How it happened: The story of Ansett NZ Flight 703's fatal 1995 crash

Shock, confusion, blame and bravery - those were the words being used 25 years ago when Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 crashed into the Tararua Ranges just minutes from its destination, taking the lives of four people.

The de Havilland Canada DHC-8 aircraft, known more commonly as the 'Dash 8', took off from Auckland as scheduled just after 8am on June 9, 1995.

Onboard were 18 passengers and three crew: Captain Garry Norman Sotheran, First Officer Barry Brown and cabin crew member Karen Gallagher.

How it happened: The story of Ansett NZ Flight 703's fatal 1995 crash
Photo credit: Newshub.

As the flight neared Palmerston North, the pilots began preparing their approach to the airport from the west, the preferred route. But they were informed by air traffic controllers that they would have to change their approach and come in from the east, over the Tararua Ranges, due to other aircraft in the area. There was also low cloud over the ranges and the instrument approach in these conditions was complicated with the descending terrain.

As the aircraft made its last turn to line-up with the airport, the aircraft power was pulled back to 'flight idle' and the pilots began the familiar process of landing.

It was from that moment, less than 20km from their destination, that a series of events unfolded that would result in the Dash-8 plowing into a paddock, killing four people.

The cockpit's voice recorder transcript - released by air traffic investigators - revealed confusion in the cockpit about many things, including how high the aircraft was meant to be and how high it actually was.

The Ansett livery painted over at the crash site.
The Ansett livery painted over at the crash site. Photo credit: Newshub.

"She only cleared us to 6000" 

"Just confirm we are to maintain 6000 (feet)?" the first officer asked air traffic control.

Control confirmed 6000ft was the minimum altitude the aircraft should be flying at the time.

The crew then appeared to disagree with what was considered the correct altitude, but in order "not to argue" with controllers, they confirmed a height of 6000ft - despite being about 1000ft below that.

An issue with landing gear may have played a big part in the initial distractions that led to the crash.
An issue with landing gear may have played a big part in the initial distractions that led to the crash. Photo credit: Newshub.

"I don't want that" 

"I don't want that," the captain said as an alarm siren filled the cockpit, warning crew that the landing gear wasn't locked into place.

Captain Sotheran then told his co-pilot to look through the aircraft's quick reference handbook, essentially a troubleshooting guide for pilots, and find what they were meant to do when landing gear isn't staying down and locked.

Rather than aborting the landing attempt while they looked for a solution to the problem, the captain instructed his first officer to find a solution as soon as possible.

"Whip through that one, see if we can get it out of the way before it's too late, and I'll keep an eye on the aeroplane while you're doing that," the captain said.

The pair then went through a series of checks, processes and more checks until a solution was found. The right landing gear was then manually extended by the co-pilot using a hydraulic pump.

The crash site was reasonably flat, this would have contributed to the lower death toll of the crash.
The crash site was reasonably flat, this would have contributed to the lower death toll of the crash. Photo credit: Newshub.

"Here we go" 

In the recording at the time marked 9:22am, the captain can be heard laughing as he says to his colleague: "You're supposed to pull the handle, haha."

The first officer responds: "Yeah that's pulled! Here we go."

But instead of a solution, the captain and first officer found themselves in a much more frightening and serious situation.

Warnings sounded repeatedly as the aircraft desperately tried to tell the pilots they were too low.

But within seconds, the beeping sounds are replaced by the haunting sound of impact aircraft breaking up. The recording then ends as they slid down the hill, still in cloud.

Cabin crew member Karen Gallagher, along with three passengers, died when the plane crashed into the ground.

Every rescue chopper from the lower North Island was called to assist crews on the ground.
Every rescue chopper from the lower North Island was called to assist crews on the ground. Photo credit: Newshub.

The investigation's findings: 

  • Although the captain and first officer were both experienced pilots, the captain was not experienced as a captain, nor was the first officer experienced as a co-pilot, as part of a two-pilot crew.
  • Had the captain discontinued the approach and climbed to a safe altitude to carry out the alternate gear extension procedure, it would have allowed for "the crew's safe execution of the task".
  • Each pilot had a different understanding of their responsibilities when the landing gear warning occurred, which allowed for a breakdown in the monitoring of the aircraft's altitude during approach.
  • The ground position warning system - which is meant to alert pilots when their aircraft is too low - did not activate as quickly as it should have, meaning by the time the alert activated, it was too late for the pilots to increase the altitude of the plane.
The de Havilland Canada DHC-8 aircraft was more commonly known as the 'Dash 8'.
The de Havilland Canada DHC-8 aircraft was more commonly known as the 'Dash 8'. Photo credit: Newshub.

Five years later, Captain Sotheran was ordered to stand trial in the High Court on four charges of manslaughter and three of injuring passengers. 

He entered a plea of not guilty and the following year, after a six week trial, was found not guilty on all charges.

More on Newshub Live at 6:

Tonight, Tom McRae speaks to William McGrory, a passenger onboard Ansett 703 who played a massive role in helping rescue teams locate the wreckage by calling air traffic control on his cellphone.

Tom also speaks to Tony Chapman, the air traffic controller who took that phone call.

 

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