WE GAAN: The Horror and Absurdity of History’s Worst Plane Crash
Ten seconds later there is one final exchange, clearly and maddeningly audible on the post-crash tapes. “Report when runway clear,” the tower says to Pan Am.
“We’ll report when we’re clear,” acknowledges Bob Bragg.
Focused on the takeoff, Van Zanten and his first officer apparently miss this. But the second officer, sitting behind them, does not. Alarmed, with their plane now racing forward at a hundred knots, he leans forward. “Is he not clear?” he asks. “That Pan American?”
“Oh, yes,” Van Zanten answers emphatically.
In the Pan Am cockpit, nose-to-nose with the still unseen, rapidly approaching interloper, there’s a growing sense that something isn’t right. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Captain Victor Grubbs says nervously.
A few moments later, the lights of the KLM 747 emerge out of the grayness, dead ahead, 2,000 feet away and closing fast.
“There he is!” cries Grubbs, shoving the thrust levers to full power. “Look at him! Goddam, that son of a bitch is coming!” He yanks the plane’s steering tiller, turning left as hard as he can, toward the grass at the edge of the runway.
“Get off! Get off! Get off!” shouts Bob Bragg.
Van Zanten sees them, but it’s too late. Attempting to leapfrog, he pulls back on the elevators, dragging his tail along the pavement for 70 feet in a hail of sparks. He almost makes it, but just as his plane breaks ground, its undercarriage and engines slice into the ceiling of the Clipper Victor, instantly demolishing its midsection and setting off a series of explosions.
Badly damaged, the Rhine settles back to the runway, skids hard on its belly for another thousand feet, and is consumed by fire before a single one of its 248 occupants can escape.
Remarkably, of 396 passengers and crew aboard the Pan Am jumbo, 61 of them survived, including all five people in the cockpit — the three-man crew, and two off-duty employees riding in the jumpseats.
Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet two of those survivors, and to hear their stories first-hand. I say that nonchalantly, but this is probably the closest I’ve ever come to meeting, for lack of a better term, a hero. Romanticizing the fiery deaths of 583 people is akin to the romanticizing of war, but there’s a certain mystique to the Tenerife disaster, a gravity so strong that shaking these survivors’ hands produced a feeling akin to that of a little kid meeting his favorite baseball player. These men were there, emerging from the wreckage of what, for some of us, was an event of mythic proportions.
I was introduced to Jack Ridout in New York City in the summer of 2004, where I’d been invited for the taping of a National Geographic special. At Tenerife, Ridout had been sitting in coach with his girlfriend, who also made it out. After the impact, he helped save several others, pushing them through an emergency exit before jumping to safety. After his release from the hospital, a photograph of Ridout — bandaged, but without critical injuries — appeared in several newspapers.
The second survivor I met was Bob Bragg, the Pan Am first officer. I met him in Los Angeles, on the set of a documentary being made for the Discovery Channel about the 30th anniversary of the accident.
It was Bragg who had uttered, “And we’re still taxiing down the runway” – seven easy words should have saved the day, but instead were lost forever in the shriek and crackle of a blocked transmission. Just thinking about it gives me the chills.
But there’s nothing dark about Bob Bragg — nothing that, on the surface, feels moored to the nightmare of ’77. He’s one of the most easygoing people you’ll ever meet. Gray-haired, bespectacled and articulate, he looks and sounds like what he is: a retired airline pilot.
God knows how many times he’s recounted the collision to others. He speaks about the accident with a practiced ease, in a voice of modest detachment, as if he’d been a spectator watching from afar. Of course, the story needs no hyperbole to be terrifying. If anything, Bragg’s ungarnished narrative makes it even more so. As do the strange and astounding details that normally don’t make it into the interviews and TV shows. You can read all the transcripts, pore over the findings, watch the documentaries a hundred times over. Not until you sit with Bob Bragg and hear the unedited account do you get a full sense of what happened. The basic story is well known; it’s the ancillaries that make it moving — and surreal:
Bragg describes the initial impact as little more than “a bump and some shaking.” All five men in the cockpit, located at the forward end of the 747’s distinctive upper-deck hump, saw the KLM jet coming, and had ducked. Knowing they’d been hit, Bragg instinctively reached upward in an effort to pull the “fire handles” — a set of four, overhead-mounted levers that cut off the supply of fuel, air, electricity and hydraulics running to and from the engines. His arm groped helplessly. When he looked up, the ceiling was gone.
Turning around, he realized that the entire upper deck had been sheared off at a point just aft of his chair. He could see all the way aft to the tail, 200 feet behind him. The fuselage was shattered and burning. He and captain Grubbs were alone in their seats, on a small, fully exposed perch 35 feet above the ground. Everything around them had been lifted away like a hat. The second officer and jumpseat stations, their occupants still strapped in, were hanging upside-down through what used to be the ceiling of the first class cabin.
There was no option other than to jump. Bragg stood up, put one hand on the back of the captain’s seat-back, and hurled himself over the side. He landed in the grass below, feet-first, and miraculously suffered little more than an injured ankle. Grubbs followed, and he too was mostly unharmed. The others from the cockpit would unfasten their belts and shimmy down the sidewalls to the main cabin floor before similarly leaping to safety.
Once on the ground, they faced a deafening roar. The plane had been pancaked into the grass, but because the cockpit control lines were severed, the engines were still running at full power. It took several moments before the motors began coming apart. Bragg remembers one of the engines’ huge forward turbofans detaching from its shaft, falling forward onto the ground with a thud.
The fuselage was engulfed by fire. A number of passengers, most of them seated in forward portions of the cabin, had made it onto the craft’s left wing, and were standing at the leading edge, about 20 feet off the ground. Bragg ran over, encouraging them to jump. A few minutes later, the plane’s center fuel tank exploded, propelling a plume of flames and smoke a thousand feet into the sky.
The airport’s ill-equipped rescue team, meanwhile, was over at the KLM site, the first wreckage they’d come to after learning there’d been a crash. They hadn’t yet realized that two planes were involved, one of them with survivors. Eventually, authorities opened the airport perimeter gates, urging anybody with a vehicle drive toward the crash scene to help. Bob Bragg tells the cracked story of standing there in fog, surrounded by stunned and bleeding survivors, watching his plane burn, when suddenly a taxicab pulls up out of nowhere.
Bragg returned to work a few months later. He eventually transferred to United when that carrier took over Pan Am’s Pacific routes in the late 1980s, and retired from the company as a 747 captain. Today he lives in Virginia with his wife, Dorothy.
During the Discovery Channel shoot, I traveled with Bob Bragg and the producers to the aircraft storage yards at Mojave, California, where he was interviewed alongside a mothballed 747. You can see him in the photo below, describing that incredible leap from the upper-deck.
The day before, using a flight deck mock-up, director Phil Desjardins filmed a reenactment of the Tenerife collision, with a trio actors sitting in as the KLM crew. The actors, who in the end did an excellent job, had studied the script well, but it was apparent during rehearsal that none had much understanding of airline flying, or how to operate a jetliner’s controls. (Like many people intimate with airline flying, I’m quick to criticize the heavy-handed portrayals cooked up by Hollywood, but by the time Desjardins called “cut” for the seventh time, for a scene only 15 seconds long, I had a new appreciation for his art.)
At one point, to provide the actors with a helpful demo, it was suggested that Bob Bragg and I get inside the mock-up and run through a practice takeoff. A good idea. Bragg took the captain’s seat, and I took the first officer’s seat. We read through a makeshift checklist and went through the motions of a simulated takeoff. That’s when I looked across, and all of a sudden it hit me:
Here’s Bob Bragg, lone surviving pilot of Tenerife, sitting in a cockpit, pretending to be Jacob Van Zanten, whose error made the whole thing happen.
Surely Bragg wanted no part of this twisted karma, and I hadn’t the courage to make note of it out loud — assuming it hadn’t already dawned on him. But I could barely keep the astonishment to myself. One more creepy irony in a story so full of them.
This article was originally published on AskThePilot.com and is used here with permission. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist and author behind the site www.AskThePilot.com. In his spare time he has visited more than 70 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.