On the 27th of March, 1977, two large jetliners collided in
fog on a Tenerife airport runway, killing 583 people. This was the world's
worst civil air disaster.
The two Boeing 747s, belonging to Pan American World Airways
and the Dutch airline KLM, were taking off after having been diverted to
Tenerife because a bomb exploded in the terminal at nearby Los Palmas, the
destination for both.
The World's front page on March 28, 1977, said 530 had died
in the disaster. That figure was raised to 588 later.
The Pan Am plane was crossing a runway when it was hit. Immediately after the crash, Tenerife
radio broadcast appeals for all doctors and nurses on the island to come to the airport. Victims were being taken
to hospitals in private cars and taxis, causing a huge traffic jam.
The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board of the time said the odds of two 747s
crashing into each other on the ground were about 5 million-to-1.
Accounts of how the crash occurred varied widely. Early reports spoke of the Pan American World
Airways jet bound for Las Palmas from Los Angeles via New York and carrying 364 passengers and 16 crew being in
collision with the KLM jumbo which had 235 passengers and 14 crew on board, while the American aircraft was landing
and the Dutch was taxiing for takeoff.
However, reports later indicated that both aircraft had been on the tarmac at Tenerife and both
were preparing for take-off, the KLM jet departing first.
KLM said that Pan Am 747 hit the Dutch aircraft midships while turning at speed on to the single
runway. Pan Am stated that its aircraft was taxiing across a runway to take off after the KLM Boeing when the
However the collision happened, both aircraft exploded on impact. Most of those who died were
killed in the blast or in the fierce fire which followed.
Radio programs in the Canary Islands were interrupted repeatedly with a call for all military
and civilian doctors and nurses in the islands to report as soon as possible to the scene of the disaster. Police
closed all roads leading to the airport except for authorized traffic.
Los Rodeos airport, a wind-swept narrow landing field nestled between steep mountains and often
covered by mist, has long been known to commercial pilots as a difficult one.
The extremist bomb blast on the neighbouring island of Grand Canary obliged authorities to
divert all air traffic from Las Palmas airport to Los Rodeos.
As a result the normal Sunday traffic at Los Rodeos was doubled, with about 400 landings and
takeoffs. Airport sources said the volume of air traffic over Tenerife had reached saturation point.
The Tenerife disaster wasn’t just a classic case of
miscommunication. There were plenty of factors contributing to the
accident, but ultimately it was human failure.
The following series of circumstances all contributed to the
fatal end. First of all, it was very foggy.
The KLM flight was in a hurry because of strict Dutch
regulations that forbid the crew to exceed the flying quota. In order to save
time they fueled the plane in Tenerife instead of Gran Canaria.
This made the plane heavier as well, and contributed to a bigger explosion. And neither of the
planes would have been in the overcrowded Los Rodeos Airport if there wouldn’t have been bombs planted in the
Gran Canaria Airport.
But the technical aspects of the disaster were thoroughly studied and preventive measures were
undertaken by airports and air traffic controllers afterwards, but there is one factor that will never be possible
to be completely ruled out – human factor.
The final report of the Netherlands Aviation Safety Board can be consulted here: Final Report
After the disaster, several modifications underwent in the aviation industry, for example, use
of non-standard responses such as “OK” is prohibited now.