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44 years ago today, the deadliest air accident in history was brought about by a tragic misunderstanding, and an incredible series of coincidences.
583 people lost their lives when two Boeing 747 Jumbo Jets collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife.
The tragedy was brought about, originally, when a bomb planted by the separatist Canary Islands Independence Movement exploded in the terminal of Gran Canaria Airport.
Eight people were directly injured by the bomb, and fears of a second device led to all flights heading for Gran Canaria to be rerouted to Los Rodeos.
Among the diverted flights were Flight 4805 from Amsterdam operated by Dutch airline KLM and Pan Am Flight 1736 which was inbound from Los Angeles via New York.
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The small airport at Los Rodeos was barely large enough to accommodate the sudden influx of traffic, which included the arrival of five airliners.
That led to aircraft being crammed onto the airport's taxiway, forcing pilots to taxi into takeoff position using the runway itself. Adding to the difficulties for aircrew and air traffic control, patches of thick fog began to drift across the airfield, severely reducing visibility.
Neither of the two doomed airliners had been scheduled to land on Tenerife at all, both originally being bound for Las Palmas on the neighbouring island of Gran Canaria.
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The pilot of Flight 4805 was Jacob van Zanten, one of KLM’s most experienced flyers. But on March 27, 1977, senior the pilot who had logged more than 11,000 hours in the cockpit made a mistake that still baffles aviation experts today.
Due to a communications mixup with the airport control tower, van Zanten began his takeoff despite the Pan Am Jumbo still taxiing along the same runway.
Making matters worse, interference between the two Jumbos’ radios caused vital instructions to go unheard.
Even though the KLM jet’s flight engineer voiced some doubts about the instructions van Zanten thought he had heard from the tower, the 230-foot aircraft began its takeoff run. All 248 people aboard were in their lives’ final minutes.
The cockpit voice recorder of the Pan Am jet captured the moment that its pilots saw the KLM flight looming out of the fog.
Captain Victor Grubbs shouted "There he is!” as he spotted the other Jumbo, adding "Goddamn, that son-of-a-bitch is coming!” as he realised that the other aircraft was accelerating to takeoff speed.
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Despite the 56-year-old Pan Am pilot desperately trying to accelerate his aircraft off the runway, and the KLM crew forcing their airliner into an early take-off the two planes came together – with the Dutch aircraft slamming into the upper section of its American counterpart at around 160mph
The midsection of the taxiing Pan Am jet was torn apart as the KLM plane’s undercarriage and left side engines ploughed into its upper deck just behind the cockpit.
Flight attendant Joan Jackson, one of the few survivors from the Pam Am plane, told PBS: “I thought, "Oh my god, we're trapped. I felt so responsible, because I couldn't take care of my passengers, and so helpless…and looking back and knowing that there is nothing you can do. You can't get back in the aircraft. There's no way to get in it, and it's all on fire.”
Meanwhile, the stricken KLM jet made it into the air, but missing two of its engines went into a stall, rolling and skidding down the runway before exploding into a ball of flame as its entire load of fuel ignited.
The Pan Am jet’s first officer, Robert Bragg explained: “After KLM hit us, he went on down the runway, and hit on the runway 1,500 feet down, closer to the tower, so when the fire truck and the ambulance came out, they got to him first.”
In fact, for a short time, because of the dense fog and smoke rescue crews didn’t even realise that there were two aircraft involved in the accident and initially concentrated on the inferno hundreds of yards away where the wreckage of the KLM Jumbo had come to rest.
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The surviving passengers of the Pan Am aircraft made their own way off the wrecked jet, Robert Bragg recalls “The captain, he elected to jump down in the first class section of the airplane. And when he hit the first class floor, the floor collapsed and he fell down [into] the cargo area.”
“No one came to us for quite a while,” he added. “As a matter of fact, I remember thinking, "I wonder why somebody hasn't gotten out here to help us."
It was in fact some 20 minutes before rescuers came to the aid of the 61 survivors of Flight 1736.
The survivors had most been inn the forward first class area of the aircraft. Bet even there, the confusion and thick, blinding smoke led to many deaths.
Survivor Karen Anderson said: "My husband was sitting to my right, and I undid his seatbelt and kind of pushed him out of his seat to get him moving.
“And we headed for the door, and it was engulfed in flames, and there was no way to exit that way. I looked over, and at some point, someone had opened the other door, which was amazing to me.
“And I just yelled, "Over here," and headed toward the door on the other side, which was, again, the wing door.”
Karen never saw her husband again.
All 248 passengers and crew on the KLM aircraft perished in the flames.
One woman, Robina van Lanschot, had been booked on the flight and had decided at the very last minute not to board, choosing to spend some more time with her boyfriend on the island instead.
Crash investigators decided that there were a number of contributory factors; the bomb, the fog, the overcrowding on the taxiway, and the lack of ground radar to help ground controllers determine the positions of aircraft in bad weather.
However, investigators concluded that the primary cause was human error on the part of Captain van Zanten and after some legal wrangling KLM paid the victims' families compensation ranging between $58,000 and $600,000 (£440,000).
Those figures range between $245,000 to $2.5 million (around £1,830,000 in today's money).
The Spanish government installed a ground radar system at Tenerife North Airport following the accident, and new rules regarding the precise use of language in airliner cockpits were introduced to prevent a horrific crash of this magnitude ever happening again.
On September, 11, 2001, a larger number of passengers and crew when terrorists deliberately piloted two airliners into the Twin Towers of the world Trade centre, but the 1977 Tenerife crash is likely to remain as deadliest aircraft accident in history.
- Plane Crash
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