What Caused The Tenerife Disaster?

We meet this time at euroJet’s crew room in Berlin, for a lengthy slog down to Tenerife. It’s long flight for an A320-sized aircraft and can routinely take over five hours. It’s an even longer day for the operating crew. But jokes aside, our flight to Tenerife is one that follows in the footsteps of almost unimaginable proportions.

The Boeing 747


Located in the Atlantic Ocean off Morocco in northwest Africa, Tenerife is the largest of Spain’s eight Canary Islands. A popular tourist destination, the island attracts more than five million tourists each year. Tenerife has two airports, the North airport (Los Rodeos) and the South airport (Reina Sofia).
On March 27th 1977, two Boeing 747 passenger jets, KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport resulting in 583 fatalities, an accident considered the worst in aviation history.

The deadliest plane crash in history


The Boeing 747 was only in its eighth year of service, yet it was already revered as the most prestigious commercial airliner ever built. As happens disturbingly often in deadly air disasters, a series of fateful coincidences, ultimately led to the collision.

Tenerife airport disaster


As a consequence of the crash, sweeping changes were made to international airline regulations and aircraft. Aviation authorities globally introduced strict requirements for standard phrases and a greater emphasis on English as a common working language. As a result, air traffic instruction must not be acknowledged solely with a colloquial phrase such as “okay” or “Roger”.

CRM or crew resource management – whereby junior members of the crew are encouraged to speak up to their Commander if they feel that an unsafe situation is developing – is now prevalent in airline culture. Both the First and Second Officers on the KLM 747 were uncomfortable with the situation but in 1977 would have been reluctant to speak up to the highly experienced Captain Van Zanten.

Tenerife disaster

Although ultimately the KLM Captain’s actions sealed his fate and that of 582 others, an entire catalogue of fateful events begining with a terrorist bomb, fog, a poorly equipped airport, language difficulties and finally the Pan Am crew missing their turn in the low visibility all played a deadly role. Many aviation safety commentators believe that the Tenerife accident would be unlikely to happen again, such are the lessons learned from that fateful day. We can only hope so…..
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Video resource : Mentour Pilot

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