March 27

This Day in History

Disaster

Mar 27, 1977:

Jumbo jets collide at Canary Islands airport

On this day in 1977, two 747 jumbo jets crash into each other on the runway at an airport in the Canary Islands, killing 582 passengers and crew members.

Both Boeing 747s were charter jets that were not supposed to be at the Los Rodeos Airport on Santa Cruz de Tenerife that day. Both had been scheduled to be at the Las Palmas Airport, where a group of militants had set off a small bomb at the airport's flower shop earlier that day. Thus, a Pan Am charter carrying passengers from Los Angeles and New York to a Mediterranean cruise and a KLM charter with Dutch tourists were both diverted to Santa Cruz on March 27.

The Los Rodeos airport is known for its sudden fog problems and was not a favorite location for pilots. At 4:40 p.m. on a typically foggy afternoon, the KLM jet was cleared to taxi to the end of the single main runway. The Pan Am jet followed behind it and was to wait in side space while the KLM jet turned around to begin takeoff. However, in the fog, the Pan Am pilot was unable to keep the KLM jet in sight and did not move into the proper position. The Dutch crew of the KLM jet, apparently unable to understand the accented English spoken by the flight controllers, began to take off down the runway before the Pan Am jet was able to move to the side space.

At the last minute, the Pan Am pilot saw the other 747 coming straight at his own jet and screamed What's he doing? He'll kill us all! while attempting to swerve into a grassy field. It was too late. The KLM 747 slammed into the side of the Pan Am jet and both planes erupted into a huge fireball. The only survivors on either plane were those in the very front of the Pan Am 747. Survivor Lynda Daniel later said of the disaster, It exploded from the back. Most of the people in the first six rows made it.

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