A Tourist Flight Crashes in Antarctica: Hundreds of Rolls of Film, Human Perceptions, and What It Means for Seeing Climate Catastrophe

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 1.41.31 PM
The Barne Glacier, and in the distance, the world’s southernmost active volcano: Mt Erebus

When NZ Flight 901, on a tourist flyover to the Ross Sea in Antarctica from New Zealand, vanished from the airwaves 40 years ago this month, there remained hope the plane would yet make it back. That the silence meant the airliner’s comms had failed but they would make it back. The plane and all 257 people on that DC-10 would make it back. As night fell, people held onto that hope and residents of New Zealand’s South Island were told to turn on their porch lights,  to create an illuminated path to guide the plane back to Christchurch.

When I arrived in New Zealand as a research scholar in the Antarctic humanities, it struck how this story was not told in any of the Antarctic museums. The crash had reverberated across the country for years — and I met many, many Antarcticans who had either known passengers or who had been part of the recovery effort. Yet it was not considered a public story. In fact, when I asked about the crash, when I started digging into materials about the crash at archives, it was met with tinge that I was a tad vulgar to do so.

I then spent months searching archives in New Zealand towns and cities to parse a story of  a horrific Antarctic tourist disaster — particularly eery and haunted research — no surprise given that I was looking at records of a catastrophe and the subsequent lengthy inquiry.

Erebus Flt 901: Litany of Lies launches November 18 and it brings back many memories for me. Chapter 11 in my book, The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica looked at the crash through the lens of archival research and interviews.

Instead, I focused on the materiality of the investigation and then how the story was told in books, in the news, and in a handful of small exhibitions.

Many nights, from my home in the hills of Lyttelton, New Zealand, I would stare out the window at the busy port, and try to parse the facts as stated. There were so many weird aspects.

On one hand, there were hundreds of rolls of film, taken by the passengers in the hours proceeding the crash. They were tourists, they were all snapping away. I wrote about the look and feel of these images, which were shot from those tiny plane windows, which often appear in the photos, framing the blue and white ice landscape below.

As I read and re-read the expert testimony on the case. I kept coming back to the words of one of the witnesses, Professor Ross Henry Day, an expert in human perception. He talked about how humans might not see a 12,000-thousand-foot volcano in their path.

I wrote, “Before he gave his opinions, he studied passenger photographs and the meteorological conditions at the time of the accident.

“He said that the effects of white out are insidious in the extreme. Even on the ground the effects are not recognized by the affected individual until a gross error has been made, such as walking into a snow bank or falling into a hole.

“But understanding what means to not see in white out required a further explanation of a concept he called the mental set.  What can we see in poor visibility conditions, he reasoned, was determined in large part by the expectations of the observer. Thus, as we scanned a landscape, certain aspects of it were privileged over others for more detailed attention. The final step, then, was for the observer to interpret the selected material.

“To put it another way, we cannot see what we are not looking for, or when our physical means of seeing diminishes during white out, the mental set takes over. What we expect determines what we perceive.”

This insight has stayed with me particularly as I think and write more about climate catastrophe and ecologies these days. I wonder if this is not somehow why we don’t act to do more to stop emissions, to eat less meat, to slow down our hyper-capitalist markets? Perhaps it is a question of the mental set in the end and not being able to see what we do not believe because in the case of climate and shifting ecologies, we look out the window and it is yet still a beautiful day.