The history written by Chris
Spain's Canary Islands are situated 250 nautical
miles off the Moroccan coast of North Africa. They have, for many years, been a
popular tourist attraction for people wanting the best of weather any time of
the year. Ancient Greek and Roman seafarers knew them as the "Fortunates Isles."
Tenerife these days is served mainly by the airport in the south of the island,
known as Reina Sofia, but years ago the Island was served by the airport up in
the north of the island, known as Los Rodeos. Los Rodeos is still used today,
but mainly only for domestic flights around the islands, or for cargo flights.
The events leading up to this accident started on the Island of Las Palmas,
which is also part of the Canary Islands.
Sunday March 27, 1977 should have been no
different than any other spring day at Las Palmas Airport, with the usual
flights operating from all over Europe and the Atlantic. But at 1:15 that
afternoon, the passenger terminal was thrown in to chaos and panic after a small
bomb planted by a terrorist exploded in a florist's shop in the terminal
concourse. The authorities were warned of this fifteen minutes prior, so
although the bomb caused much damage to the building, no one was killed. 8
people, however, were injured, one seriously.
Telephoning the Spanish airport administration
afterwards, a spokesman for a militant Canary Islands independence group,
speaking from Algeria in north Africa, claimed responsibility for the explosion
and hinted that a second bomb was planted somewhere in the airport. On hearing
this, the local police had no option but to close the airport and not to take
any further chances, pending a thorough Search for the second device. All
international incoming flights were then diverted to Tenerife's Los Rodeos
Airport, which was less than one hour of flying time away.
KLM Boeing 747-206B PH-BUF Rijn (Rhine River)
The wreckage of KLM Boeing 747 PH-BUF. (File
Photo) Among the flights to be diverted was a charter trip flown by KLM's Boeing
747, PH-BUF. Operated by KLM as Flight KL4805 on behalf of the Holland
International Travel Group, it had departed Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport that
morning at 9:31 a.m. local time, carrying 234 passengers escaping the harsh cold
winters of Northern Europe for the sunny climates of the Canary Islands. They
included 3 babies and 48 children. Most were Dutch, but there were also two
Australians, four Germans, and two Americans on the flight.
In command of 4805 was Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen
van Zanten, KLM's chief training Captain for Boeing 747s. Van Zanten had been
flying since 1947, and had been a pilot with KLM since 1951, when as a 24 year
old, he commenced duty as a first officer on the company DC-3s. He now had
nearly 12,000 hours experience, with more than 1500 hours on the Boeing 747.
Most of his time, however, was spent in simulators training other pilots.
After its four-hour trip from Amsterdam, across
Belguim, France and Spain, PH-BUF touched down at Los Rodeos Airport at 1340 hrs
GMT (1:10 p.m .local time). The fabled Canary Islands failed to live up to its
reputation for fine weather, as those on board the KLM 747 were greeted with the
sight of low cloud sand light rain, and light fog looming over the airport in
The apron area, together with a section of the
taxiway, was already occupied by diverted aircraft, so on landing, the
controller directed the 747 to vacate the runway via the last intersecting
taxiway and to park their aircraft on the holding area next to a Norwegian
Boeing 737. Shortly afterwards a DanAir 727 and a Sata DC-8 landed and were both
directed to park in the same area.
Pan American Boeing 747-121 N736PA (Clipper
At 1:45 pm local time (a little more than a half
hour after the arrival of PH-BUF) the Pan American 747 landed and taxied to the
same holding area, parking directly behind the KLM 747. N736PA, flight number PA
736 had orginated in Los Angeles, where 364 passengers, most of them of
retirement age, had boarded "Clipper Victor" for the first stage of a charter
flight to Gran Canaria. Here they would join the Royal Cruise Line's ship
"Golden Odyssey" for a twelve day Mediterannean Highlights cruise. Departing LAX
late the previous afternoon ,they had flown direct to Kennedy Airport in New
York. The aircraft was refuelled, 14 additional passengers boarded, and there
was a change of crew. After 90 minutes on the ground, the aircraft took off for
Las Palmas. On approaching the Canaries six hours later the crew were informed
of the temporary closure of the airport and diverted to Tenerife's Los Rodeos
This was unwelcome news to the crew, who had
already been on duty for eight hours. The diversion would just add more hours to
the trip, and there were also the passengers to consider - most of them had
aleady been on the aircraft for 13 hours as it was. Many were tired and the
majority of them were no longer young ,so it was taking a greater toll on them.
The Pan Am Captain, Victor Grubbs, a 57 year old, 21,000 hour pilot sensed from
the Spanish air traffic controller's instructions that Las Palmas was expecting
to reopen before long and, knowing that his aircraft had more than adequate fuel
reserves, asked to possibly be put in a holding pattern until it did open. His
requests were denied and therefore N736PA had to land and join the rest of the
waiting aircraft on the ground at Los Rodeos.
By the time the two aircraft were ready to depart
the weather had deteriorated somewhat to the fact that there was a good deal of
thick fog descending on to the airport.
At first the KLM passengers were not allowed to
leave the aircraft, but after about twenty minutes they were all transported to
the terminal building by bus. On alighting from the bus, they received cards
identifying them as passengers in transit on Flight KL4805. Later, all the
passengers boarded KLM 4805 except the H.I.N.T. Company guide, who remained in
Tenerife. The Pan Am passengers stayed on their aircraft the whole time it was
on the ground, only the doors being opened for them to get some fresh air and to
take some photographs of what scenery they could see from the aircraft.
When Las Palmas Airport was opened to traffic
once more, the PA1736 crew prepared to proceed to Las Palmas, which was the
flight's planned destination.
When they attempted to taxi on the taxiway
leading to runway 12, where they had been parked with four other aircraft on
account of the congestion caused by the number of flights diverted to Tenerife,
they discovered that it was blocked by KLM Boeing 747, Flight 4805, which was
located between PA 1736 and the entrance to the active runway. The First Officer
and the Flight Engineer left the aircraft and measured the clearance left by the
KLM aircraft, reaching the conclusion that it was insufficient to allow PA1736
to pass by, obliging them to wait until the former had started to taxi.
A diagram showing the orientation of runways and
taxiways at Los Rodeos Airport, Tenerife, as well as the location of the debris
field following he accident. Click for a larger view. KLM 4805 called the tower
at 16:56 requesting permission to taxi. It was authorized to do so and at 16:58
requested to backtrack on runway 12 for takeoff on runway 30. The tower
controller first cleared the KLM flight to taxi to the holding point for runway
30 by taxiing down the main runway and leaving it by the (third) taxiway to its
left. KLM 4805 acknowledged receipt of this message from the tower, stating that
it was at that moment taxiing on the runway, which it would leave by the first
taxiway in order to proceed to the approach end of runway 30. The tower
controller immediately issued an amended clearance, instructing it to continue
to taxi to the end of the runway, where it should proceed to backtrack. The KLM
flight confirmed that it had received the message, that it would backtrack, and
that it was taxiing down the main runway. The tower signalled its approval,
whereupon KLM 4805 immediately asked the tower again if what they had asked it
to do was to turn left on taxiway one. The tower replied in the negative and
repeated that it should continue on to the end of the runway and then backtrack.
Finally, at 16:59, KLM 4805 replied, "O.K., sir."
At 17:02, the PA aircraft called the tower to request confirmation that it
should taxi down the runway. The tower controller confirmed this, also adding
that they should leave the runway by the third taxiway to their left. At
17:03:00, in reply to the tower controller's query to KLM 4805 as to how many
runway exits they had passed, the latter confirmed that at that moment they were
passing by taxiway C-4. The tower controller told KLM 4805, "O.K., at the end of
the runway make one eighty and report ready for ATC clearance."
Advertisement In response to a query from KLM
4805, the tower controller advised both aircraft that the runway centerline
lights were out of service. The controller also reiterated to PA1736 that they
were to leave the main runway via the third taxiway to their left and that they
should report leaving the runway.
As the Pan American aircraft approached its
turnoff in the thick fog, the First Officer noticed the landing lights of the
KLM aircraft looming through the fog. At first, they appeared stationary, but as
several seconds passed, it became obvious that they were shaking. First Officer
Bragg yelled to the Captain "Get off, get off!" at which point full power was
applied and the Captain turned the aircraft left towards the grass. Captain van
Zanten on the KLM aircraft desperately tried to rotate and climb out before the
Pan Am aircraft, as was evidenced by a 3-foot deep gash in the runway from the
The KLM aircraft collided with the Pan Am
airplane just after liftoff, and proceeded to climb to approximately 100 feet
before losing control and crashing. The Pan Am aircraft immediately burst into
flames and broke into several pieces.
There were no eyewitnesses to the collision.
Place of accident:
The accident took place on the runway of Tenerife
Airport (Los Rodeos) at latitude 28° 28' 30" N and longitude 16° 19' 50" W. The
field elevation is 2,073 feet (632 m).
Injuries and Fatalities to persons aboard
None of the 234 passengers and 14 crew survived
Damage to KLM Boeing 747 PH-BUF:
The aircraft lifted off briefly before the
collision with the Pan Am aircraft, but due to severe damage caused on impact,
fell back to the runway 250 yards after impact. The aircraft was totally
destroyed by fire.
Injuries and Fatalities to persons aboard PA1736:
Of the 16 crew on board, there were 9 fatalities,
7 survivors + 2 company employees who were sitting in the cockpit jump seats. Of
the 317 passengers on board, 61 survived the accident ,but 9 died of their
injuries at a later date.
Damage to Pan Am Boeing 747 N736PA:
The aircraft was written off in the accident due
to the severe impact caused by the KLM aircraft, and the resulting fire. Between
15 and 20 tons of Kerosene was later recovered from the one remaining wing that
survived the fire.
There were many questions regarding the cause of
1. Why had Captain van Zanten commenced take off
with out the ATC clearance to do so?
2. Why had Captain Grubbs been instructed to
vacate the runway at taxi way 3, which would have taken him back towards the
main apron, and not T4 which would have put him on the holding point for runway
3. Why did the KLM crew not grasp the
significance of the Pan Am aircraft's report that it had not yet cleared the
runway, and would report again to the tower when it did?
The final accident report found that Jacob Van
Zanten was solely responsible for the accident. The fundamental factors in the
development of the accident were the facts that van Zanten:
- Took off without being cleared to do so. - Did
not heed the air traffic controller's instruction to stand by for take off. -
Did not abandon take off when he knew the Pan Am aircraft was still taxiing.
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