TechTenerife tragedy: The deadliest aviation disaster in history

Tenerife tragedy: The deadliest aviation disaster in history

KLM Boeing 747 that was involved in the disaster
KLM Boeing 747 that was involved in the disaster
Images source: © Wikimedia Commons

4:39 PM EDT, June 12, 2024

Misunderstanding and haste—these two factors caused what happened over 47 years ago to become the worst aviation disaster in the world. The collision of two airplanes at Tenerife airport still holds this infamous title.

On Sunday, March 27, 1977, the world's largest passenger aircraft, a Boeing 747 operated by KLM Airlines, took off from Amsterdam airport. It was en route to Las Palmas (the Spanish island of Gran Canaria), carrying 234 passengers and 14 crew members.

Heading in the same direction was an identical aircraft—another Boeing 747, but this one bearing the colors of the now-defunct Pan American (Pan Am) airlines. The jumbo jet took off from Los Angeles airport, carrying 380 passengers and 16 crew members.

Both flights proceeded smoothly until the pilots received information about a bomb threat at their destination airport. The Las Palmas airport staff decided to divert all flights to nearby Tenerife. At 8:38 AM, the KLM aircraft landed, and at 9:15 AM, the Pan Am plane appeared on the tarmac.

The largest aviation disaster in history. Neither plane was in the air

Conditions at Tenerife airport were unfavorable from the start. Most notably, Los Rodeos airport was not equipped to handle multiple aircraft at once—especially giants like Boeing 747s, which had to fit on the Spanish airport's tarmac simultaneously.

Another issue was the limited number of flight controllers. Only two people were working in the control tower on that fateful Sunday. The poor situation was exacerbated by a broken runway lighting system and a thick fog that reduced already limited visibility. Los Rodeos airport did not have radar to track the planes—pilots and controllers communicated via radio, reporting their locations on the airport.

The weather in Tenerife in March 1977 was changing rapidly. The sunny Sunday quickly turned into a thick fog, limiting visibility to a maximum of 984 feet, whereas the minimum required visibility for takeoff was 2,297 feet.

In these unfavorable conditions, the pilot of the KLM-operated aircraft, Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten, decided to refuel the Boeing to avoid wasting time waiting for further instructions from the controllers. While theoretically understandable, in practice, it resulted in blocking the runway with the gigantic jumbo jet. More importantly, with every gallon of fuel poured into the tank, the plane became heavier, requiring a longer takeoff roll. In the next few minutes, this fact determined the fate of nearly 600 people.

The decision of the KLM captain delayed the Pan Am aircraft's departure

The refueling KLM Boeing occupied so much space on the tarmac that the Pan Am jumbo jet could not reach the runway to begin taxiing and takeoff. After refueling, the crew of the blocking KLM jet was instructed to begin taxiing on the runway.

A Boeing 747 of the American airline Pan Am, which collided with a KLM aircraft in Tenerife
A Boeing 747 of the American airline Pan Am, which collided with a KLM aircraft in Tenerife© Wikimedia Commons

At this point, another problem arose—the controllers wanted the Dutch aircraft to taxi only part of the runway and exit at taxiway number 3. However, the pilots could not understand which taxiway (number 3 or 1). In their haste, the airport staff instructed the KLM crew to make a 180-degree turn at the end of the runway and position themselves for takeoff. At 12:04 PM, the Boeing 747 from Amsterdam was ready to take off.

While the KLM jumbo jet stood at one end of the runway, the Pan Am jet began to taxi at the other end towards taxiway number 3 as instructed. The pilots did not see the recommended taxiway, so they decided to use the next one—number 4—which was more convenient for them as it did not require a 135-degree turn.

At the same time, KLM's Boeing captain Jacob van Zanten grew increasingly impatient. Over the radio, he stated: "I understand, we are cleared for takeoff, we are now starting", which might have been understood by the controllers as "we are in position for takeoff." Moments later, the KLM captain communicated in Dutch, "We're moving." Shortly after, the headphones of both sets of pilots (KLM and Pan Am) heard, "Okay. [a few seconds pause] Be ready for takeoff, I'll call you."

Visualization of two Boeing 747s that were involved in the Tenerife disaster; the moment before the collision
Visualization of two Boeing 747s that were involved in the Tenerife disaster; the moment before the collision© Licensor
Tenerife air traffic control may have misunderstood the message conveyed by the KLM pilot. Unaware of anything, the crew of the taking-off plane heard in response to the information about the commencement of the takeoff procedure a single word—"okay." They did not know they were speeding straight towards the other jet.

The Pan Am crew taxiing toward taxiway number 4 tried to inform the controllers that their aircraft was still on the runway, but overlapping radio waves meant no one heard the warnings. The KLM Boeing's engines, weighing hundreds of tons, were now at full power, ready to leave the Tenerife runway and take off.

Two minutes after announcing readiness for takeoff, the question "Has Pan Am left the runway?" was asked in the cabin of the taking-off KLM. The captain confidently answered, "Yes." Five seconds later, the Pan Am crew, still on the runway, saw the speeding jumbo jet approaching them. "Get out! Get out! Get out!" one of the Pan Am pilots screamed. After that, the flight recorders only captured the sound of the collision between the two giants on the Spanish airport, killing 583 people and injuring 61.

Pilots did not hear the full messages from the tower

After the Tenerife disaster, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) introduced a series of changes to specific procedures for communication between aircraft crews and air traffic control towers. As a result of the 1977 incidents, the term "takeoff" was mandated to be used exclusively when granting direct permission to take off. In other situations, pilots use the word "departure."

The wreck of one of the Boeing 747s
The wreck of one of the Boeing 747s© Wikimedia Commons

Pilots were also required to repeat the full message delivered by the tower. Thus, short responses like "OK," which could lead to misunderstandings, were banned.

ICAO introduced these decisions due to investigators' findings that because of radio wave interference (overlapping waves), pilots and air traffic control towers did not receive full messages. When the KLM crew reported the start of takeoff (understood by the controllers as readiness to take off), they heard only "OK" in response. They did not hear the next part of the message, "Wait for takeoff, I'll call you," because of interference in the radio transmission. Similarly, the KLM pilots did not hear the warnings from the Pan Am pilots who were still taxiing on the runway.

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