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In perspective: Peter Mahon

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Peter Mahon became the most famous judge in New Zealand when he accused Air New Zealand of an “orchestrated litany of lies”. His condemnation of the airline for the Erebus disaster won him appraisal from many, but also strong criticism. The tragedy occurred on 28th November 1979, when a tourist jet crashed into Mt. Erebus, killing 257 passengers and crew on board. The crash is New Zealand’s deadliest peacetime disaster, and public outcry led to Mahon’s inquiry. 

Long before Mahon became a renowned trial attorney, he served in 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force as a second lieutenant. He spent two years in the military, returning from the war in 1946. He began his legal career when he joined Raymond, Donnelly & Co. It was here he learned the trade and was mentored by Sir Arthur Donnelly. Mahon’s first major trial was the Parker-Hulme murder case in 1954, where he was a junior counsel for the prosecution.

On 7th July 1980, a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Erebus disaster began. This would become the most significant case in Mahon’s career. Mahon was given the job to determine whether any “culpable act” had caused the disaster, but controversy soon arose when he cleared the pilots of any negligence. The nation had blamed air flight captain Jim Collins for the crash, but Mahon disagreed.

In his 1981 report, he pointed the finger at Air New Zealand. He decided that they had fed the wrong flight path into the aircraft’s navigation system, aiming it directly into the mountain. The pilots had not been notified of the mistake. Mahon said in his report, “the single dominant and effective cause of the disaster was the mistake made by those airline officials who programmed the aircraft to fly directly at Mt Erebus…”. Mahon went onto controversially accuse the Air New Zealand of a cover-up. However, the court of appeal overturned Mahon’s finding. The council concluded that Mahon’s evidence did not support his report and that he had breached the rules of natural justice because he overlooked the airline’s side of the story.

Mahon’s claims cost him his career, as he was forced to resign. But his work didn’t go unnoticed. His report is regarded as ground-breaking for its insight into organisational failure. This kind of conclusion was revolutionary at the time. Before 1981, most investigators tended to trace all transport accidents back to an individual whereas Mahon shifted the focus toward systematic failures that enabled the human error.

Mahon died in 1986, but his findings had an enduring impact around the world. Some experts still argue Mahon’s judgement was unbalanced, but he has become an important figure in New Zealand’s history. In 2008, he was posthumously awarded the Jim Collins Memorial Award by the New Zealand Airline Pilots Association for exceptional contributions to air safety.

Peter Mahon will always be remembered as a figure who challenged the establishment, and for producing one of the most direct, undeviating verdicts. He published a bestseller Verdict on Erebus, which provides detailed evidence of the airline executive’s mistakes. Forever changing general approaches to travel safety is Mahon’s legacy.

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