The small big events of life

On 27th March, 1977, the worst airplane disaster happened at Tenerife airport, killing 583 people. It was a runway collision. A string of events and decisions slowly brought two queens of the sky (Boeing 747s) on the same spot on the runway, at the same time. The story is complex, but here is a brief rundown to paint a faint picture of what transpired on that day.

The two planes involved in this accident were not supposed to be at the airport where the accident took place. A terrorist incident at Gran Canaria Aiport led to planes being diverted to Tenerife. The airport at Tenerife was not used to handling a large number of planes, let alone large planes like 747s. To save time later, the KLM (the accident airplane) decided to refuel while at Tenerife. After the reopening of the airport at Gran Canaria, the KLM was still refuelling and the Pan Am (the second accident plane) could not manoeuvre its way around the KLM so it was forced to wait. After the refuelling, passengers boarded the KLM, but there was one missing family, so more time was spent trying to locate this family. Once the KLM was ready, they were instructed to taxi to the end of the runway, make a 180 degree turn and wait for further instructions. Moments later, the Pan Am was instructed to follow behind and exit the runway on the third exit. This would then allow the KLM to use the same runway to take-off. While this was happening, fog descended on the runway. The KLM made a successful turn and was ready for take-off but the Pam Am could not make the exit, it was too tight for the giant plan. Some investigators would later call the turn the Pam Am was requested to make “a practical impossibility.”

After making a successful turn on the end of the runway, the captain of the KLM, Veldhuyzen van Zanten’s, advanced the throttles and the massive plane, filled with fuel to the brim began to accelerate down the runway. The first officer of the KLM advised the captain that take-off clearance had not been granted. The initial instructions from the tower were slightly vague and this coupled with Veldhuyzen van Zanten’s determination to leave Tenerife at the earliest, the KLM continued its row down the runway. The crew of the Pan Am could hear the trouble brewing so they jumped on the radio and exclaimed “We’re still taxing down the runway, the clipper 1736!”. However, this transmission was made at exactly the same time as the control tower was trying to contact the KLM. Since these two transmissions were made simultaneously, the transmission from the Pam Am was not audible in the KLM. One last chance to avert disaster was further communication between the Pan Am and the control tower. Control tower: “report when runway clear.” Pan Am: “OK, will report when we are clear.” This was heard in the KLM cockpit, and the flight engineer expressed his concerns to why they were in the process of taking off when clearly, another plane was on the same runway. The response from captain van Zanten was “Oh, yes” and he continued with the take-off. Did I mention captain van Zanten was determined to leave Tenerife at the earliest?

As the Pam Am reached the 4th exit, where they could get off the runway they could see the headlights of the KLM piercing through the fog. They attempted to get the runway off the runway immediately, but a Boeing 747 is not like a bike that is easy to manoeuvre. A few moments later, the KLM could finally see the Pam Am also. Captain van Zanten applied full power on the throttles in an attempt to get the plane airborne, striking the tail of the plane on the runway in the process. But it was too little, too late. The landing gear and nose of the KLM cleared the Pan Am but the other parts struck the fuselage of the Pan Am.

If only. If only air traffic control had permitted the Pan Am to go into a holding pattern instead of diverting to Tenerife as they initially requested instead of landing at Tenerife. If only the KLM did not put on extra fuel, they could have cleared the Pan Am. Calculations show this. If only the weather was clear, the controller could have seen what was happening on the runway. The other planes could have seen each other as well. If only the Pan Am and the controller had not talked at the same time. If only that Dutch family didn’t go missing. If only captain Veldhuyzen van Zante was a little more patient. If only there was no bomb threats at Grand Canaria. If only…

There is no need for a degree in aerospace engineering to draw one or two lessons from this accident. I will also not attempt to pick up a lesson and write it here. I just ask that you think of this event and take what is most important to you. What can you learn about patience? About the importance of being able to speak up and challenge those in authority when necessary. What about the importance of clear communication? Perhaps a lesson can be learnt from how small (maybe unrelated) event or habits could lead to disaster? How can you apply this in your own life?

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