Thursday, March 27, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 27

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Mar 27, 1977: Two Boeing 747s collided on a runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands, under conditions of limited visibility. One of the aircraft, a Pan American jet, was moving down the runway toward an assigned taxiway. The other, belonging to Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), had been assigned to wait at the end of the same runway. The Dutch crew was approaching the legal flight duty time limit. Their captain apparently misinterpreted a message from the tower as clearance to take off. Disregarding the doubts of a crew member, he began the takeoff roll. The resulting collision killed all 248 persons aboard the KLM jet and 335 of the 396 persons aboard the Pan American. The fatality total of 583 was the worst that had occurred in any aviation accident. Most of the casualties were caused by the intense fires that engulfed both aircraft. The accident stimulated interest in fire safety (see Jun 26, 1978) and in airport surface detection equipment (see Jul 5, 1977). “

Tenerife is still the biggest accident in the history of aviation. So much has been written about the accident but yet, in searching around the internet, I have found another documentary I hadn’t seen before. It’s in two parts, on YouTube. Please use your discretion before clicking on the links and watching. Some of the scenes aren’t easy to take. The camera panning the (seemingly) endless rows of coffins is haunting.

Part I

Part II

Aviation accidents rarely have just one cause. This fact usually gives rise to debate as to which cause was the main cause. It’s not all that relevant as far as safety goes but -- after safety fails -- the lawyers enter to attach blame. Having said that, this documentary emphasizes what I believe to be the main cause. The KLM 747 had taxied to the end of the runway and was in position to take off without having received its routing clearance -- the route it would be cleared to fly. It seems as if the captain of the KLM believed this ATC clearance was (or would include) his takeoff clearance. We’ll never know what he was really thinking. He died along with everyone else aboard his aircraft.

Don Brown
March 26, 2008

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