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Saturday, March 27, 2004

On This Day 1977: Runway collision kills 583

Los Rodeos Airport By Alex Castellá from Gavà, Spain (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to one of the most visited pages on this site, after the weather. The Tenerife Disaster, which happened years ago (see our feature for the 30th Anniversary on March 27, 2007), still attracts many readers from all over the world, each and every day.

Tenerife disaster: Collision between KLM and PanAm Boeing 747's at Tenerife. Sunday, March 27, 1977


Los Rodeos, now Tenerife-North Airport is, unfortunately, famous for the fateful accident which occurred on March 27, 1977, in which 583 people died when KLM and Pan Am 747s collided on a crowded, foggy runway in Tenerife. The incident remains the world's worst aviation accident in history. Many contributing factors lead up to the crash, but the probable cause, cited by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA, 1978), was the KLM pilot taking off without takeoff clearance.

The wreckage of KLM Boeing 747 PH-BUF
What happened on the Tenerife runway?

Simply put, the KLM attempted takeoff, even though the Pan Am was still on the runway and the KLM had not received clearance for takeoff. The Pan Am tried to get out of the way and the KLM tried to climb over, but the latter ended belly up after dragging it's tail on the ground. The lower fuselage of the KLM plane hit the upper fuselage of the Pan Am plane, ripping apart the center of the Pan Am jet nearly directly above the wing.

Pan Am 1736 ablaze after its collision with KLM 4805

Whilst I have no intention of quoting chapter and verse - you can check all the background information I've used to write this summary, via the links cited below - here is quick rundown of the various possible contributing factors:

1. Neither plane should have been at Los Rodeos in the first place, which was not used to handling the traffic it had that day. They should have been in Gran Canaria, but a terrorist bomb attack by Canary Island separatists, The Canary Islands Independence Movement, closed the airport there.

2. There was fog (or low cloud) with poor visibility at Los Rodeos. That didn't help anyone, least of all the Pan Am who was looking for a suitable exit off the runway. The one they had been advised to take, seems an impossible turn for a 747.

3. The pilot of the KLM, Captain van Zanten, their "top man", seems to have been in some considerable hurry to get going and appears to have held a level of authority that subordinates did not dare challenge with the necessary strength.

4. Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) transcript showed that the KLM pilot was convinced that he had been cleared for takeoff, while the Tenerife control tower was certain that the KLM 747 was stationary at the end of the runway and awaiting takeoff clearance.

5. Reading the transcript of the radio transmissions, exchanges between the tower and the planes were ambiguous at best. One contributing factor to the accident at Tenerife was the involved parties’ use of non-standard phraseology during the critical moments leading up to the accident.

6. The crucial communication that might have prevented the KLM from taking off was lost in radio squelch. The congestion that results from using a single channel radiotelephone system can also lead to communications which are either missed or blocked by the transmissions of other users (Kerns, 1991, 1999). This problem of blocked transmissions was apparent in the runway collision at Tenerife, when the air traffic controller and the Pan Am pilot both tried to contact the KLM pilot at the same time.

Another article, from Wikipedia, which discusses the causes in more detail, also highlights one of the positive things to come out of the Tenerife air disaster: sweeping changes made to international airline regulations. With no small amount of irony, commercial aviation is safer today because of that terrible day in 1977, because, "It was made a worldwide rule that all control towers and pilot crews had to use English standard phrases."

The other positive move, of course, was building Reina Sofia (now Tenerife–South Airport) on the south of the island of Tenerife, which started operating in 1978. However, it was already under construction when the Pan Am/KLM crash occurred and, therefore, was not built out of the aftermath. Previously, passengers had faced a very rough two hour journey by coach, so it was more a tourism concern to build the south airport.

As with most information about Tenerife, there is more speculation, myth and legend published about this crash than there are plain, hard facts. Whilst I can't claim to know the full story either (I wasn't there, but I've met people who were), I do hope to distinguish here between items that can be verified and those which cannot.

What is certain is that Tenerife doesn't have a specially dangerous airport and, in any case, if you are arriving on a tourist charter flight you are far more likely to come to the south airport, not the north one where the accident occurred.


Sources and media on the 1977 Disaster:

"Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, there you long to return." - Leonardo da Vinci

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

My aunt died in this crash. She was a devoted wife and school teacher. Awesome woman and I find myself almost 3 decades later, missing her! That is my interest on this topic! May they all now rest in peace!!!
Molly

Greg said...

I was assigned by the USAF to fly to Dover AFB to help Pathologists identify the bodies that were recovered. We tried to determine if peopled died from smoke inhalation or impact as well as identify them from medical records. It was often difficult to tell the differences between sexes due to extensive burning.
I was in New Zealand in 2004 when I saw a show about the final minutes prior to the accident and I was overcome with emotion, visuals and the scent of burnt flesh. oregonmagoo@hotmail.com

Anonymous said...

I was 10 years old when it happened and remember watching it on the world news. It's one of the first news items I have any memory of.

Anonymous said...

I'm doing some research into the disaster, that's why I visit this page often. Having said that, it's a terrible tragedy and I feel for the relatives of those who died, even though it's 30 years later. Besides, I want to know if the heterodyne problem has been fixed by modern airlines?

Thanks very much for keeping the page up. It also serves as a memorial for those who died.

Anonymous said...

That's It!!!!

GM said...

Was watching a documentary about it on a cable channel, but didn't see the end because my son wanted another channel. Would like to analyze the disaster in more detail to understand the whole story.

Anonymous said...

I was reading an article today about the death of Anna Nicole Smith and a number of Playboy Playmates who have died young. The story mentioned Eve Meyer, a 1955 Playmate, who was one of more than 550 people killed when two airliners collided on takeoff at Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977. I was too young to remember the accident and wanted to read more about it.

Anonymous said...

I met Norman Williams, a survivor of the crash, some years after the accident and was impressed by his story of survival. He credits God for not only getting him out of the Pan Am plane but for his continued emotional and psychological health afterwards. He chronicled his experience in a book by George Otis, titled "Terror at Tenerife".

Anonymous said...

I caught the last 10 minutes of a documentary on cable channel last
month which talked about this
disaster. I was 12 years old
when this happened and remember it
quite well. That summer, my mom
bought the book "Terror at Tenerife" which I read nearly 30
years ago. I still have the book
and am currently re-reading it.
For some reason I've never wanted
to give that book away.

I am moved by Mr. Williams' account
of what happened on that March
day in 1977.

Anonymous said...

I was recalling events of 3/27/77 while writing the story of our daughter's birth for her 30th birthday. I remember being unable to take my eyes off the 10 p.m. CST news about the crash even as my water broke, so birth and death were very much intertwined in my mind for the next 2 hours. Megan was born at 11:56 p.m., happy and healthy, but coincidentally, she does not like to fly. Anecdotally, we also maintain a friendship with a Dutch exchange student living in our community that year, and who was with my parents that evening.

Anonymous said...

I also read Terror in Tenerife and have never forgotten it. Am still amazed that anyone survived.

Anonymous said...

I read this because my great grandparents were in the Pan am plane and they died. My grandparents and mom told me what happened, but i wanted more details. This site provided a lot of information for me.

Amy said...

I wanted to look into this because of a show titled, Modern Marvels, on the History Channel that talked about it briefly.

Anonymous said...

Re anonymous post on 13 January 2007:

"Besides, I want to know if the heterodyne problem has been fixed by modern airlines?"

The answer is no, not really. See this link

http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/feature/2002/03/28/heterodyne/index.html?pn=1

Anonymous said...

I came to this site after a Google search about the Tenerife Disaster. I was searching for it because it is the first plane accident I can remember (I was about 6 years old at that time, and I remember my parents talking about it, and even seeing a report about it in a magazine at that time. I suddendly remembered this accident because I am still shocked by the TAM airline plane disaster that occoured 3 days ago in São Paulo, Brazil. I am Brazilian, and I live in the city from where that plane took off (Porto Alegre) and many of the fatal victims of that crash were well known people in my city -- a deputy, university teachers, lawyers, and so on ....

Jay said...

I have always been interested in this event. I was born on March 27, 1977. My mother saved the paper from the day that I was born and naturally this is the front page. I just saw a documentary not to long ago on this event on Discovery, I think. If you haven't seen it, I suggest you find it.

ginandtea said...

I have seen this incident featured in the " Air crash investigations" programme on Nat. Geo.
The enormity of this air crash stuns me. I was all of 12 years old when this air crash happened, but so many years later, it is still the worst aviation disaster in the world.
A typical example of how haste makes waste?
And, I too would like to know if the heterodyne problem has been fixed yet or not.I have read somewhere that it has...

ginandtea

pehughes said...

I was 6 years old sitting in my dentists office looking for magazines to look at. I think it was on the cover of time magazine and I picked it up and began to study each image. I couldn't look away; paralyzed with curiosity and horror. Photos were etched in my mind changing my childish views of the world forever.

These feelings scared over until about 7 years ago when I saw a special on greatest air disasters on The Discovery Channel. Reopening the wounds when they got to number one, the feelings came with a flush of adrenaline and weakness in the knees. "Oh God, this is the one" I said.

When you’re a child everything seems larger and scarier but when you grow into adulthood things are smaller by comparison both in size and importance but I realize that this disaster was truly immense on every scale.


God bless those that lost their family and friends that day.

The Ministry Center said...

The story as told by Mr. Norman Williams was outstanding. He came to the church we pastored in Milwaukee and told how God helped him climb through a hole in the ceiling of the plane while all around him many sat belted in their seats cursing God. He did not know how he was able to get up to the top of the ceiling to the hole that the wheels of the other plane had ripped away. But by the grace of God, he was enabled to do so. He then slid down to a wing and jumped to the ground, breaking his ankle...his only severe injury. He hobbled away from the plane and some hero in a VW picked him up and took him to the hospital. He found himself quoting...Isaiah 43:2 When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee….
God bless and comfort all the families who lost their loved ones that day...

Merri said...

I lost 2 aunts and an uncle in this crash. It happened on my brother's birthday. We were just sitting down to his birthday dinner when the news flashes came on. I remember watching the first information about the crash just before walking into the dining room. A few minutes later (as my brother had just blown out his birthday candles), the phone started ringing. I told Daddy to not answer it. I knew in my heart what had happened to Aunt Jessie, Antabelle and Unkabop. We had just taken them to the airport and waved good bye to them several hours earlier (this was when family members and friends could still to into an airport right up to the gate to bid farewell). I knew they were dead. Daddy answered. It was the daughter of Anatabelle and Unkabop. The horrible round of calls to find out what was going on had started. It was hours before any of us knew officially if our loved ones were on the plane. They were.

Days later, things were still being unraveled/revealed. Unkabop's body was recovered and identified. He is buried in Southern California. Only Antabelle's hand was identified (by her rings). Nothing was ever found of Auntie Jessie.

My whole family went to the burial of the body parts that weren't identifieable in Westminster, California. A mass grave is there with the names of the dead who were never really totally found (including Auntabelle).

I've never watched or read anything about this crash since that mass funeral. I'm not sure why I did this today, but I'm glad I did.

Even though it was horrific to watch the various videos linked to this site, at least I know better what happened to them. I've been able to cry (which I was never able to do before) and finally let them go.

Thank you.

Merri

dezigner said...

http://www.tenerife-memorial.org/default.php?lan=uk

from site:
''On March 27th, 2007, 30 years after the disaster, a first time ever official international memorial service for the largest aviation disaster in history was held on the initiative of the Foundation for the Surviving Relatives of the Tenerife Disaster.''

People looking for a place to visit may it be a web-site or take the actual trip there.
maybe this in of interest? I attended the memorial together with my wife and kids because my wife lost her father at the crash.

solo said...

After watching several documentaries on this accident and reading the official reports, I still can't find the answer to one simple question: Why didn't the planes take off from runway 12 if they were already at that end of the runway? Why did they have to taxi all the way down to the other end to take off on 30? Does anybody know this?

John Ruyl said...

I was in Holland at this time and had the unpleasant task of informing my american friend Jim Gillis that his parents,girlfriend and baby had passed away(surname Twist).They were the only americans on the klm flight.They were in Holland working for Xerox. I believe originally from Rochester.Jim returned to the U.S. and I have never heard from him again.The night before the terrible event we all had dinner together and they were very excited.It may be of some comfort to somebody all these years later if a relative or friend would like to make contact with me. jruyl@zupps.com.au or tel.0733764584 or 0419710412

John Ruyl said...

I was in Holland at the time and befriended Mr.and Mrs.Gillis and ms.Twist and daughter who were the only 4 Americans on the KLM jet.The night before they left for the Canary Islands we had dinner together.If any friend or relative wishes to contact me it could provide some comfort after all these years. jruyl@zupps.com.au or tel 0733764584 or 0419710412.

Nic.G. said...

i am a 17 year old boy and is deeply devestated due to this incedent... im might be only young but i would like wish my all to those friends and families affected by this tragedy... i only came on the sight for an assignment for tafe but realized its not jus an assignment is more to those families who lost loved ones and would like to say it might be 30 years on but the experience will live on for ever...

R.I.P
for those who had their life cut short and my love goes to all who were affected

3fan4life said...

I heard Norman Williams give his account of the crash and I wanted to learn more.

Domingo Alvarez said...

I am from Tenerife and I remember that day as if it was yesterday. I was only 10 years at the time and I vividly remember that I was with my mum in the kitchen and the radio was on. Suddenly the music stopped and the presenter broke the news. I remember my mum looked at me and we stood still, silent, frozen. Many drove to the aiport to witness what had happened. I was not allowed to go. I was too little. These days I am really thankful I did not go. Many arriving at the airport acted as ambulances because the island did not have the infractructure for such a big accident. We weren't prepared for it.
Such ill-fated event left a printed mark in our minds and those who witnessed the massacre from close had a terrible time trying to forget about it.
I personally attribute my recurrent dreams of planes crashes to that early memory in my life. Ever since then I have these occasional dreams in which I see how planes crash into the sea or against mountains. I am never in them. It makes me wonder if I am going to die one day in a plane crash or I survived one or died of one in my previous life. Who knows? I once thought there were premonitions, but luckily there were not!
The people of Tenerife have always felt those who perished in that two jumbo collisionas if they were one of ours. We`ve always born their crosses in our hearts.
With regards to the airport, I think in itself it represents a bad omen. Other minor plane crashes have happened on it. Those I can remember were a plane coming from the UK crashing in a nearby mountain (La Esperanza)and a plane that crashed against onlookers at a flying plane exhibition at that airport and killed quite a few. It was real carnage, too. Nowadays I live in Madrid and fly down to that airport every 4-5 weeks to see my family who still lives there. That airport is scary. It looks as if the devil lives in it. We once aborted landing there because there was not visibility and the Iberia pilot decided to abort the landing in the last minute because of the fog, just like that afternoon. That was frightening! If only fog had not gathered itself in round the airport on that afternoon, nothing wouldn't have happened.(doalvarez2002@yahoo.co.uk)

marvineduardo77 said...

I came across this link when reading more of the plane crashes over the years, due to the recent tragedy in the plance that left Brazil on its way to France.News said it had dissapeared 3 or 4 hours after takeoff. They have found debris from the plane, even if they need to do some test, to identify if it is in fact that plane....228 Passengers flight 447. May they rest in peace.

N. Sanchez Maricela

sal said...

I too will never forget this terrible accident. What stands out most in my mind is that (I remember reading Time Magazine and seeing the centerfold picture of the burning wreckage) the engines were atill running as desperate passengers tried to save their lives.
Sal

David said...

These posts bring tears to my eyes. God bless you all who suffered such grievous loss. Two or three days ago, I had a vivid dream about this event. It has haunted me since it happened and was all over the media for a long time. I can't explain why I rubbed salt in my wound by coming to this site. All the world's wishing that it hadn't happened can't make it go away.

-Dave Malkus

Wage Slave said...

My mother had a copy of the book "Terror at Tenerife," and I read it when I was a teenager. I would have been eight years old when the disaster happened. I was reminded of it when watching an episode of the Discovery Channel series "Mayday" about fatal runway incursions at airports.

Cheryl said...

I recently sat next to a pilot on a business flight. He is a personal friend of Dorothy Kelly and her husband. He was relaying information about this disaster and about Dorothy. He had three friends (all pilots, I believe) who died in this disaster. Somehow it seemed wrong for me not to have information on this. In their memory and as respect for all who passed, I felt it important to find out about this terribly sad event.

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