Little Bits of History

Tenerife Disaster

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 27, 2013
27 Tenerife Disaster

Tenerife Disaster

March 27, 1977: On a foggy runway in the Canary Islands, two planes collide. Both were Boeing 747s at Tenerife Los Rodeos Airport (now called Tenerife North Airport). The small island airport had only one runway with four taxi exits. The crash occurred shortly after 5 PM on an already bad day. At 1:15 PM, a bomb planted at the Gran Canaria International Airport exploded. The Movement for the Independence and Autonomy of the Canaries Archipelago planted a bomb in a flower shop on the concourse. Authorities were warned at 1 PM and managed to vacate the shop. No one was killed, but there were 8 injured, one seriously.

Later in the day, a phone call came in claiming responsibility and also hinting about a second bomb planted somewhere in the airport. The airport was shut down while authorities searched for the second explosive. Incoming planes, including long international flights, were diverted. Pan Am flight 1736 was told to divert to Tenerife. Captain Victor Grubbs offered to circle until given clearance at Gran Canaria, but it was denied. He went to Los Rodeos.

The Pan Am flight originated in Los Angeles with a stopover in New York City where the crew was changed. There were 380 passengers and 14 crew aboard. KLM flight 4805 originated in Amsterdam and Captain Jacob van Zanten was also diverted from the larger airport to Tenerife. There were 234 passengers and 14 crew on the Dutch flight. In all, five large aircraft were diverted from Gran Canaria to the smaller neighboring island. The smaller airport was not build for such large planes. The end destination for both the Pan Am and KLM flights was Gran Canaria.

Both planes were given instructions for takeoff. The runway and taxi exits were not clearly marked and the turn radius was too sharp for 747s. There was also a language barrier as locals spoke Spanish as a native tongue. The planes were told what route to take for takeoff as a thick bank of fog covered the airport. The planes could not see each other until suddenly, the pilot of the Pam Am flight saw landing lights coming straight at his plane. He veered sharply left to try to avoid a head on collision. The pilot of the KLM flight saw the plane in front of him and pulled up sharply, trying to climb. The lower fuselage of the KLM hit the upper fuselage of the Pan Am plane. The KLM plane was airborne briefly. All aboard died in the crash. The Pan Am flight had 61 survivors. With 583 dead, it is the most deadly aviation disaster.

“I wouldn’t mind dying in a plane crash. It’d be a good way to go. I don’t want to die in my sleep, or of old age, or OD…I want to feel what it’s like. I want to taste it, hear it, smell it. Death is only going to happen to you once; I don’t want to miss it.” – Jim Morrison

“Flight is intolerable contradiction.” – Muriel Rukeyser

“You define a good flight by negatives: you didn’t get hijacked, you didn’t crash, you didn’t throw up, you weren’t late, you weren’t nauseated by the food. So you are grateful.” – Paul Theroux

“I have been sick, really sick, on flights in the last few weeks. And, I have been amazed by the kindness of strangers. There is, indeed, something about vulnerability that helps us to connect with people – even when we’re holding one of those little bags from the seat pocket of an airplane.” – Jan Denise

This article first appeared at Examiner.com in 2010. Editor’s update: In the wake of the crash, about 70 investigators from Spain, the Netherlands, and the US as well as the two airlines arrived to determine the cause of the crash. It was found that there were both false assumptions and misinterpretations leading to the crash. The KLM pilot was sure he had been cleared for takeoff, while the tower was sure the plane was stationary. Pan Am’s representative made statements that did not agree with those of the crew or the transcript of the tower/plane communications. There was a misunderstanding about which exit lane to take, either C-3 or C-4. The primary cause was stated as the takeoff of the KLM plane but the weather conditions and communication misunderstandings were contributory.

Also on this day: Long Distance Communication – In 1899, the first international radio communication occurred.
Earthquake – In 1964, Alaska was struck by a powerful earthquake.
Little Blue Pill – In 1998, Viagra was approved by the FDA.

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2 Responses

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  1. Bobby Dias said, on March 27, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Real nice- this article and others at that time wrote about this comparative little instance of terrorism- as if the United States had not done any itself. The United States terrorized Emperor Hirohito into stopping the Japanese people from fighting by dropping the two atom bombs. The so-called Vietnam war was ended by terrorizing the leaders of the 3 troublemaking Vietcong clans into ending the fighting. When Ho Chi Minh died the United States used B52 bombers to scare all the Vietcong clans into eastern Cambodia where allies Cambodia and Laos and North Vietnam and South Vietnam slaughtered 306,000 Vietcong in 2 weeks. The self-serving hypocrites at examiner.com should tell the whole truth.

  2. Sherry said, on March 28, 2015 at 7:58 am

    And EXACTLY what does your nonsensical screed have to do with the Tenerife Disaster?


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