The holiday island of Tenerife was the scene of the world’s worst aviation disaster in March 1977, as a result of pilot error, technical limitations at Los Rodeos Airport (now Tenerife North Airport), communications failures and appalling weather. The single-runway field was fogbound when KLM Flight 4805, a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, taxied out prior to take-off. After travelling to the far end of the runway, the Dutch aircraft did an about-turn and was ready to go.
Following behind was Pan-Am’s Flight 1736, another jumbo. This was told to back-taxi – head up the runway against the direction of take-off – before turning onto a parallel taxiway at the third exit. Conditions were poor and the flight crew failed to spot their turn-off. Meanwhile, despite visibility being half the required 700 m (3,000 ft), 4805’s captain commenced his take-off, assuming 1736 had cleared the runway and wrongly presuming he’d been given clearance by the tower. It was a catastrophic misunderstanding.
The KLM pilot saw the Pan-Am jumbo too late and – despite attempting desperate emergency lift-off – his aircraft’s undercarriage and engines clipped the Pan-Am plane’s spine above the wings, even as the American pilot took hopeless evasive action. KLM 4805 became airborne, but stalled before smashing into the runway – sliding for 300 m (985 ft) before coming to rest and, fully fuelled, exploding into a fireball that incinerated all 248 people aboard. Back down the runway Pan-Am 1736 was also ablaze, the deadly inferno trapping 335 passengers and crew who died. There were survivors – 56 passengers and five crew, including pilots.
Tragically, neither aircraft should have been at Los Rodeos. The destination for both had been Gran Canaria International on Las Palmas, but a terrorist bomb had exploded there, causing several aircraft to be diverted to the cramped regional airport on Tenerife.
When was the Tenerife Aircraft Collision: March 27 1977
Where was the Tenerife Aircraft Collision: Tenerife, Canary Islands
What was the Tenerife Aircraft Collision death toll: The combined casualty list totaled 583 dead.
You should know: A number of factors combined to cause this unprecedented tragedy, but in the end the margin between a frightening incident that cost not a single life and a major disaster that took 583 was tiny. If only there had been another 3 m (10 ft) between the two aircraft at the point of impact, KLM 4805 would have missed Pan-Am 1736 and taken off successfully… it really was that close.