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Tenerife disaster

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The Tenerife disaster took place on March 27, 1977, when two Boeing 747s collided on the island of Tenerife, killing 583. The Tenerife disaster had the greastest number of casualties of any air disaster until the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks.

On March 27, 1977 Pan Am flight 1736 had taken off from New York's JFK International Airport, bound for the tropical Canary Islands. Upon approaching its final destination Las Palmas it was told the major airport was temporarily closed due to a bomb attack by Canary Island separatists, and was ordered to divert to a smaller airport at the neighbouring island Tenerife[?], together with many other planes. The small airport at Tenerife was not equipped for large planes, let alone so many. Platform space was insufficient, delays were inevitable. Tension and confusion arose.

When Las Palmas was reopened planes prepared to continue their journey, including the PanAm Boeing. Meanwhile KLM flight 4805, a similar 747 flying as a charter full with vacationers, was getting ready to head back to Amsterdam. KLM had instructions to depart first; PanAm would follow. Soon after, the KLM jet began taxiing to the end of the main runway, and once it got there it got into holding position, air traffic control gave the KLM plane instructions to hold, waiting for the approval to take off.

What happened next would turn out to be a fatal chain of events:

With KLM ready to go, PanAm was instructed to taxi along the same main runway until they reached exit 3, then to head further to the take off point via a parallel taxiway. Due to the heavy fog they missed exit 3, which involved a sharp turn backwards and led straight back to the congested terminal area. They decided to go on till exit 4, which was heading in the right direction.

Air traffic control gave the KLM plane an airways clearance, signifying that they way was clear for the aircraft once it was in the air, however, the KLM plane mistakenly thought they had heard the tower grant them permission for the take off itself. Since there was dense fog, the KLM's pilots were unable to see the PanAm 747 that was right in front of them. In addition, neither of the 747s could be seen from the control tower, and the airport was not equipped with runway radar.

Later investigation showed that the KLM pilots misinterpreted some of Tenerife's instructions. This was partly caused by missed radio messages (calls from both planes to the tower and vice versa cancelled each other), partly by non standard phrases used by the tower, partly by the Dutch captain Jacob van Zanten seemingly jumping to conclusions (which later was hard to accept for the investigators, the captain was otherwise known as a first class pilot).

Captain Jacob van Zanten, thinking that they had permission to take off, applied full power to the throttles. In fact the co-pilot uttered some hesitations about the level of clearance they had obtained, but he was immediately overruled and hesitated to further challenge van Zanten, who was not only senior in rank but also one of the most able and experienced pilots of the company.

As soon as PanAm, still taxiing along, spotted the KLM 747, the pilots tried to take a sharp turn away from the runway, but the collision was only seconds away. The KLM plane, by now already partially free from the ground slammed the PanAm plane on the side, and part of the fuselage of the Pan Am jet was ripped apart. The KLM plane twisted around and ended up near the PanAm jet. All 234 passengers and 14 crew members in the KLM plane were killed in the resulting blaze, and 321 of the 380 aboard the PanAm flight perished too. The PanAm captain was among the survivors.

As a consequence of the accident, many regulations and airplane specifications came about in the whole airline industry[?]. It was made a worldwide rule that all control towers and pilot crews had to use English standard phrases. Airplane manufacturers began implanting equpiment that helped planes see through fog. Cockpit procedures were also changed. Hierarchical relations were played down. More emphasis was placed on decision taking by mutual agreement.

Both airlines as a whole were never blamed for faulty procedures or otherwise. KLM's safety records were excellent and have been so ever since. PanAm was a top quality airline as well. Of course many years later a terrorist bomb attack over Lockerbie would lead to its demise.

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