Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on March 1, 2012.

Looking Back

Looking Back, March/April 2012

Canary Islands Horror
The collision of two jumbo jets on the island of Tenerife kills 583 people

NFPA Journal®, March/April 2012 

“Get off! Get off! Get off!”

That’s all the co-pilot had time to say to his colleague in the cockpit of Pan Am flight 1736 as it taxied down the runway at Los Rodeos airport in Tenerife, Canary Islands, on March 27, 1977. As the 747 turned sharply to get off the runway, another jumbo jet, KLM flight 4805, emerged out of dense fog headed straight toward them. Traveling at near takeoff speed, the KLM aircraft slammed into the Pan Am jet, resulting in a collision and fire that killed 583 people and remains the deadliest accident in aviation history.

The events that led to the disaster began several hours earlier, when all flights into Bando airport on the nearby island of Gran Canaria — both planes’ original destination — were diverted to Tenerife after Bando was closed when a bomb went off in the terminal. Tenerife’s airport had only one runway and one taxiway, and by the time Bando reopened, Los Rodeos was packed with diverted aircraft parked on the taxiway for lack of space. Jets had to taxi down the runway, turn around at the end, and take off from there. Any aircraft following had to divert onto an exit to the taxiway to allow the planes ahead of them to take off. 

Pan Am 1736 was about halfway down the runway behind the KLM jet when a heavy fog descended, at times reducing visibility to less than 8 feet (2 meters). This slowed the Pan Am jet to a crawl, allowing the KLM jet to reach the end of the runway and get into position before the Pan Am jet could exit onto the taxiway.

The KLM pilot was anxious to get going because the number of consecutive hours his crew was allowed to fly would soon be up, and he wanted to get his passengers to Gran Canaria and his plane back to Holland. Instead of waiting for air traffic control to give him permission to take off, he began rolling down the runway, right at Pan Am 1736. The heavy fog prevented the Pan Am pilot from seeing the KLM’s lights, and by the time he started to turn off the runway it was too late. The KLM pilot managed to pull the nose of his aircraft up just enough to pass over the Pan Am plane, but the KLM’s landing gear slammed through the Pan Am’s midsection. KLM 4085 came to rest in what Time described as “a molten mass” 1,500 feet (457 meters) past the point of impact. All 248 people on the KLM plane died. On Pan Am 1736, 326 passengers and nine crew members died. Fifty-six passengers and five crew members survived.

— Kathleen Robinson