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Capt. Gordon Vette

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Rez O. Lewshun

Save the Profession
Jan 19, 2004
Although well known in among the pilots of NZALPA as an estimed colleague and former President Capt. Gordon Vette first came to wider prominence when in December of 1978 Jay Prochnow a pilot flying a Cessna 188 Ag Cat found himself lost and overdue for landing at Norfolk Island with a failed ADF and poor VHF communications. Capt Vette in command of an Air New Zealand DC-10 was contacted by Auckland ATC to help in the search for Prochnow, displaying the innovative thinking and determination for which he would later become justly famous .

Capt Vette, a qualified navigator, contacted Prochnow and asked him to head toward the Sun and to report his magnetic heading. Prochnow pointed the Cessna to magnetic heading 274 degrees as Capt Vette steered his DC-10 toward the Sun and read his magnetic heading as 270 degrees. Next, Capt Vette instructed Prochnow to determine the elevation angle of the Sun above the horizon using his partially outstretched arm and fingers as a sextant. Prochnow established the elevation of the Sun as four fingers as Vette measured the elevation of the Sun as two fingers. Capt Vette estimated the Cessna was about 240-250 nm (each finger was slightly more than 2 degrees with each degree worth 60 nm) from the DC-10. Capt Vette was then able to get within VHF boxing range of Prochnow in seven or eight minutes. Prochnow was directed to fly east toward the DC‑10. The Sun began to set. Norfolk Island and Prochnow were both instructed to note the time that the upper limb of the Sun sank below the horizon. With this information, the results of VHF radio reception (contact/loss) and the time of sunset comparison observed at Norfolk Island and the Cessna, the Cessna’s position was determined to be within 290 miles of its destination. Rendezvous over a towed ocean rig refined the position and Prochnow then was directed to a heading to intercept Norfolk Island where he landed safely.

The 901 investigation begins
11 months later, Capt. Vette was on a layover in Honolulu when he heard about the crash of Flight 901 onto Mt Erebus. As the initial reports of the accident began to unfold Capt. Vette increasingly felt there was a disconnect between the knowledge of the crew that he had – the cadre of DC-10 pilots at Air New Zealand was a small one, and in his role as a training Captain, he had flown with all the crew members a number of times and he could not accept the official line that pilot error was the sole reason for the accident. And so began his quest to find out why an experienced crew would fly into a mountain in good visibility. Working as a specialist advisor to Justice Mahon, Capt. Vette tirelessly researched the facts and found that managerial deficiencies in the design and operating stages of the aviation system were important contributing factors. His investigations also revealed new aspects of human visual disorientation that could cause pilots to fly into an obstacle in apparently clear visibility, fooled by an optical illusion called a sector whiteout. It is thanks to his work with The Hon. Peter Mahon that crash investigators take an organisational approach, scrutinising systems under which pilots operate, to improve flight safety rather than just apportion blame. Captain Vette's work formed the basis of Justice Mahon's report, which was finally tabled in the New Zealand Parliament in 1999 and was hailed as vindication for the pilots.
After the Erebus inquiry, Captain Vette continued his research on crashes into terrain, developing and enhancing ground-proximity warning systems. He also wrote a book, Impact Erebus, which was followed by a video/DVD of the same name and an updated version of the book. All proceeds of the books and film go to a flight safety trust fund which Captain Vette established to help prospective aviation safety investigators and researchers
If Vette is still around, he and Sully should have a cage fight.

"Impact Erebus" was the book CA Vette wrote about the crash of TE901. Great reading and an unbelievable chain of events that led to the crash. The company tried to blame the pilots but in the end the court ruled that the company was to blame... among other things, for changing nav coordinates without informing the crew, as well as failing to train crews for "sector whiteout", a very common codition in Antarctica.

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