Man-Made Disasters Jumbo-Jet Collision in the Canary Islands Part 1

About the jumbo-jet collision in the Canary Islands in 1977, history and account of the disaster, death, and destruction.



The trio of air traffic controllers at Tenerife's Los Rodeos Airport had their hands full that fateful Sunday afternoon in 1977. The single runway and adjacent taxiways were jammed with air-craft, many of which had been diverted from nearby Las Palmas on Grand Canary Island because of a terrorist bomb threat. Matters were complicated by a steadily worsening fog and an airport control tower that had no ground radar to track runway traffic in bad weather. When a KLM jumbo jet apparently misunderstood instructions from the tower and began an unauthorized takeoff, the fates of hundreds of people were sealed. In the worst disaster in the history of air travel, the KLM aircraft collided with a Pan American 747 which was still on the runway.

When: At 5:07 P.M. on Sunday, Mar. 27, 1977.

Where: On the runway at Los Rodeos Airport, Tenerife, Canary Islands.

The Loss: 580 passengers killed; many of the 64 survivors severely burned and injured; two multimillion-dollar 747s destroyed.

The Disaster: Among the many aircraft diverted to Los Rodeos were KLM Flight 4805 from Amsterdam and Pan Am Flight 1736 from Los Angeles and New York. KLM's Boeing 747 with 248 aboard arrived at 1:44 P.M. and was directed to park at the far end of the runway. Shortly after 3:00 P.M., the Pan Am jumbo jet arrived and was ordered to the same area. As the KLM and Pan Am jets and nine other aircraft awaited clearance for takeoff, the fog rolled in. By 5:00 P.M., pilots could see no more than 1,600 ft. down the 2-mi. runway.

Under such circumstances, there is little margin for error in facilitating the takeoff in swift succession of two 747s. With the taxiway in front of the Los Rodeos terminal blocked to planes the size of the 747s, the control tower instructed the KLM and Pan Am jumbos to backtrack down the runway. KLM 4805 was to backtrack the entire length of the runway, make a 180 deg. turn, and wait for further instructions. Pan Am 1736 was to follow and park on the third taxiway to the left. At this point there apparently occurred the first in a series of errors or misunderstandings; the Pan Am jet proceeded toward the fourth taxiway to the left. Although the air traffic controllers apparently thought the Pan Am jet was near taxiway three, rather than heading for number four, they did know it was still on the runway. They would not clear the KLM for takeoff until Pan Am reported clear. The control tower tape reveals the fateful misunderstanding which ensued:

KLM copilot: We are now for takeoff.

Tower to KLM: OK. Stand by for takeoff clearance. I will call you.

Pan Am copilot: Clipper 1736.

Tower: Papa Alpha 1736, report runway cleared.

Pan Am: We'll report runway cleared.

Controller: OK. Thank you.

These were the final words exchanged before the KLM 747 attempted to take off. Possibly the KLM captain, premier pilot 51-year-old Jacob Veldhuizen Van Zanten, failed to hear the controller's instruction to stand by; possibly Van Zanten missed part of Pan Am's message. At any rate, Van Zanten, responding as if the Pan Am jet had already left the runway, released the brakes on his 747 and began his takeoff run.

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