29 Jan 2015

McCully's low fuel flight drama

8:18 pm on 29 January 2015

An Air Force plane carrying Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully was running out of fuel and had passed the point of safe return during a flight to Antarctica, an investigation has revealed.

Murray McCully.

Murray McCully was among those on board the flight. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Air Force chief Air Vice-Marshal Mike Yardley is reviewing flights to Antarctica after the air force Boeing 757 carrying Mr McCully, government officials and research staff circled for nearly two hours in poor weather before landing at the Pegasus Field aerodrome in Antarctica in October 2013.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) today released its report into the incident, which revealed the aircraft did not have sufficient fuel capacity to complete the return trip without refuelling at Pegasus; once the plane passed a pre-determined point it could not turn back.

During the flight crew were told of fog near the Pegasus Field but received assurances the weather was forecast to improve.

"Based on these assurances, and using the crew members' collective experience ... the crew made the decision to continue past the point of safe return towards Pegasus Field," the TAIC report said.

However, about 20 minutes later the crew was told the weather had deteriorated and a fog bank had enveloped the runway.

"With insufficient fuel on board to return to Christchurch, the crew was committed to continuing to Pegasus Field. There was no other safe alternative aerodrome in Antarctica where the aeroplane could land."

An RNZAF Boeing 757 on the runway in Antarctica.

An RNZAF Boeing 757 on the runway in Antarctica. Photo: NZDF

The crew attempted to land but could not see the runway so circled for two hours - in the hope the weather would improve - before attempting a second landing. That, too, failed.

"With dwindling fuel reserves and conditions deteriorating, the crew elected to make a third attempt at landing."

They could not see the runway until they were about 30m from the ground but completed the landing safely.

Mr McCully told Fairfax Media after the incident the situation was "potentially very dangerous" and said the atmosphere on board the plane had been grim.

TAIC found the crew had acted appropriately.

However, it also found risk assessment when considering the suitability of Boeing 757s for such operations had not adequately considered several factors, including the potential consequences of weather deteriorating, the increased likelihood of weather deteriorating in early summer and that the plane was capable of only one type of instrument approach.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission found safety was compromised because of the lack of alternative approach procedures and suitable aerodromes. It recommended Air Vice-Marshal Yardley review the risk assessment for such trips.

Air Vice-Marshal Yardley said people were no longer being flown to Antarctica on Boeing 757s.