“We Gaan”

March 27, 2014

The news has been morbid enough of late, but it’s worth mentioning that today, March 27th, marks the 37th anniversary of the worst commercial airplane crash in history, the runway collision of two 747s on the Spanish island of Tenerife.

I was only eleven years-old at the time, but already an airliner buff, and I clearly remember the breaking news of the disaster, and watching the network coverage on the old Magnavox television in our living room. Later in life I would meet two of the survivors.

Business Insider has excerpted my essay about the crash, titled “We Gaan,” from chapter six of my book. You can read it here.

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8 Responses to ““We Gaan””
  1. Zach says:

    Really nice write-up. Some horrific numbers…but a reminder how much more dangerous air travel was back then (and how much safer now).

    Also goes to show that A) these accidents can happen even with the best of pilots, and B) they happen very quickly.

    I’ve been meaning to ask: can you give us pax a feel for the cockpit environment…I’ve noticed that a number of accidents were chalked up to the flight crew overly-focused on one alarm/warning light, while failing to notice another (Or in the case of the Eastern Airlines flight outside the Everglades in the ’70s, I think they were obsessed with the landing gear and failed to notice a warning light). The cockpit dashboards certainly look complex; is it a situation where you typically have any number of warning lights flashing/bells at a given time, and people are just conditioned to it? Why so many accidents due to simply failing to notice an alarm?

    • Eirik says:

      …and B) they happen very quickly.

      Hi Zach, I have to disagree with that. Or, in the very moment of impact it do happen very quickly.

      But as investigations have shown, there is a chain of events leading up to the crash. The chain of events often start several hours before the crash, as was the case of the Tenerife crash starting with the bomb at the airport and redirection of planes. The stress was building up both in the tower and in the cockpits. The KLM crew decided to get extra fuel, there were some passenger missing in the terminal which caused more delay. And then the fog came sneaking in, almost like it wanted to make sure the accident was going to happen.

      Its like a bizarre puzzle just waiting for the final piece to fall in place.

      Most accidents could/would have been avoided if only one of the pieces was discovered and taken out of play. But its just like destiny already have decided that this is going to happen, no matter what. Sometimes it makes me think of the “Final destination” movies.
      “…You got away this time, but Im gonna get you!…”
      Creepy.

      Its the same with car accidents if you rewind to the time two drivers left their home in the morning. Maybe one of them forgot the keys and had to run inside again. Meanwhile, the other driver stopped for gas and a coffee. The first one is speeding to catch up.
      Eventually they smash into each other.
      Some things are just supposed to happen, it seems.

  2. Julian says:

    Apropos only of the fact that this story involved 747s, after having read your piece on the aesthetics of big airliners I started paying attention more closely and, wow, the 748 really is prettier than the original. And that’s saying something! Shame they’ve done away with the spiral staircase. I never saw one in person but somehow it’s still iconic to me.

    Anyhow, your essay in Cockpit Confidential was the best thing I ever read on the Tenerife disaster. And as an aviation buff, I’ve read a lot.

  3. Rod says:

    “We Gaan” —- Shows how, really, English is just a weird dialect of Dutch. :-)

  4. Manuel says:

    Hello
    the route “a reconsruction of the collision” is wrong, very wrong
    The KLM was taxing outside, it was running in order to entry to the runway. The pilot confused due to the fog and entried to the runaway by C4, I mean, or other C entry before going to the end of taxing way, addin the allowance of th control tower without confirmation of the planes, because the PANAM was taking off without knowing of the control tower. Never the pilots of the KLM knew that they were in th runaway, this was the big problem. The KLM knew that the PANAM was taking off and they talked in the cabin about were it was. Never the two planes were taxing at the same time at the runaway.
    Due to this accident the IATA rules of parking and to gain access to thw runaway were changed
    I was 9 and Living in Canary Islands
    BR

    • Patrick says:

      I believe you’re talking about the airport map that B.I. used to accompany my story. This is something they did on their own; I had no say. My original story does not include any maps or graphics.

      PS

  5. Michael Spencer MLA ASLA says:

    Patrick: Congrats, dude, on landing BI! Pretty soon you’ll make more from writing than…nah. Keep the day job, but thanks for the stories, too.

  6. Zach says:

    Fair enough, I’ll buy that (it is often the result of a series of failures, either in the cockpit or on the ground).

    To clarify, I simply meant that by the time the problem thrusts itself out into the open, things go south quickly. It’s amazing to read the transcripts of a lot of these CVRs, and how things go from casual banter/tedium to … in a matter of a few seconds to a few minutes.

    At this point in the evening, I don’t have the presence of mind to rattle off flight numbers for everything, but think about the San Diego flight that smacked into a lite air craft in the late ’70s, Alaskan Air flight 261 that lost its horizontal stabilizer off Catalina in 2000, the DC jet that hit the Potomac due to icing, the Delta 191 that hit windshear at DFW in 1985, AA 191 that lost its engine during take-off, the LA Aeromexico that clipped another lite air craft, Value Jet, AF447, etc. etc. All of these went down quickly.

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