Five hundred and eighty-three people were killed in what remains the biggest air disaster in history CREDIT: GETTY
Exactly 40 years ago, at Tenerife-North Airport (formerly Los Rodeos), two Boeing 747s – one belonging to KLM, the other to Pan Am – collided on a foggy runway. Five hundred and eighty-three people were killed in what remains the biggest air disaster in history. In this extract from Cockpit Confidential, the pilot Patrick Smith outlines what went wrong:
The magnitude of the accident speaks for itself, but what makes it particularly unforgettable is the startling set of ironies and coincidences that preceded it. Indeed, most airplane crashes result not from a single error or failure, but from a chain of improbable errors and failures, together with a stroke or two of really bad luck. Never was this illustrated more calamitously – almost to the point of absurdity – than on that Sunday afternoon 40 years ago.
In 1977, in only its eighth year of service, the Boeing 747 was already the biggest, the most influential, and possibly the most glamorous commercial jetliner ever built. For just those reasons, it was hard not to imagine what a story it would be – and how much carnage might result – should two of these behemoths ever hit each other. Really, though, what were the chances of that: a Hollywood script if ever there was one.
Both of the 747s at Tenerife are charters. Pan Am has come from Los Angeles, after a stopover in New York, KLM from its home base in Amsterdam. As it happens, neither plane is supposed to be on Tenerife. They were scheduled to land at Las Palmas, on the nearby island of Gran Canaria, where many of the passengers were on their way to meet cruise ships. After a bomb planted by Canary Island separatists exploded in the Las Palmas airport flower shop, they diverted to Los Rodeos, along with several other flights, arriving around 2:00 p.m.
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