Montana pilot gets medal from New Zealand for service following 1979 air catastrophe

A former Navy pilot from Montana has been awarded a medal from New Zealand for helping recover the bodies of more than 250 people who died aboard a sightseeing plane that crashed on an Antarctic volcano in 1979.

Dan Ellison was awarded the New Zealand Special Service Medal for his role in the aftermath of the three-decade-old tragedy, still the worst civil air disaster in New Zealand history.

Ellison, now a city commissioner in Helena, told the Independent Record he remembers sitting in the mess hall afterward in disbelief, thinking about the tragedy that had just unfolded on 12,448-foot Mount Erebus.

"It was a national disaster for the country of New Zealand," he said. "This was a bigger event than I'd ever been associated with."

Just 31 at the time, Ellison was on his third tour of duty with the U.S. Navy at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. His squadron flew helicopters and ski-equipped airplanes for the National Science Foundation's polar programs.

On the afternoon of Nov. 28, 1979, Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashed into the slopes of the active Mount Erebus volcano, killing all 237 passengers and 20 crew members on board. The plane was about a third of the way through an 11-hour sightseeing flight at the time.

In the wake of the tragedy, Ellison flew between the plane crash site, the makeshift morgue and his home base.

"We probably pushed the edge of the envelope a little bit, as far as crew rest and doing things, because we wanted to do everything that we could do to make the recovery effort successful," he said.

New Zealand has issued three kinds of its Special Service Medal since it created the medal in 2002: Nuclear Testing, Asian Tsunami and Erebus.

The Erebus is given to people involved in the body recovery, crash investigation or victim identification phases of the Flight 901 mission. Ellison said around 40 people in the United States qualify to receive the honor and around 10 have been located.

He remembers the work as very difficult, especially emotionally. People at McMurdo Station would ask him for details of the crash site; he couldn't bring himself to talk about it.

"I know I was rude to people and distant and closed in," he said. "It was a very difficult time."

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Information from: Independent Record, http://www.helenair.com