Erebus: The Captain’s daughter
On the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster, a daughter of one of the pilots tells Mark Jennings of the lasting impacts of that fateful day.
Adrienne Collins was six years-old when her father’s plane was reported missing.
“I knew that something serious must have happened”. Adrienne went to bed but woke early the next morning.
“I came out to the living room and everyone was already up, which was really unusual. They were upset and I sat down beside Pip, who was nine at the time, and said to her ‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ and she said ‘Yes’.”
“I was old enough to know that it meant he was never coming back and my life was going to be different.”
The DC10 aircraft that Captain Jim Collins was piloting had crashed into Mt Erebus killing all 257 on board. The sightseeing flight to Antarctica remains New Zealand’s worst peace time disaster and 40 years later its effects are still being felt.
Talking to Newsroom on the eve of the 40th anniversary, Adrienne Collins mentions a letter to the editor published in the NZ Herald that morning. It’s from a former pilot who suggests her father was to blame for the crash because he was flying too low. It is a searing reminder of the controversy that has lingered and probably always will – was it pilot error that caused the crash?
In recent weeks, podcasts from three major news organisations have again raked over the coals of the 1979 tragedy – from Air New Zealand’s navigation department making a last minute change to the flight plan and giving Jim Collins the wrong navigation coordinates, Collins’ decision to descend to 2000ft, the whiteout conditions he encountered but hadn’t been trained for and the airline’s attempts to cover up evidence and lie to investigators, which was famously described by Justice Mahon as an “orchestrated litany of lies.”
Adrienne Collins has listened to them all and is matter of fact in her response. “You could have put any other pilot in the cockpit and unless he was very experienced in whiteout conditions the result would have been the same.”
The whiteout was not formed by a snow blizzard but by a layer of clouds blending in with the snow-covered terrain. Known as a sector whiteout, there was no contrast to warn Collins that he was flying towards a mountain and not over McMurdo Sound as his flight plan indicated. Air New Zealand had not briefed or trained its pilots on how to recognise the sector whiteout phenomenon. It is rumoured that the Air Force offered to share its experience of flying in the Antarctic but the airline declined.
Collins’ death had an immediate impact on his youngest daughter, as you would expect. “I became petrified that mum would die. She didn’t go out much but I hated it when she did. Now that I think back, I probably put a guilt trip on her about going anywhere. I had a real fear that I would be orphaned.
“There wasn’t any counselling or therapy back then, it was a different time, I guess. Mum kept up a sense of normalcy as best she could for us.”
When she was 12 or 13, a close school friend asked her if she could have one wish, what would it be? She answered that she would “bring back my dad.” Her school mate, who is still a close friend today, felt bad for asking what she quickly realised was an inappropriate question but Collins says her reply would be the same today.
“I often wonder what impact he would have had on my life; would we have travelled to different places or would I have made different career choices if he had been around.
“Over the years I have had these dreams where he is in them and I have this feeling of wholeness. Of course, when I wake up it’s different…But I wouldn’t want people to think I haven’t had a good life, as a family we have had a lot of fun. Dad wanted us (the four daughters) to experience the world and mum kept that up.”
Collins says her memory gives her glimpses of her father. He was, she says, fun, caring and typical of most dads of his era.
“He would pretend to be a car and I would ride around on his back. He loved toast with boysenberry jam and I would sneak a bite of it and he would feign great surprise.”
Jim Collins was involved with flying his whole adult life. He joined the Air Force at 15, got his wings and, at the age of 24 was hired by TEAL (Air New Zealand’s forerunner) when it was expanding and looking for pilots.
While Adrienne and her sisters have studied the events surrounding the crash in minute detail, they didn’t talk about it privately or publicly for the best part of 20 years.
“I guess it was because of the controversy … But at home I had a fear of bringing it up. I guess I didn’t want to upset Mum. We didn’t have any deep heart-to-hearts about it.
“Out in public, people didn’t know how to talk to us about it. My sister Pip experienced the same thing. People took their cue from us and we didn’t talk about it, so they didn’t. It was a different time.”
Collins says their silence ended when the families of the flight’s crew and passengers came together for the 30th anniversary of the crash.
“Previously, there hadn’t been any catalyst for the families to connect. Suddenly we were all talking, there was a thirst for knowledge. It has also been amazing to hear from the team that went down to recover the bodies. We had so many questions and they were able to answer lots of them.
“One of the recovery team told me Dad’s body was intact and that he was completely identifiable. That was something that was very comforting to hear.”
Last year, the families were invited to Parliament by the Prime Minister to discuss the proposed memorial.
“That was another one of those important, connecting moments. There were about 200 people in the room and Jacinda asked for the children (of the crash victims) to stand. About a third of the room stood up and it suddenly felt like we had a special bond. There were people who had lost both parents but they were so kind to the others. Being connected has given us all a lot of strength, I think.”
Collins says her feelings toward Air New Zealand are neutral and the airline’s attempts, in the 1980s, to blame the crash on her father doesn’t stop her flying with the national carrier.
“I am more impacted when I see the Koru.” Asked if this is because a frequently used photo of the wreckage shows the tail of the DC10 with a very visible Koru, Collins replies in a soft voice, “Yes.”
“Whenever I am flying from Auckland Airport I also think about Dad. This was the last place he left from.”
The one thing that does upset Collins and many other relatives of the victims is that after 40 years there is still no proper memorial to all those who died in the Erebus crash.
“It is a massive thing that is missing. There is no focal point where the families can come and remember their relatives and connect with each other. I think it's especially important for the next generation to have a place to go. I think it would provide great solace for the families.”
Plans to build a memorial in the Parnell Rose Gardens have been stalled by opposition from local residents. The protest group, led by two local women Jo Malcolm (whose father-in-law was onboard the flight) and Annie Coney, has collected 612 signatures on a petition opposing the memorial. The women say, “the significant and dominant structure would ruin this precious inner city park.”
The Waitemata Local Board will vote on whether to let the memorial be built in the park on December 2. Adrienne Collins says she and her sisters will be at the meeting.
“If I got the chance, I would like to say that this is bigger than you, ladies.”
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