klm jumbo jet

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The 27th of March, 1977, the world’s worst air disaster, the Tenerife Disaster, took place, when two Boeing 747 jumbo jets, KLM Flight 4805, carrying 248 passengers and crew, and Pan Am Flight 1736, carrying 396 passengers and crew, collided on the runway of Las Palmas airport, killing 583 people: all the passengers of the KLM plane, and 355 people of the Pan Am, leaving only 61 survivors.

KLM, Boeing 747-206B “Rijn”

Pan Am, Boeing 747-121 “Clipper Victor”

The path to disaster, notice how the runway was used as a taxiway, as the actual taxiway was busy with the other planes clogging up the airport.

A multitude of complex factors contributed to this accident, first and foremost the diversion of the involved aircraft (among all the planes going to the Canary Islands) from the planned destination, the Gran Canaria airport, to Las Palmas airport due to a bomb explosion and thread of a second one in Gran Canaria; then the arrival to the small, understaffed and badly prepared Las Palmas airport that was never indented to receive such amount of traffic, made much worse by the heavy fog of that day; communication confusions and misunderstandings between the tower personnel and the pilots of both planes, specially since said tower personnel knew little english; and finally, the decisions of an overconfident captain,KLM’s Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten, who, in a hurry and out of frustration, decided to take-off without authorization.

Many changes in aviation came afterwards: Emphasis on english as the standard working language, standard radio phrasing to avoid vagueness and misunderstandings, better emphasis on crew cooperation, so a captain won’t remain unchallenged when he or she makes a mistake, and finally, harsher punishments for pilots who disobey controller’s orders. 

Let us remember the victims of this tragic event, and hope that we never have to see an accident of this magnitude again.