Tenerife Disaster Wendy Love

March 27, 1977 is a date that changed the course of air traffic control procedures and operations around the world. Airlines all over the world had a “wake up” call that day [and it has forever changed the course of aviation throughout the world.]THIS SECOND SENTENCE IS SOMEWHAT REPETETIVE] The event was one of the worst airline accidents in the world. A total of 583 people lost their lives due to human error, lax judgment, conflicting information and a lack of standardized procedures. The horrific outcome of two jumbo 747[’s ]jets colliding on a single runway was the most tragic and yet significant event to revolutionize the airline industry.

The disaster was set in motion by a decision to close the main airport of the Spanish Canary Islands Las Palmas because of a bomb threat. The irony of the decision to try and keep people safe was one that was not lost on the group responsible with setting the bomb. The group was known as
The Canary Islands Independence Movement. (start.umd) The group was made up of ethnic Berbers who sought revenge for repressive acts against them during the Franco regime. These were small time terrorists[;] who used stolen dynamite to set off blasts. They had attacked the airport once before in January of 1977. On March 27, 1977 the terrorist group called the airport declaring that a bomb had been set to go off. Advance warning of an attack was very common in the 1970[’]s and was considered standard operating procedure for bomb threats. The authorities took the threat seriously and closed the airport, thus diverting all flights to another airport; Los Rodeos on the smaller island of Tenerife.

Los Rodeos airport was a smaller, regional airport that only had one runway for take-offs and landings. It was big enough to accommodate jets, such as 747’s, but it was hardly an ideal airport for such large and abundant traffic. To give a comparison of size and scope, imagine the difference between JFK and your local small airport.
The two flights that collided on that fateful day were both Boeing 747s. One was a KLM flight (4805) out of Amsterdam and the other a Pan American flight (1736) out of Los Ang[e]les with a stopover in New York.
These two jets were the biggest, most well known airliners in the world. They were so big that they had two levels of passenger seating and could accommodate up to 500 passengers each.
Actual KLM plane involed in crash
Pan American Plane

The KLM flight was captained by Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten and the first officer was Klaas Meurs. Captain van Zanten was the number one pilot for KLM airlines. He was the top spokesman for the company and appeared in numerous media outlets as the most trusted pilot in the KLM fleet.

Captain van Zanten

The Pan American flight was under the command of Captain Victor Grubbs and his first officer Robert Bragg. The Pan American crew was told to land at Tenerife even though Captain Grubbs asked for permission to fly a holding pattern over the airport, to avoid the crow[d]ed, small and unfamiliar airfield.
The two flights both were stuck on the ground for [a] longer than expected. Both crews were anxious to get back in the air and deposit their passengers at their final destination. The wait was twice as long because even after the airport at Las Palmas reopened, the number of planes waiting to take off from Tenerife was large and hectic. To make matters worse while both planes were waiting to get back in the air, the weather at Tenerife took a turn for the worse. A heavy fog rolled in over the airport and reduced visibility to just under a thousand feet. This was a concern for both aircraft because the fog could shut down Tenerife[;][,] thereby stranding the planes and passengers for the night.
During the long wait Captain van Zanten let his passengers off at the small terminal and decided to take on more fuel. The Pan American crew had decided not to unload their passengers,[;] thus the hope was when the airport at Las Palmas reopened, [and] they would be in a position to be one of the first planes out. However, the refueling of the KLM jet kept the Pan American flight from departure. The airport was very small and conditions were cramped. The tanker truck that was loading fuel to the KLM flight was blocking the exit to the runway for the Pan AM flight.

By the time the KLM flight had finished refueling and re-boarding all but 1 of its 235 passengers, the fog had become thick and the airport could be shut down at any moment. Captain van Zanten was all too aware of this fact and he knew if his plane was not airborne soon[;][,] his crew would have to stand down according to KLM flight regulations. The rules on how long a crew could stay on duty were very strict and if not followed to the letter, the pilot would face dismissal. Captain van Zanten was not going to let that happen on his watch.

The crew of the Pan American flight was told to backtaxi This is “a
term used by air traffic controllers to taxi an aircraft on the runway opposite to the traffic flow”( down the runway behind the KLM jet. To get a better understanding of this see illustration below:


The KLM flight had taxied to the end of the runway and turned around to prepare to take off. The Pan American flight had been instructed to taxi down the same runway with instructions to leave the runway on exit three. As you can see from the diagram above the Pan American flight missed the 3rd exit and was continuing on to the 4th exit.
The Pan American flight was having a hard time understanding the instructions from the control tower. The controller was under pressure to keep up with all the traffic that was not usually at such a small and qui[e]te airport, in addition the controller was distracted by simultaneous transmissions from two or more planes. This created a condition known as heterodyne, which is a whistling sound or feedback interference that is heard when more than one user on a frequency tries to communicate at the same time.

The KLM jet was set up for takeoff and Captain van Zanten was anxious to get underway. He [was] is noted for beginning a takeoff without clearance from the tower. His first officer Klaus Mures is [was] surprised by this sudden move and tells [told] Captain van Zanten that they have not received permission to take off. The captain throttle[s] [d] down the engine and then tells [told] Mures to ask for clearance.
The actions of Captain van Zanten show a man who was over anxious to get underway and also a man who many thought was beyond reproach. When first Officer Mures pointed out that the plane did not have clearance from the tower, this was truly a bold move on Mures['] part. To tell the man that had trained you to fly that he was making a mistake[,] took courage and integrity. At this time in aviation history, the captain of a plane was considered the supreme authority and it was understood that the other officers were there to follow his orders and not ask questions. [IMPORTANT ASPECT OF SOCIAL CONTEXT]
Meanwhile, the crew of the Pan American flight was trying to figure out where the 3rd exit was located, as none of the exits were marked and the fog was impeding their view. The Pan American flight again requested clarification from the tower as to which exit they were supposed to use to leave the runway.
The KLM and Pan American flight both tried to contact the tower at the same time and in doing so squelched both transmissions. The KLM flight was trying to get authorization to begin down the runway and the Pan American was stating that it was still on the runway looking for the exit.

The KLM flight was cleared by the tower for their flight plan route, but not for takeoff. The confusion was later defined as the misunderstanding of the Tenerife controller responding to the KLM with the word “OK” which was not standard terminology.
Here is an
annotated transcript of the two planes' communications with the tower from Nova’s documentary “The Deadliest Plane Crash”
[THIS SECTION NEEDS TO BE IN QUOTES] Why Air Traffic Control would say "okay" after KLM has said it is taking off is unknown. Perhaps, the official investigation noted, the controller thought that KLM meant "we're now at takeoff position." But the problem is compounded in the moments immediately following, when both Air Traffic Control and Pan Am speak simultaneously. This causes a shrill noise in the KLM cockpit that lasts for almost four seconds and makes the following three communications hard to hear in the KLM cockpit:
ATC- Air traffic Control
PA- Pan American flight 1736
KLM –Royal Dutch Airlines flight 4805

Stand by for takeoff ... I will call you.

No, uh.

And we are still taxiing down the runway, the Clipper 1736.
The following messages are audible in the KLM cockpit, causing the KLM flight engineer, even as the KLM plane has begun rolling down the runway, to question the pilot:
Ah—Papa Alpha 1736 report runway clear.
Okay, we'll report when we're clear.
Thank you.
Is he not clear, then? ( Willem Schreuder, KLM Flight Engineer)
What do you say? (Captain van Zanten)
Is he not clear, that Pan American? (Willem Schreuder)
Oh, yes. [emphatically] This is Captain van Zanten as he is rapidly accelerating down the runway towards the slow moving Pan American flight.
Perhaps because of the KLM pilot's very senior position, neither the copilot nor flight engineer questions the pilot again, the impact occurs about 13 seconds later. Based on the Pan Am cockpit voice recording, investigators determined that the Pan Am flight crew saw the KLM coming at them out of the fog about nine seconds before impact. The Pan Am captain says "There he is ... look at him! Goddamn, that [expletive deleted] is coming!" and his copilot yells "Get off! Get off! Get off!" The Pan Am pilot guns the engines but it's too late. At 1706:47.44, the KLM pilot screams, and the collision occurs. [CLOSE QUOTES (Nova, Deadiest Plane Crash)
CGI of how the KLM hit the Pan American

The collision is swift and deadly. The KLM tries to gain altitude to go over the Pan American but because of the extra fuel it took on earlier, it is too heavy to make it. The KLM’s fuselage and landing gear rip through the Pan American. The KLM, full of extra fuel became a huge bomb. As it hit the Pan American it started to roll over and crashed onto its back 1500 feet from the impact site. The KLM became an instant inferno and all 248 aboard were killed.

The impact sheared off the top of the Pan American flight and killed all of those on the upper level instantly. The Pan Am burst into flames immediately upon impact. “Many of those on the side of the aircraft where it had been hit were killed instantly or quickly by the resulting fire. Those that were fortunate enough to escape the flames had to risk serious injury by jumping 20 or more feet onto wreckage.”(super70’

Photo taken moments after the crash, the view is of the burning Pan Am

First officer Bragg on the Pan American jet knew that the engines were at full throttle when his plane was struck and his first instinct was to shut them down, but the controls, along with the top of the airplane were gone.
"After I noticed that the entire top of the cockpit was missing, I reached down and shut off all four of the engines’ start levers. Nothing happened."
"The engines were operating at full throttle prior to our being hit, and they continued to operate the same way after the impact – at full power. I again started yelling, ‘Get out, get out!’"
"At that point, I decided it was time to heed my own call and get out of the cockpit." Bragg knew that the only way out was to jump. He did and only suffered minor injuries, even though the drop was about 48 feet to the ground. He landed in the grass and could hear the engines still going at full throttle.

“I immediately looked back at the plane and it was burning furiously, especially the section over the central fuel tank. What was most surprising was that a large number of passengers had made their way out onto the left wing of the plane. I also remember that the engines were still running at full power when I went back up to the plane, as close as I could get, and started waving and yelling to the passengers to jump off the wing, as I expected the entire plane to explode at any minute. All of the passengers did as I had hoped. They jumped from the wing – which was about 25 feet above the ground.”(

As the inferno raged around him, First Officer Bragg recalled the horrific scene.

I saw one male passenger running as fast as he could, dragging a lady by the ankle. I found out later that the woman was his wife and that she had broken both legs, both arms, as well as her back when she jumped from the wing. She had been among the first to jump and nearly everyone behind her landed on top of her when they jumped."
"All during this time, I was motioning for the passengers to get as far away from the plane as they could. At one point I stopped to see what I thought were passengers coming back up to the plane and I wondered why in the world they were doing that. Then, I stopped and took a better look. I soon realized that these people were local inhabitants, whose homes were located near the airport, who had voluntarily came out to the crash site to assist in any way they could."(
The fact that the locals were on the scene so quickly and were willing to help, was the deciding factor between life and death for those lucky enough to have escaped the burning Pan American jet.

The air traffic controller knew that he has [had] lost communication with both jets, but because of the extremely heavy fog he could not see the wreckage almost right in front of the tower. It was not until a plane that was circling the airport radioed to say that they saw flames and smoke on the runway that the tower knew of the accident. The fire and rescue vehicles arrived first on the site of the decimated KLM. Because of the heavy fog, they did not realize that another plane was also involved and needed assistance. Many survivors of the Pan American flight recall that emergency personnel did not arrive for at least twenty minutes. Sadly, by that time, all that might have been saved were lost to the ever expanding fire and heavy smoke.
380 passengers had been aboard the Pan American when it was struck by the KLM jet. Out of those 380 passengers only 61 survived the crash. The crew began with 16 members and only 9 of them made it out alive. This would bring the total number of fatalities to 583 souls. Out of the 61 survivors, 9 later died of their injuries.

The ramifications of this tragic event are evident in all aviation procedures and protocols today. The results have been the implementation of English as the standard operating language for all air traffic controllers and standardization of clearance and landing instructions; specifically, the practice of repeating of instructions by a crew back to the air traffic control. This measure hopes to limit misunderstanding and miscommunications. The use of standard terminology may seem to be a foregone conclusion, but up to this event it was not considered a priority. Many advances have been made following this unprecedented event, including ground radar (to give controllers the exact locations of planes on the ground) and a reevaluation of cockpit procedures. Perhaps the biggest contributing change came in the form of a total restructuring of the airline hierarchy. The pilot was no longer considered beyond reproach and it was now instructed that all flight members were responsible for calling attention to errors without the fear of reprimand.

The cultural aspects of this disaster were not ones that focused on race, gender, age or nationality. This disaster was non-discriminating in who died and who lived. It seems it was just the fact of where a passenger was sitting and how the plane tore apart that made the difference between life and death. Most of the passengers on the KLM plane were Dutch and were headed to a cruise leaving from Grand Canary. The same was true for the passengers of the Pan American flight; they were also scheduled to take a cruise ship the next day. Most Pan American passengers were from the U.S. and the common factors in both groups were that they were on holiday and had been looking forward to such a vacation. [GOOD--It's interesting. Sometimes tourists are especially vulnerable because of the risks of travel and being in a strange place.]

There was no widespread fear of flying after this tragedy. People around the world mourned the loss of life, but continued on with their lives, knowing that this was an accident and not likely to occur again. This view is vastly different than that of the general public after the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 was a deliberate act of terrorism and made the airline industry seem vulnerable. Both tragedies were because of human actions, yet the malice of 9/11 gave the world a different view of the perils of flying. The loss of life at Tenerife was not in vain,[;] people took some comfort in knowing that new safety procedures were the results of such a horrific event. Some might say that this could be true for the safety measures taken after 9/11, yet it is not an easy comparison.
The measures that were brought about by the Tenerife crash were ones that exposed a fatal flaw in the operations of flight control. The measures put in place after 9/11 are just stop gaps to try and keep people from using aircraft as weapons. In my opinion these measures do not make me feel any safer while flying, because we, the general public, have seen firsthand the ingenuity and persistence of terrorists and we will not be assured of safety against an enemy that conforms and adapts to the ever changing security climate.
Tenerife was and still is the worst aviation disaster in history. It was an accident. The events of 9/11 were murder.

Works Cited
Youtube trailer of plane crash on Nova Bragg interview
CGI of plane crash Nova Picture taken right after crash Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten
The Canary Islands Independence Movement
Top hyper link- accident description. The Aviation Safety Network Website. Last updated: 9 December 2009.
<>. [Accessed 9 December 2009.] Back taxi
Map_Tenerife_Disaster_EN.svg‎ illustration of airport heterodyne link quotes about Pan Am and crash Nova Deadliest plane crash Tenerife link