Worst-ever Multi-Aircraft Disaster (Tenerife, 1977)

A whole series of events led towards this terrible disaster. Take any one away and it would not have happened.

KLM Flight 4805/Pan Am Flight 1736, March 27, 1977

One Sunday afternoon in March 1977, a terrorist bomb and the possibility of another had made the authorities temporarily close Las Palmas Airport in the Canary Islands. Most of the incoming flights were diverted to Los Rodeos, a less important airport on nearby Tenerife, turning that relative backwater into a hive of activity. Aircraft languishing there waiting for Las Palmas to reopen were blocking key taxiways, including the normal route for taxiing to the far end of the runway for takeoff.

Though it had a good, long runway, the airport’s ground handling facilities were not designed for aircraft as large as the Boeing 747. As a result, a Dutch KLM 747 and a Pan American 747 parked on the apron were taking up so much of the available space that the Pan Am 747 would not be able to squeeze past the KLM to get out. They were both waiting to resume their journey to Las Palmas.

The KLM 747 had just come from Amsterdam, a four-hour journey, with a group consisting mostly of young Dutch tourists. The 248 people on board included 48 children, 3 babies, 2 pilots, a flight engineer, and 11 cabin crew.

The Pan Am 747 had come from Los Angeles, with a stop in New York for refueling and a change of crew before the eight-hour transatlantic flight to what should have been Las Palmas, where the mostly elderly passengers were to join a cruise liner. The 396 people on board included the 2 pilots, a flight engineer, and 2 company employees in the cockpit jump seats. The 747, Clipper Victor, had a dent in its nose made by a champagne bottle striking it to celebrate the inaugural commercial Boeing 747 flight, from New York to London on January 21, 1970. It was one of the first jumbos.

The KLM 747 also supposedly had some fame associated with it, in that a photo of its Dutch captain, van Zanten, was being used in KLM’s advertising material, including that in the in-flight magazine the passengers must have been perusing during the long delay. Much has been made of this publicity photo, with suggestions that van Zanten was a self-important stuck-up prig—a captain-of-the-Titanic-like figure—as maintained by the Spanish side. The author, as surely were many others, was seduced by this simplistic portrayal until he read Disasters in the Air, by Jan Bartelski, a pilot with KLM, who held important posts with the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA).