What REALLY Caused the Tenerife Airport Disaster?

We meet this time at euroJet’s crew room in Berlin, for a lengthy slog down to Tenerife. It’s long flight for an A320-sized aircraft and can routinely take over five hours. It’s an even longer day for the operating crew, who usually perform the return flight also, giving rise to the nickname ‘ten hours of grief’ for the Tenerife sector. But jokes aside, our flight to Tenerife is one that follows in the footsteps of an aviation tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions.


Located in the Atlantic Ocean off Morocco in northwest Africa, Tenerife is the largest of Spain’s eight Canary Islands. A popular tourist destination, the island attracts more than five million tourists each year. Tenerife has two airports, the North airport (Los Rodeos) and the South airport (Reina Sofia).

On March 27th 1977, two Boeing 747 passenger jets, KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 collided on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport resulting in 583 fatalities, an accident considered the worst in aviation history.


The Boeing 747 was only in its eighth year of service, yet it was already revered as the most prestigious commercial airliner ever built. As happens disturbingly often in deadly air disasters, a series of fateful coincidences, combined with human error, ultimately led to the collision.


As a consequence of the crash, sweeping changes were made to international airline regulations and aircraft. Aviation authorities globally introduced strict requirements for standard phrases and a greater emphasis on English as a common working language.

As a result, air traffic instruction must not be acknowledged solely with a colloquial phrase such as “okay” or “Roger”, but rather with a read back of the instruction’s essential parts to show mutual understanding. The word “takeoff” is now used only when the actual takeoff clearance is given. Up until that point, aircrew and controllers should use the word “departure” in its place.

CRM or crew resource management – whereby junior members of the crew are encouraged to speak up to their Commander if they feel that an unsafe situation is developing – is now prevalent in airline culture. Both the First and Second Officers on the KLM 747 were uncomfortable with the situation but in 1977 would have been reluctant to speak up to the highly experienced Captain Van Zanten – the pin up of KLM’s own advertising for the 747 fleet.

Although ultimately the KLM Captain’s actions sealed his fate and that of 582 others, an entire catalogue of fateful events begining with a terrorist bomb, fog, a poorly equipped airport, language difficulties and finally the Pan Am crew missing their turn in the low visibility all played a deadly role. This is known in aviation as ‘the Swiss cheese’ effect, whereby the holes line up one by one to allow a fatal accident. Were any one of the holes to be plugged, the accident would not have occured.Many aviation safety commentators believe that the Tenerife accident would be unlikely to happen again, such are the lessons learned from that fateful day. We can only hope so…..

Thank you for visiting our website! We hope you will find something of interest on our site. Watch the video in the below.

Video resource : Mentour Pilot

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.