Nov. 19, 2018, © Leeham News: Collision on Tenerife is a new book that dissects the worst accident in aviation history, the collision between two Boeing 747s operated by Pan American World Airways and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.
The accident on Tenerife Island on March 27, 1977, killed 583 passengers and crew on the two airplanes. Only 61 survived, all on the Pan Am flight.
It was the worst death toll of any aviation accident.
The particulars are well known to any airline aficionado. These flights, and many others, were diverted to the single-runway airport on Tenerife when a bomb went off in the airport terminal at their nearby destination. This event was the subject of several documentaries, including this one which may be seen on YouTube.
By the time these two flights were cleared for takeoff to the original destination, after the airport reopened, fog rolled in over Tenerife. The number of airplanes diverted blocked part of the taxiway and the airport parking ramp, forcing KLM and Pan Am to taxi down the single runway.
KLM moved first. After it turned 180 degrees into position for takeoff, Pan Am was still on the runway, having missed its turnoff in the fog. The KLM pilot jumped the gun and started his take-off roll, due in part to imprecise language from the control tower, in part due to his own errors, and in part due to cross-talk of KLM, Pan Am and the controllers all using the same radio channel.
The pilots spotted each other’s airplanes through the fog too late for Pan Am to clear the runway into the grass and too late for KLM to abort the takeoff. The KLM pilot “horsed” his airplane off the runway before it was ready to fly; it collided with Pan Am and the rest is well-known history.
Author Jon Ziomek recounts these mistakes leading up to the crash. What he then does is take the reader through second-by-second, first- and second-hand accounts of the surviving passengers on the Pan Am flight: the horror of those on the right side of the airplane who saw the lights of the speeding KLM 747. The bewilderment of those on the left side who saw the Pan Am pilots was turning his airplane onto the grass. The confusion, stunned and in some cases frozen responses of passengers who survived and of some of those who didn’t.
Ziomek takes the reader through how passengers escaped and some of the difficult choices many had to make, leaving loved ones or friends and strangers behind. He explains what was going on in the control tower and how, because of the fog, they weren’t initially aware of the horrific collision.
He details precisely where the KLM 747 struck the Pan Am 747. He takes the reader with some of the passengers and their post-accident trauma.
Some of the detail makes for difficult reading. But it’s also important reading, providing those a clear understanding why listening to pre-takeoff safety announcements remains critical to survival and how psychology can freeze some people in a crisis while others spring into action.
Collision on Tenerife: The How and Why of the World’s Worst Aviation Disaster. By Jon Ziomek with special material from Caroline Hopkins. Post Hill Press, © 2018. $27.