WE GAAN: The Horror and Absurdity of History’s Worst Plane Crash
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, and almost to the point of absurdity, than on that Sunday afternoon over 30 years ago.
In 1977, in only its eighth year of service, the Boeing 747 is already the biggest, most influential, and possibly the most glamorous commercial jetliner ever built. For just these reasons, it’s 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 are the chances of that — a Hollywood script if ever there was one.
Imagine we’re there:
Both of the Tenerife 747s are charters. Pan Am has come from Los Angeles, with a stopover in New York; KLM from its home base in Amsterdam. As it happens, neither is supposed to be on Tenerife in the first place. They are scheduled to land at Las Palmas, on the nearby island of Grand Canary, where many of the passengers are on their way to meet cruise ships. After a bomb planted by Canary Island separatists explodes in the Las Palmas airport flower shop, they divert temporarily to Los Rodeos, along with several other flights, arriving around 2 p.m.
The Pan Am aircraft, registered N736PA, is no stranger to notoriety. In January, 1970, this very same plane completed the inaugural commercial voyage of a 747, between New York’s Kennedy airport and London-Heathrow. Somewhere on its nose is the dent from a champagne bottle. White with a blue window stripe, it wears the name Clipper Victor in frilly writing along the forward fuselage. The KLM 747, also blue and white, is named The Rhine.
Let’s not forget the airlines themselves: Pan Am, arguably the most storied franchise in the history of aviation, requires little introduction. KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines), for its part, is the oldest continuously operating airline in the world, founded in 1919 and highly regarded for its safety and punctuality.
The KLM captain, Jacob Van Zanten, whose errant takeoff roll will soon kill nearly 600 people, including himself and all 247 others on his plane, is the airline’s top 747 instructor pilot and a KLM celebrity. Passengers may recognize him in the concourse, or descending the spiral staircase of the 747’s first class cabin. His confident visage stares out from KLM’s magazine ads. Later, when KLM executives first get word of the crash, they will attempt to contact Van Zanten in hopes of sending him to Tenerife to aid the investigation team.
The normally lazy Los Rodeos is packed with diversions. The Rhine and Clipper Victor sit adjacent to each other at the southeast corner of the apron, their wingtips almost touching. Finally at around 4 o’clock, Las Palmas begins accepting traffic again. (Imagine, today, the idea of an airport reopening within a few hours of a terrorist bombing.) Pan Am is quickly ready for departure, but the lack of room and the angle at which the jets face each other requires that KLM leave first.
The weather is fine until just before the accident, and if not for KLM requesting extra fuel at the last minute, both would be on their way sooner. During the delay, a heavy blanket of fog swoops down from the hills and envelopes the airport. That fuel also meant extra weight, affecting how quickly the 747 would, or would not, become airborne. For reasons you’ll see in a moment, that would be critical.
Because of the tarmac congestion, the normal route to runway 30 is blocked. Departing planes will need to taxi down on the runway itself. Reaching the end, they’ll make a 180-degree turn before taking off in the opposite direction. This procedure, rare at commercial airports, is called a “back-taxi.” At Tenerife in ’77, it will put two 747s on the same runway at the same time, invisible not only to each other, but to the control tower as well. The airport has no ground tracking radar.
KLM taxis ahead and onto the runway, with the Pan Am Clipper ambling several hundred yards behind. Captain Van Zanten will steer to the end, turn around, then hold in position until authorized for takeoff. Pan Am’s instructions are to turn clear along a left-side taxiway in order to allow the other plane’s departure. Once off the runway, they will report so to the tower.
Unable to differentiate the taxiways in the low visibility, the Pan Am pilots miss their assigned turnoff. Continuing to the next one is no big problem, but now they’re on the runway for several additional seconds.
Having wheeled into position at the end, Van Zanten comes to a stop. His first officer, Klaas Meurs, takes the radio and receives the ATC route clearance. This is not a takeoff clearance, but rather a procedure outlining turns, altitudes, and frequencies for use once airborne. Normally it is received well prior to an aircraft taking the runway, but the pilots have been too busy with checklists and taxi instructions until now. They are tired, annoyed, and anxious to get going. The irritability in the pilots’ voices, Van Zanten’s in particular, has been duly noted by the control tower and other pilots.
There are still a couple of dominos yet to fall, but now the final act is in motion — literally. Because the route clearance comes where and when it does, it is mistaken it for a takeoff clearance as well. First officer Meurs, sitting to Van Zanten’s right, acknowledges the altitudes, headings and fixes, then finishes off with an unusual, somewhat hesitant phrase, backdropped by the sound of accelerating engines. “We are now, uh, at takeoff.”
Van Zanten releases the brakes. “We gaan,” he is heard saying on the cockpit voice recorder. “Let’s go.” And with that, his mammoth machine begins barreling down the fog-shrouded runway, completely without permission.
“At takeoff” is not standard phraseology among pilots. But it’s explicit enough to grab the attention of the Pan Am crew and the control tower. It’s hard for either party to believe KLM is actually moving, but both reach for their microphones to make sure.
“And we’re still taxiing down the runway,” relays Bob Bragg, the Pan Am first officer.
At the same instant, the tower radios a message to KLM. “Okay,” says the controller. “Standby for takeoff. I will call you.”
There is no reply, but the silence is taken as a tacit, if not exactly proper, acknowledgment.
Either of these transmissions would be, should be, enough to stop Van Zanten cold in his tracks. He still has time to discontinue the roll. The problem is, because they occur simultaneously, they overlap.
Pilots and controllers communicate via two-way VHF radios. The process is similar to speaking over a walkie-talkie: a person activates a microphone, speaks, then releases the button and waits for an acknowledgment. It differs from using a telephone, for example, as only one party can speak at a time, and has no idea what his message actually sounds like over the air. If two or more microphones are clicked at the same instant, the transmissions cancel each other out, delivering a noisy occlusion of static or a high-pitched squeal called a “heterodyne.” Rarely are heterodynes dangerous. But at Tenerife this is the last straw.