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On Sunday, March 27, 1977, two giant Boeing 747s crashed in the Canary Islands right on the runway. They waited several tens of minutes for ambulances and firemen to arrive. Because of the fog there was nothing to see. 40 years have passed since the worst air disaster. Terrorism, bad weather, obsolete airport, new regulations for pilots, misunderstandings and bad decisions. These are just some of the causes of the accident in which 583 people died in the Canary Islands.

According to the findings of the investigation, the accident was a result of human failure. It was also due to bad weather and previous terrorist attack on the neighboring island of Gran Canaria, which made the airport in Tenerife much busier than usual. Two large-capacity Boeings 747 found themselves on the track at five o’clock in the afternoon.

The Pan Am aircraft, with 396 people on board, was not yet enough to dodge the adjacent roll-off runway when the Dutch jumbo jet captain decided to take off in a thick fog, although the control tower had not yet allowed it. Except for the last minute, he noticed that his KLM boeing crashed into the side of the other plane at full speed, but the collision could not be avoided. Although the crew still managed to lift the aircraft into the air, undercarriage and engines, but literally scalped the American plane and after a 150 meters long jump Dutch boeing full of fuel after hitting the ground exploded. At one point, all 249 people on his board died. Fortunately, part of the passengers and crew were on an American plane. His pilots noticed the approaching Dutch aircraft, accelerated and saved the lives of 61 people in front of the Boeing 747.

Airport Los Rodeos / Tenerife Norte

What actually happened

What actually happened at the airport? On March 27, 1977 two Boeings 747 are approaching the Canary Islands, among other aircraft. One carries passengers from New York (Pan Am), the other from Amsterdam (KLM). Their destination is Las Palmas. But at Las Palmas, there will be a bombing. There is evacuation, searching the terminal and of course redirecting incoming flights. Thus, the otherwise small and unloaded Los Rodeos airport finds a large number of aircraft.

The captain of the Dutch aircraft was one of KLM’s most experienced pilots. Paradoxically, this may have made him vulnerable to bad decisions. For the last six months he trained new pilots on simulators and could suffer from so-called. “Simulator syndrome”, where he has instructor control over many flight parameters and nothing can surprise him. Due to the new rules on the rotation of pilots decided to refuel while waiting a full tank of fuel, so that he no longer have to refuel in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. However, this delayed the Pan Am aircraft waiting behind him. At the same time the aircraft loaded fuel so that it could not lift it in time. And third, the amount of burning fuel made it impossible for anyone to survive on his plane. At least that is what the report of the Spanish investigators says.

Collision sketch.

Consequences of stress

The relatively poorly equipped airport needed to get rid of the accumulated aircraft before the weather got worse. She sent both Boeings to the start. KLM started first, while Mr. Am was supposed to roll up the runway, turn left and allow KLM to start. Los Rodeos was indeed a small airport. It had only one runway and one main service runway, the so-called taxiway and several small connecting runways. The amount of diverted aircraft caused a lack of space and so the aircraft began to shut down the air traffic control on the service runway. And so it could not serve to move aircraft to the runway. The aircraft had to complete this task on the main runway at which end they had to turn and then take off.

Nervousness and misunderstanding, apparently these were the key factors. The captain of the KLM machine apparently rushed and did not want to stick to the airport anymore. After announcing the starting position and checking the engines asked for the first flight level he wanted to start the machine. Although he was informed by the first officer that the first flight level had not yet been assigned, the captain had ordered him to ask. Subsequently, it received from the control tower and at the same time the dispatching invited the KLM machine to wait for permission to start. After the flight level was assigned to the captain, he simply said “we’re leaving” and turned on the machines at full throttle.

After the start of KLM, the events took a quick turn. KLM’s Boeing 747, fully running, saw Boeing Pan Am just about to turn off the main track. Captain van Zanteem tried to prevent a collision by twisting the plane. However, it was fully refueled and climbed very slowly. In an effort to avoid a collision, he even leaned the tail of the aircraft on the runway and pulled it almost twenty meters down the runway. Pilot Mr. Am, in an effort to avoid a collision, released engines at full power in an effort to escape the runway. Boeing 747 KLM caught the chassis and bottom of the aircraft fuselage Pan Am and literally tore it to pieces. The KLM pilot soon lost control of the plane and crashed to the ground about fifty meters after the crash, and then continued to rock the runway for about three hundred meters. As he was fully refueled, the devilish inferno began, in which all forty-two persons on board, including the crew, died. An identical fire scenario awaited Pan Am’s passengers, but sixty-one passengers were saved from this machine, including pilots and a flight engineer leaving the plane through the torn fuselage. While leaving the aircraft, however, one stewardess was killed by a flying component from crumbling engines that were operating at full power and could not be shut down due to aircraft damage.

Animation of the accident from the series Air Accidents.

The most significant impact on the overall disaster was the decision of KLM Captain Jacob van Zanten to start without permission from the control tower. The critical factor was the deterioration of the weather as well as the simultaneous transmission of the control tower and the Pan Am aircraft. Los Rodeos Airport used only one frequency to communicate with all aircraft at that time. Only one could speak at a time, and if someone else wanted to speak, he had to wait for the end of the previous broadcast.

Aircraft debris on the runway.

The confusion ruled not only before the collision, but also after it. Rescuers extinguished the KLM machine not knowing that two aircraft were in the crash, which could save more lives. Paradoxically, they were informed that something was burning on the runway from another small aircraft that was circling on the waiting circuit at that moment, waiting for a permit to land. His crew saw rising smoke in the fog, and there were flames in the gap between the clouds. Rescue vehicles from the airport, insufficiently equipped in the event of a major accident, arrived late with the KLM burning aircraft because they had to skew between parked aircraft. The plane was completely in flames, according to witnesses, it could only see the back of the tail and rudder.

None of the firefighters and intervening doctors at the moment knew that 450 meters further in the dense fog, there was another plane that was only partially destroyed and in which many injured passengers were trapped. After firefighters partially extinguished the KLM burning aircraft, several vehicles went to the second source of smoke, which they considered to be part of the KLM aircraft, but found it to be another burning Boeing. All the rescue teams then moved on to him because there was nothing to save on the KLM. According to witnesses, they arrived only after a few tens of minutes when the plane burned down completely, and it was too late for passengers who had survived the crash and did not get out of the plane.

Aircraft debris on the runway.

The tragedy has accelerated the development and deployment of a special radar device that is capable of monitoring the movements of all machines on all runways of the airport and alerting in advance to theoretical threats and collision situations, regardless of reduced visibility.

So little was missing

Finally, one more paradox. By the end of the 1960s, the Tenerife island authorities had identified the need for a new airport at a new location because the existing airport did not meet the technical requirements due to frequent adverse weather conditions. The new airport was under construction when a disaster occurred at Los Rodeos. The new airport was inaugurated on 6 November 1978 by the Spanish Queen Sofia, after which it is named. The first flight was Iberia IB187 from Lanzarote, which was operated by McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and landed at 10:17 at the newly opened airport.

Aircraft debris on the runway.

(Photos: Wikipedia)

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Martin Smolen

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