On March 27 1977, aviation witnessed its darkest day, when two jumbo-jets, i.e. Boeing 747s came together. It is said that about 583 people lost their lives. So today, let’s look into this incident and instead of learning who was at fault, we’ll learn the outcomes of the crash.
Tenerife is a small island and is part of the famous Canary Islands. Currently, there are two airports in Tenerife, first one is TENERIFE NORTH AIRPORT named Ciudad de La Laguna Airport formerly known as LOS RODOS (at the time of the accident), and the second is TENERIFE SOUTH AIRPORT named Tenerife South-Reina Sofía Airport.
There were two planes involved in the crash. The first aircraft was a Boeing 747-200 of KLM Royal Dutch Airline, registered as PH-BUF and named “Rijn” was scheduled from Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport to Canary island’s Gran Canaria international airport. The second aircraft was Boeing 747-100 of Pan Am or Pan American World Airways registered as N736PA and named “Clipper Victor” flying from Los Angeles’s LAX or Los Angeles International Airport to Gran Canaria International Airport Via New York’s JFK international airport. However, the generation of aircraft, or the difference between the variants is not the reason for the crash. On a side note, during the 1970s and 80s, naming aircraft was very common.
You might wonder how these two aircraft ended up at the Tenerife, they were supposed to be at Gran Canaria? There were some terror attacks on Gran Canaria Airport, and thus, as a result of it, all the flights were diverted to Tenerife.
Here flight crew played an important role in the incident. KLM flight was under the command of Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten (we’ll call him to captain Zanten for simplicity purposes), and he was a flight instructor at KLM and reports suggest that he was in the simulator for 2 months before the incident, the first officer was Klass Meurs and the flight engineer was Willem Schreuder.
Since we have seen the composition of the cockpit of the KLM flight, let’s do justice to the Pan Am flight crew too. Pan Am crew was changed at JFK, so we’ll look at them as they were the ones in the cockpit during the incident. In the command (captain) was Victor Grubbs, the first officer was Robert Bragg and the flight engineer was George Warns.
Now let’s look into the incident. Firstly before the incident let’s look where the KLM and the Pan Am planes were.
KLM aircraft was parked in front of the Pan Am one, as the airport was very small to handle all the aircraft. KLM flight was refuelling in front of the Pan Am one. As a result of this, KLM aircraft was asked to taxi first to the runway and backtrack (or go back for the entire length of the runway and take a U-turn or 180˙ turn at the end) and the Pan Am aircraft was told to follow the KLM aircraft and exit the runway on taxiway C-3 ( shown in the image below). But things get tricky over here. Tenerife Airport is about 2000 ft so the weather was unpredictable. So, the fog started to build up and visibility decreased. Thus, due to fog and C-3 was about 120˙ turn, Pan Am flight could make it to C-3. Thus they decided to make it to C-4. When this was going on, KLM couldn’t see the Pan Am aircraft and Pan Am couldn’t see the KLM one. During this time captain Zanten asked the controller something on the radio, and the controller gave them the instruction that needed to be executed after the Take-Off, and Captain Zanten thought of this as take-off clearance. Now both the planes were on a collision path. As soon as the Pan Am crew saw the KLM flight, they tried as hard as possible to get out of the way and the KLM crew tried to pull up as they saw the Pan Am aircraft and the KLM aircraft’s tail also struck the ground, but it was too late.
Now the question was why captain Zanten interpreted the information in this manner. Investigators believed that as captain Zanten spent about the past 12 weeks in the simulators, where there were no ATC commands, he misunderstood the command.
There were some survivors, mostly from the Pan Am flight. Some believed that the additional fuel that the KLM flight carried also played an important role in the crash. Due to extra fuel, the aircraft’s weight was more, and this meant that the aircraft needed some extra runway for lift-off. After the crash, both Spanish and Dutch authorities started the investigations. The Spanish authorities (solely) blamed captain Zanten for the accident, while the Dutch believed that the captain wasn’t to be solely blamed. Instead, they pointed out that the ATC was listening to a soccer match and was distracted, and said that Pan Am aircraft didn’t make the required turn at C-3. Nevertheless, KLM took responsibility for the accident and paid compensation to the victims.
After the crash, now read-back procedures were emphasised instead of saying “OK” or “ROGER”. And now the importance of CRM or Crew Resource Management was more than ever. To date, CRM is an important part of a pilot’s training.
Final report: http://www.project-tenerife.com/engels/PDF/Tenerife.pdf
ATC conversation: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/final-eight-minutes/
Documentary of the crash: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/history/this-1977-plane-crash-occurred-right-on-the-_1/
Video of the crash: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mnuQkmywrc
- Cover Image: https://theaviationgeekclub.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/KLM-747-Pan-Am-747.jpg
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