This Day In History: November 28

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A New Zealand sightseeing plane traveling over Antarctica crashes, killing all 257 people on board, on November 28, 1979. It was the worst airplane accident in New Zealand’s history.

During the 1970s, air travel to Antarctica became more popular, as tourists sought to view the isolated and mysterious continent at the bottom of the world firsthand. Day-long excursions from New Zealand gave people tremendous views of the Ross Ice Shelf. However, the trips did pose a danger, as flights to Antarctica can be problematic.

The vast ice plains provide virtually no visual reference points for pilots and magnetic compasses are useless so close to the South Pole. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 that carried 257 people to Antarctica on November 28 was flown by an experienced pilot and copilot who had not previously flown the Antarctic route. The night before the flight, a longstanding data error in the flight’s destination point was corrected, but the pilots were not informed. They had been briefed that their route would be over flat sea ice, but the updated coordinate took them straight towards a volcanic peak. Prior flights had dealt with similar routing discrepancies, but no problems had been encountered because visibility was good. The poor visibility on November 28, though, led to a fatal chain of events.

As the plane headed over the Ross Ice Shelf, the pilot descended below the clouds to give the passengers a better view. Although airline regulations directed the flight to stay above 6,000 feet at all times, previous flights had commonly descended lower when visibility permitted. Because of the wrong data on the flight profile, the pilot didn’t know that his descent came right as the plane reached Mount Erebus, a 12,444-foot volcano. The plane crashed into the side of the mountain at 300 miles per hour. There were no survivors.

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