and no longer available) Concorde flights offered at places like Oshkosh. But a unique and amazing flight can be had that goes to the bottom of the world to see a volcano among the glaciers.

This article was first published in World AirNews of South Africa.

News Features

A small piece of Antarctic history was made on Qantas Flight 2915 to Antarctica earlier this year. It was the first full, corporate charter ever to the planet's last great wilderness -- the honor belonging to the Australian subsidiary of South African supermarket suppliers Metcash Trading.

Perhaps more significantly it was the first commercial aircraft to circle the live volcano at Mount Erebus since the 1979 disaster when an Air New Zealand Flight 901 (a DC-10) crashed into the 3,800-meter-high mountain, killing all 257 passengers and crew.

This form of "hands-off tourism" for the Antarctic had been pioneered in New Zealand two years earlier, with luminaries like Sir Edmund Hilary providing expert commentary during flights. After what was New Zealand's biggest-ever peacetime disaster, the program was ceased and never resumed. The crash of Flight 901 had legal, political and emotional consequences that have lasted to this day. (See story below.)

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Antarctic glacier creeping. (Click photos for larger versions.)

The Australian Antarctic sightseeing program was pioneered in 1994 by Melbourne travel agent Phil Asker using chartered, long-range, Qantas 747-400 equipment. Each year some eight to 12 flights leave the ports of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or Perth for the 11- to 13-hour summer flights.

The program has proved hugely successful, with some 25,000 curious travellers prepared to squeeze a view of the frozen continent.

The area is integrally linked with the history of Antarctic exploration, as it was from Ross Island where Robert Scott and his companions set out in late 1911 on their fatal trip to the South Pole, some 1,300 km away. The New Zealand scientific station in McMurdo Sound is known as Scott Base.

Luxury Flight

Most of the significance of this was lost on the 160 fortunate suppliers and key clients of Metcash, who had an entire Boeing 747-400 to themselves and were making big inroads into the Moet & Chandon, which flowed freely all day.

And comfort it was. With less than half the seats occupied on the flight, there was plenty of space to stretch out on the four-hour flight south out of Sydney; and when the icebergs and the frozen continent finally emerged, there was no need for a mad scramble to the windows.

Captain John Dennis, commander of the Antarctica flight.

The commander of QF 2915, Captain John Dennis, was on his 33rd flight to Antarctica and is the airline's authority on Antarctic flights. He was assisted by another Captain, a First Officer, and a Second Officer. Over the years he's built a strong rapport with the Bureau of Meteorology and routinely examines satellite reports at least three days out from the flight. The airline has 18 different routes that it is authorized to fly over the continent, giving it plenty of options to deal with the extreme weather conditions.

The planning and execution of the Antarctic sightseeing flights is done in close collaboration with the Australian Antarctic Division, which is headquartered in Hobart, Tasmania. Qantas is required to undertake a comprehensive environmental-impact assessment, which is under annual review.

The route down to McMurdo had only been designated the year before, when the Qantas team were planning the one of the New Year flights, which takes the travellers into bright Antarctic midnight sunshine as one year ticks over to the next.

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Some of the frozen landscape of Antarctica coming into view through the cloud cover.

On this day in February, unusually dense cloud cover over Antarctica had required Flight 2915 to fly further south than ever before for an Australian civilian aircraft. The aircraft commenced its low-altitude cruise shortly after passing over Terra Nova Bay on route to Ross Island and Mount Erebus, which is located close to the large U.S. base in McMurdo Sound.

Mount Erebus had been sighted in the far distance on previous trips, but Flight 2915 was the first to return and close-circle it, performing a long figure eight to give passengers on both sides a clear view of the most southerly active volcano on the planet. In the crystal clear light of the Antarctic the contrasts of blue sky, black rock scoured free of snow, and the ice wastes of McMurdo Sound could not have been more apparent.

There is no wreckage evident from the crash of the Air New Zealand DC-10. All the remains were taken back to New Zealand as part of the painstaking and controversial investigation that took several years to complete.

Barren But Beautiful

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A view of Mount Erebus from the sea.

There's precious little evidence of life from 8,000 feet in the Antarctic, which makes what there is all the more fascinating. McMurdo Base houses up to 2,000 U.S. scientific and military personnel in the height of summer, serviced by air mainly from Christchurch. From the air, the track broken through the ice to the base on Ross Island is quite clear, as is the base with its large oil storage tanks and "airfield" marked out in the ice, some five km away from the dwellings.

During the flight over McMurdo Sound, the radio exchanges between the Qantas cockpit and the air traffic controller at McMurdo Base were broadcast over the aircraft's PA.

En route to Antarctica, Captain Dennis contacted the expedition leader at the Australian scientific research centre at Macquarie Island by satellite telephone, who provided an insight into the work being done on the wildlife in this lonely part of the world, 1,500 km south of Hobart where snow, sleet and rain are constant companions.

On the return leg, a similar live interview was also undertaken with Karen Christen, the team leader at Australia's main base, Casey, on the Antarctic shelf. She painted a word picture of life in the frozen wilderness and explained how water was always one of the major issues, as everything remains frozen, requiring significant use of resources such as oil and diesel to melt sufficient for daily uses around the base.

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A closer view of the volcano on Mount Erebus.

The principal on-board commentator was Ian Allison, a research scientist with the Antarctic Division, specialising in Glaciology -- the study of ice and snow. He first wintered over in the Antarctic (at Mawson Station) in 1969, and has been on nearly 20 expeditions to the Antarctic, including extended field expeditions in the Prince Charles Mountains, on the Lambert Glacier, and in the pack-ice zone around the continent.

Apart from a flight during the Sydney Olympics for an American television network, this was the first time Qantas had provided business-class food and service throughout the entire aircraft.

Phil Asker of Croydon Travel, who started the program, said it was the most memorable of the 38 flights to the Antarctic that he'd taken. "We've never come further south, and the glaciers and valleys we've encountered have been quite exceptional, with the highlight being able to spend time viewing Mount Erebus. To see an active volcano in this unspoilt wilderness is a rare experience."

Late last year, Captain Dennis undertook one of his most technically challenging Antarctic flights when every window on the port side of the aircraft was occupied by scientists -- both amateur and professional -- who had paid a premium to witness a total eclipse of the sun in the clear skies of the Antarctic. To achieve this he had to operate the aircraft into a given position with just 12 seconds of toleration. He did it in five.

The excitement generated by the day, evident as much in the faces of the Qantas crew as with the guests, clearly showed the immense value of such a special experience.

Qantas 747-400ER Antarctic Flight Specifics
Takeoff weight: 390 tonnes (860,000 lbs)
Fuel tanks (full on departure): 180 tonnes (397,000 lbs)
Distance covered: approximately 11,000 km (6800 miles), but more on this particular flight
Speed at lift-off: 175 knots
Speed at landing: 145 knots
Fuel consumption: approx. 150 tonnes (330,000 lbs.)
Minimum speed over ice during sightseeing: 275 knots
Maximum bank angle during sightseeing: 25 degrees
Flight crew: Two Captains, 1 First Officer, 1 Second Officer

Material courtesy Christchurch Library, compiled by Miles Clarke.

Air New Zealand Flight 901 left Auckland airport on November 28, 1979, for an 11-hour, low, sweeping flight over McMurdo Sound in Antarctica.

Captain Jim Collins and his co-pilot Greg Cassin had not flown the Antarctic flight before, but the flight was considered to be straightforward and they were both experienced pilots.

Nineteen days earlier the pilots had attended a briefing session where they were shown the printouts of a flight plan used by previous flights to the Antarctic. The plan gave co-ordinates for the trip to Antarctica and across McMurdo Sound which -- when entered into the computerized navigation system -- would be flown automatically by the plane.

On the morning of November 28, Collins and Cassin entered the series of latitude and longitude co-ordinates into the aircraft computer.

Unknown to them, two of the coordinates had been changed earlier that morning, and when entered into the computer, changed the flight path of the aircraft 45 kilometres to the east.

At 12:30 p.m., Flight 901 was about 70 kilometres from McMurdo Station. Permission was given by the McMurdo radio communications centre to descend to 3050 metres and proceed "visually."

Air safety regulations were against dropping lower than a height of 1830 metres even under good weather conditions, but Collins believed the plane was flying over low, flat ground. Other pilots regularly flew low over the area to give their passengers a better view.

At 12:45 Collins advised McMurdo Centre he was dropping further to 610 metres. At this point he locked onto the computerised navigational system, but Flight 901 was not where either McMurdo Centre or the crew thought it was.

The change in the two coordinates had put Flight 901 on a path not across the flat ground of McMurdo Sound, but across Lewis Sound and towards the 3794 metre-high active volcano, Mount Erebus.

Because the air was clear beneath the cloud layer, the white of the ice blended with the white of the mountain, with no contrast to show the sloping up of the land -- a whiteout.

It was clear from the voice cockpit recording in the minute before the disaster that the pilots were concerned about their position and inability to get a visual fix.

At 12:49 the deck altitude device began to blare a warning but there was no time for Collins to save the situation from disaster. Six seconds later Flight 901 hit the side of Mount Erebus and disintegrated.

From 12:50 p.m., McMurdo Centre kept trying to contact Flight 901, and finally informed Air New Zealand headquarters in Auckland that communication with the aircraft had been lost. U.S. search and rescue aircraft were put on standby.

At 10:00 p.m. (New Zealand time), about 30 minutes after the DC-10 would have used the last of its fuel, the airline told reporters that it had to be assumed that the aircraft was lost. Searches were made over the usual flight path, but nothing was found.

Just before 1:00 a.m. (New Zealand time) the crew of a United States Navy plane found some unidentified wreckage on the side of Mount Erebus. There were no signs of survivors.

20 hours after the crash, helicopter search parties were able to land at the site and confirm that the wreckage was the remains of Flight 901. All 257 people on board had died.