It seems somewhat strange to report that the deadliest crash in aviation history occurred on the ground in the Canary Islands. One of the aspects of this crash, which killed more than 500 people, is that it was not the result of just one mistake but the result of a series of mistakes between somewhat cranky and impatient people, and it is this series of blunders that led to such great destruction. While this crash has been reported by a great many people, including lengthy selections of up to an hour and a half in length, it is worthwhile to at least provide some of the details since not everyone may be aware of this story and its consequences. At its heart, this story is about two planes and an airport, but not the airport that they were originally expecting to be at, which is the first of the tragic aspects that added together to this disaster.
First, let us talk about the airport. In early afternoon on March 27, 1977, the airport terminal at Gran Canaria International Airport was bombed by a terrorist attack from a local independence movement and a phone call of a second bomb was made. This led the airport to close itself down and divert traffic to a nearby airport at Los Rodeos at Tenerife. It should be noted that this decision was questioned at the time. The Pan Am flight involved in the wreck asked to fly in a holding pattern over the original airport for a couple of hours, but instead it and a few other planes were diverted to a regional airport that lacked the space to deal with these planes, which is the first of the tragic blunders that led to disaster. Instead of landing as planned at a larger airport able to handle them, political action led a small regional airport to be tasked with dealing with far more planes than it was equipped to do.
This had immediate consequences. Upon landing at Los Robles, two of the planes in particular had plenty of issues. The first of these flights was KLM 4805, piloted by Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten, who was in charge of KLM’s training program for its 747 planes and also had served as part of their advertising, considered a star pilot, albeit one who had not flown regularly for the last several weeks. The second of these flights was Pan Am 1736. From the time they landed at Tenerife, these two planes and their captains appeared to have it in for each other. Both pilots, for example, sought to deplane their passengers because of concerns about boredom, but the terminal was too small for them. The planes (including a few others) took up so much time that it was impossible to use the taxiways because they were filled with planes larger than the airport normally dealt with. It would be easy to forgive the airport staff for being a bit overwhelmed by the crush of planes with their prickly and irate crews.
After having been at the airport for a while, Captain van Zanten decided, against the pleas of his first officer and engineering officer, to fuel up in Tenerife, which added another 35 minutes before their departure to Gran Canaria. Meanwhlie, the Pan Am flight, which still had plenty of fuel, had wanted to depart but there was not enough room on the airstrip to pass the refueling plane, and it was given a task of trying to taxi to a particular place at the airport in a deep fog that had set in while the KLM flight was refueling. It should be noted here that the hurry and impatience of the KLM captain was not without reason, as there were company policies about overtime and the diversion had increased his workload, leaving him to perhaps want a bit of a break, which would be easy enough to understand. But this impatience would have fatal consequences for himself and many other people.
When told to backtaxi (since there was not enough room to taxi normally) at the airport and prepare to take off, the KLM captain wanted to leave right away. It is here where the language used was a bit non-standard, as the air traffic controllers were talking with the pilots in unusual ways and none of them could see each other. It would have been understandable (and maybe even proper) for the flights to be grounded on account of no one being able to see anyone else in the fog, but that did not happen, and so it was that in the irregular conversation between the KLM flight and the controllers that the KLM flight crossed the point of no return while the Pan Am flight was still taxiing on the same runway, leaving more than five hundred people dead, including all of the people on the KLM flight, when the fully fueled plane became like a bomb, exploding as it hit the Pan Am flight that was trying desperately to exit the runway before the inevitable collision.
Nor did the blunders stop there. Even though about 60 passengers and crew towards the front of the Pan Am flight managed to survive, the emergency crews did not come to rescue them because they did not apparently realize the other plane involved and were still trying to fight the blaze on the KLM flight a few hundred meters away, which would rage on for hours. Even after the wreck had been dealt with, there were people in KLM who thought that the deceased Captain Zanten would be good to consult in dealing with this disaster. Interestingly enough, KLM accepted responsibility for the wreck while trying to comment on on some supposed irregularities like listening to soccer in the control tower as well as the way that the tower referred to the Pan Am flight by irregular terms, and so the language of interactions was tightened up a bit. Also, crew resource management became a larger issue because time and time again the crew other than the captain of the KLM flight had worthwhile comments to make that were overruled, leading to tragedy. The rules of flight are written in blood, and it appears here that a variety of small errors created a massive disaster.