February 22, 2017.   R.I.P. Bob Bragg.

Robert Lee Bragg, of Harrisonburg, Virginia, passed away on February 9th. He was 79. He was the last surviving pilot of history’s worst plane crash.

On March 27th, 1977, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, he was the first officer on Pan Am flight 1736, a charter from New York, when it was struck on a runway in dense fog by a KLM 747 that had begun its takeoff roll without clearance. The collision killed 583 people, and remains the deadliest airline disaster of all time. Bragg was among the sixty-one people who survived, including the entire Pan Am cockpit crew (captain Victor Grubbs died in 1993; flight engineer George Warns died two years earlier). For his bravery in assisting survivors, Bragg received the President’s Award for Heroism.

He returned to flying shortly after the crash. In 1987, United Airlines purchased Pan Am’s Pacific routes and several of its aircraft, and Bragg moved to United, where eventually he retired as a 747 captain. He captained several of United’s inaugural international flights, including its Los Angeles-Beijing and Los Angeles-Frankfurt services.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy Boyd-Bragg, Professor of History Emerita at James Madison University in Virginia.

In 2006, in California, I spent the better part of a day with Bob and Dorothy while working on a TV documentary about Tenerife. I remember when the producer called me at home, inviting me to help with the show. “Bob Bragg is going to be there as well,” he explained. “Bob is…”

He didn’t need to finish that sentence. I knew exactly who Bob Bragg was. I’d known who he was since the sixth grade. And getting to meet him would be one of the great thrills of my life. Not for his bravery or heroics. Unlike captain Sullenberger and the “Miracle on the Hudson,” for example, Bragg and his colleagues didn’t save the day. On the contrary, they were helpless. It was never about that. It was about the sheer momentousness of the event — the almost unbelievable chain of events that led to it, and its subsequent place in history. To have been a being witness to that — no, to have been part of it, right there in the cockpit! Bob Bragg was a giant.

An account of the Tenerife crash, and the story of my day with Bob on the film set, can be read here.

What happened at Tenerife is part of the greater story of the Boeing 747, history’s most influential jetliner. Sadly, we’ve now lost two of the most iconic characters from that story. Joe Sutter, the 747’s visionary creator, died last August at 95.

Mojave, California, 2006.   Bob Bragg talks about Tenerife.
Photo by the author.

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