Most absurd, yet horrific air crash in history took place 35 years ago

The largest air crash in history took place 35 years ago. On March 27, 1977, 583 people were killed at the airport in Los Rodeos on the Canary Islands as a result of the collision of two Boing 747 passenger jetliners. The planes crashed not in the air but on the runway. The cause of the accident was human error.

More specifically, it was a combination of a variety of factors, with the main one being human error. The sources give different details of the terrible accident, but all agree on one thing: people were the only ones to blame for the accident, including airport dispatchers, pilots and terrorists. The crash would not have happened if the militants of the so-called "Movement for independence and autonomy of the Canary Islands" had not detonated a bomb in Las Palmas airport lounge.

The explosion caused neither casualties nor damage (only a few passengers were slightly injured by broken glass). The administration had temporarily shut down the terminal overthe fear of further terrorist attacks. The dispatchers sent aircraft to a small, disadvantaged Los Rodeos airport, located 70 miles away from Las Palmas.

Los Rodeos is located in a hollow between two extinct volcanoes at an altitude of 700 meters above the sea level. Pilots do not like it because of unpredictable weather conditions. Due to the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, a few minutes of sunny weather here can be followed by fog. However, since Las Palmas was closed, everyone had to land at Los Rodeos.

On March 27, the aircraft of most famous airlines of the world would land on the three-kilometer long runway of Los Rodeos, one after another. Local managers, giving orders in poor English, were barely coping with the unprecedented influx of planes. Such a "pandemonium" was observed in a provincial airport for the first time. The humble Los Rodeos was clearly not designed to service such a large number of planes. Soon all parking lots and even parts of the taxiway were taken by liners awaiting permission to fly to Las Palmas.

On board the Dutch airline KLM there were 235 passengers served by 11 flight attendants. The Dutch Boeing was to land in Las Palmas, disembark the passengers, and return to Amsterdam with another tourist group.

The American 747 owned by Pan American airline was booked by Royal Cruise Travel Company. There were 378 passengers from Los Angeles and New York on board. They travelled to board the  Golden Odyssey cruise ship.

A few hours after the attack, the airport of Las Palmas re-opened. Just a few minutes later, first lucky planes were taxiing into the runway of Los Rodeos, forming a real line. The American and Dutch Boeings were impatiently waiting for the permission to take off.

Meanwhile, the weather began to worsen. The sea wind brought rain clouds, and the visibility had dropped drastically. The airport landing lights were not working. It was clear that the takeoff in poor visibility was associated with a great risk, but the pilots and passengers of both Boeings by that time were terribly tired of sitting in their chairs. After hours of flight from Los Angeles and Amsterdam and a long wait at the airport they could not wait to relax and unwind in their cozy hotel rooms and cabins of the cruise ship.

On March 27 two controllers were on duty at the airport of Los Rodeos. One was in charge of the movement of the aircraft on the ground, and the other one was controlling takeoffs and landings. The first one was instructed to taxi the Dutch Boeing to one of the runways. The "ground" dispatcher spoke English with a very heavy Spanish accent, and the captain had to clarify the route several times. At the executive start the crew had to contact the 'air' controller, but at a different frequency.

The American Boeing was getting ready to follow it into the sky. It was given the instruction (also in broken English) to first drive on the same runway with the Dutch plane, but then turn to the other one. The visibility in the fog did not exceed 50 meters, and the pilots could hardly guess the border of the runway. The Los Rodeos airport was not equipped with radar surveillance, and controllers had to constantly clarify the position of the aircraft on the ground according to the reports of the pilots.

While the crew of the Dutch Boeing were negotiating with the 'tower', Pan American pilots drove by the place where they had to turn to another runway. The co-pilot of the American plane was trying to catch a break in the radio traffic between the dispatcher and Dutch pilots.

Finally, he managed to break into the conversation: "... we are still on the runway". In a tragic accident, his words overlapped with the end of the instructions that the dispatcher was giving to the crew of the Dutch plane: "... be ready to take off. I will contact you as soon as the runway is free."

The records of the "black boxes" found after the accident clearly reflect this tragic moment. A cracking was heard in the cabin of the Dutch crew instead of guidelines of the dispatcher. As a result, the captain did not get to know the main thing - that the Pan American plane was still on the runway. He decided that the take-off clearance was given to him. However, the commander of the U.S. Boeing thought the same thing. The aircraft rushed toward each other with takeoff speed.

Seeing the Pan American aircraft a few meters away, the Dutch tried to take off. The tail of the Boeing gnashed on concrete. The plane crashed into the American aircraft after barely taking off the ground. The landing gear tore down most of the upper fuselage of the Pan American plane. The resulting gap allowed some of the passengers to escape.

The Dutch plane crashed on the concrete 150 meters from the place of the collision. The dilapidated fuselage was dragged along the runway for 300 meters, until it stopped, turning around 90 degrees. One by one the fuel tanks exploded. The debris scattered for hundreds of meters, setting the American Boeing on fire. A few seconds later it turned into a giant torch.

The left side of the Pan American aircraft was partially destroyed. Of the 396 people aboard the U.S. 747 only 70 passengers managed to survive, nine of them later died of burns in hospitals. The crew survived as well.

The crash made it to all textbooks of civil aviation as an extreme example of human carelessness. This imposition of a variety of adverse accidents and coincidences was the only occurrence in the world of aviation and, hopefully, will not happen in the future.

Andrei Mikhailov


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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov