March 27, 2017.   Tenerife at 40.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the deadliest aviation disaster of all time. On March 27th, 1977, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, two Boeing 747s collided on a foggy runway, killing 583 people. There’s a surreal, almost mythical aura that surrounds the accident, due in no small part to the almost unbelievable cascade of ironies and coincidences that led to it — beginning with the fact that neither plane was supposed to be at Tenerife in the first place. There was KLM, the oldest airline in the world, and Pan Am, the most famous and influential carrier of them all. Both aircraft were 747s, then and now the most iconic jetliners in existence. In the KLM cockpit sat Captain Jacob Van Zanten, the company’s exalted instructor pilot, whose face appeared in KLM’s magazine ads, and whose misunderstanding of an air traffic control clearance would result in a catastrophe. There was the terminal bombing at Las Palmas, the sudden fog bank, the crowded tarmac that blocked the normal taxi routes, and on and on the weirdness went. And if not for a single occluded radio transmission, the whole thing may have been avoided.

I was only ten years old, but I clearly remember the day it happened, watching the news in our downstairs living room — the choppy, black-and-white footage from a place I’d never heard of. See the full story here.

The photograph below is probably the eeriest aviation photo ever taken. It shows the two doomed aircraft — the KLM 747 in the foreground and Pan Am behind it — parked adjacent to one another on the Tenerife apron, shortly before the disaster that Sunday morning. Just last month, Bob Bragg, the last surviving pilot from the crash, passed away at age 79.



 

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