Antarctic passengers 'dodged a bullet'

20:51, May 02 2014

ANNA PEARSON hears how 120 passengers "dodged a bullet" when caught in an Antarctica whiteout without enough fuel to return to Christchurch. 

On October 7 last year, New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister entered the cockpit of an RNZAF aircraft heading to Antarctica.

The pilot, says Murray McCully, looked "extremely grim". Not long after, while the aircraft maintained a holding pattern at altitude, McCully and a 22-year-old female "staffer" were run through impact procedures.

The RNZAF flight attendant briefed the pair on their front-row obligations. In the event of an impact landing, they would have to open the Boeing 757's emergency doors and chutes and let people pass.

"[The flight attendant] said: ‘This is my seat here. If I am incapacitated or killed, the first thing you need to do is move my body out of the way.' There is no sugar-coating on those occasions," says McCully.

His comments come after a report into the flight was released to The Press under the Official Information Act by the New Zealand Defence Force.

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"The report makes for interesting reading," says McCully. "But it was even more interesting being there."

The Defence Force summary says the plane flew into "rapidly and unexpectedly deteriorating weather conditions" on October 7 after passing the Point of Safe Return (PSR) en route to McMurdo in Antarctica.

The PSR is the last point at which it is possible to return to the departure airfield with fuel reserves still available.

That morning, at Christchurch International Airport, the crew was briefed in a video conference by forecasters in South Carolina responsible for analysing Ross Sea conditions.

A weather observation just before 7am referred to fog at the plane's destination. The crew was told some fog was normal at that time of year and that it would "burn off" by the time the plane landed.

The captain "considered the forecast to be sound", but as a precaution, the crew delayed departure by an hour. The flight took off at 9am.

Any decision to fly beyond a PSR, which that day was two hours and 48 minutes into the nearly five-hour flight, is made by an aircraft's captain.

The crew was "assured that the fog was at least 5000 metres distant and would not affect [the plane's] arrival" and it kept going.

But when the Boeing 757 got to Pegasus Field at McMurdo Sound, there was cloud to 300 feet, and it could not land. The pilot then climbed to an altitude that would enable the plane to conserve fuel.

McCully says at that point the captain called him into the cockpit for a briefing, which "made it very clear . . . this was a very difficult situation to be in".

"He looked extremely grim. I think, in what was potentially a very dangerous situation, the crew showed great expertise and great composure under great stress," he says.

The plane entered a holding pattern at altitude for a couple of hours while waiting for the cloud to break up.

McCully says the passengers, who had been briefed on impact procedures, sat "silently" in their heavy Antarctic-issue gear.

"We had a bit of time to think about the meaning of life. It was obviously a position that none of us wanted to be in," he says.

The Defence Force report says that when the weather at Pegasus Field continued to deteriorate, it became clear "there would probably be no improvement until after [the plane's] fuel reserves had been exhausted".

Before the second landing attempt, McCully says he told the pilot, "Good luck", in a cockpit that was "obviously incredibly tense".

"He smiled for the first time and said he had done this procedure on a simulator. He said, ‘I reckon I can handle it'. That was quite reassuring," he says.

The plane approached the runway at 100 feet rather than the regulation 360 feet, which the Defence Force allows "if the emergency involves danger to life or property", but the crew was still unable to see enough to land.

Emergency response teams from McMurdo and Scott Base were activated, but on a third attempt, the plane landed successfully.

The Defence Force findings say that the captain and his crew "displayed considerable airmanship and leadership throughout the flight" and that the decision to go past the PSR and commit to landing at Pegasus Field was "soundly based".

The report says Antarctic weather is notoriously difficult to predict, because of the varied terrain and sharp contrasts in temperature and humidity between land and sea.

A Defence Force spokesman says it is also awaiting the findings of a Transport Accident Investigation Commission inquiry, which The Press understands are due in October.

McCully says he had a stiff drink at the Scott Base bar - The Tatty Flag - that night.

"It was obviously a very challenging situation for the pilot and crew. They had 120 people on board, they didn't have enough fuel to get back to New Zealand and they didn't have anywhere with visibility to land. That's not a great situation to be in," he says.

The landing was achieved without incident due to the pilot's "extraordinary" skill.

"You do have a sense about experiences like that . . . that you probably dodged a bullet."

The Press