There are times in history when man is compelled to accept he has perhaps gone too far, and scale back from its ambitions. Ancient Greeks even had a word for this sentiment: hubris. That is exactly what happened in December 1979, when touristic flights over Antarctica had to be halted after one of the saddest air disasters of all times.

Back in 1977, two worldwide-known airline companies, Air New Zealand and Qantas, had launched “magic” touristic flights over the seventh continent, which is located over 2.000 kilometers south of Australia. Due to the severe climatic conditions there, no stopover in Antarctica was planned, but tourists from all over the world – families and children – loved to fly over the breathtaking landscapes and take once-in-a-lifetime pictures of iced waters and white mountains. It was precisely one of those, however, to mark an historic tragedy a few weeks before the beginning of the 1980s, one over which complete clarity would never be made.

When the 237 passengers of the TE-901 flight operated by Air New Zealand took off from Auckland, in the early morning of November 28th, few would imagine that the coordinates of the flight had been modified only a few hours before. Worst of all, the pilots of the aircraft themselves were unaware of the critical change. Flying over the South Pole, Captain Jim Collins and co-pilot Greg Cassin therefore followed the original path and guidelines they had been trained about for that specific route.

About four hours after take-off, approaching McMurdo Station, a base in Antarctica, Collins started descending to a lower altitude – as was customary on those flights, in partial contrast to commonly held air safety regulations – to help passengers enjoy better views and take photographs of Antarctica. A sector whiteout, though, reduced visibility so much that the pilots could not detect a crucial fact. The plane, which was flying at a mere 1467 feet (447 meters) was not over open water. It was flying directly towards Mount Erebus, a 3795-meter high volcano on Ross Island.

At 12:49 pm, the ground proximity warning system sounded the alert: the plane was dangerously close to terrain. It was far too late. Six seconds later, the plane crashed into the side of Mount Erebus and disintegrated. None of the 257 people on board, including the 20 crew members, survived. Their bodies were recovered with great difficulty by international rescue teams in the months that followed.

The initial investigation which was commissioned found that the accident had been caused by a pilot error, but a second Royal Commission of Inquiry concluded that the accident had been provoked by a correction made to the coordinates of the flight path the night before the disaster, coupled with a failure to inform the flight crew of the change. In the report, judge Peter Mahon also accused Air New Zealand of presenting “an orchestrated litany of lies” to cover the real responsibilities behind the accident.

The most serious charges against the airline’s top managers were later dismissed in the Court of Appeal. By then, however, the company senior management had already been changed. More crucially, an entire country was in deep shock, and tourist flights over Antarctica were halted for years. The route was reopened to civilian passengers only in 1994 by Australian airline Qantas. After that tragic day, however, flying over the South Pole will never be the dream experience that it once was.