It remains New Zealand’s worst peacetime disaster. On 28 November 1979, a sightseeing aircraft carrying 257 people crashed head-on into the side of a volcano in Antarctica.

Mount Erebus disaster

The tragedy of flight TE901 was a shock for New Zealand, affecting almost everyone in the country in some way, and led to years of investigations and a bitter blame game.

And the legacy of the Mt Erebus disaster is still felt 40 years on.

How did the plane crash?

Air New Zealand had started operating scenic flights over Antarctica only two years before, and they had been a great success.

What better way to spend a day than to cruise on an 11-hour non-stop round trip from Auckland down the length of the country and on to the great southern continent? The flights offered first class luxury and a stunning view over the endless ice at the edge of the world.

But on that day in 1979, things would go very wrong.

After hours of waiting and confusion, the assumption back in New Zealand was that the plane must have run out of fuel. Wherever it was, it was no longer in the air.

“The equipment today is extremely good. You’ve got satellite based navigation system, so being on the wrong flight pass like that would just not be possible.”

Shattering national identity

Two main reasons have been determined as the cause of the crash.

The pilots had been briefed with a flight path which was different from the one put into the plane’s computer. The team thought their route was the same as previous flights, going over ice and water in the McMurdo Sound, when in fact the path was going over Ross Island – and the 3,794m volcano Mount Erebus.

“It came at a time the relatively young nation was in a crucial period of finding a new narrative for its identity,” explains Rowan Light, a historian with Canterbury University.

But the country was trying to find its feet. Technological advances were a big part of that new path, infrastructure was key to the national story of settling, conquering and gaining control over the land. And reaching out to Antarctica, about 4,500km (2,780 miles) to the south, fitted perfectly into that story.

Yet a row of terrible disasters was to profoundly shake that sense of self.

New Zealand’s loss of innocence?

Forty years on, the crash remains a story crucial to New Zealand’s recent history.

For the post-war generation, it was the biggest tragedy they’d witnessed their country go through and there’s a lingering sense that it might have been where the young nation lost its innocence, its clear sense of direction, stability and trust in the established order.

And the country marks the anniversary of the crash on Thursday, thousands of miles away, the ruins of the aircraft still lies on the slopes of Mount Erebus.

Partially covered by snow, the wreckage is a silent tribute to the flight of a lifetime that ended in tragedy.

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