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The Deadliest Airplane Crash Happened on the Ground

Did you know the deadliest airplane crash happened before the airplane ever had a chance to get off the ground?

Two 747s collided after a series of miscommunications led one to begin taking off–directly into the other.

Due to an explosion at an airport, a lot of flights were diverted to one of the Canary Islands.

One with a very small runway.

One of the airplanes (a Pan Am 747) missed their turnoff and was still on the runway.  The other airplane (a KLM 747) mistook some instructions for takeoff clearance, and went to take off with the Pan Am flight still on the runway.  The fog was thick, so the aircrafts themselves weren’t visible.

They collided, and over 500 people died.

The Wikipedia article on this has a really detailed documentation of the incident, going through each miscommunication and mistake point-by-point.

I also found YouTube video that simulates what happened, including showing how thick the fog was on that day.

Ultimately, it was a case of bad conditions, an airport not used to this many airplanes, and ambiguous communication. In fact, the Pan Am flight knew what was happening, but so much communication was going back and forth that the message was missed by both ATC and KLM.

Here’s a ~20 minute documentary on the subject.

All of the Pan Am pilots survived.

About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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4 comments

  1. Matthew Cox

    In the end… don’t all airplane crashes happen on the ground?

  2. The Deadliest Plane Crash is an excellent documentary. There is a longer version as well, available on youtube.

    I was old enough to remember this day. By chance, the family that threw my mother her bridal shower was on the Pan Am plane. Small world. No, they did not survive.

    I’m not sure what brought this up as a topic though, since it is not the anniversary of the crash, it is in March.

    • Jeanne Marie Hoffman

      That’s a good question! I was on a YouTube watching spree about three weeks ago (when I also wrote about the pilot outside of the airplane for 22 minutes). I found a lot of things I wanted to write about, but figured I should spread them out rather than dedicate six posts in a row to them.

      That’s awful that they were on the plane. It’s awful that anyone was on those planes.

      • Oh. It debuted on Australian television just last week, under the title “Disaster at Tenerife.” I thought you had been watching Australian TV. ha ha. Just a coincidence.

        As for the pilot who was blown out a window, but survived spending 22 minutes outside the plane, yeah, that is a truly amazing story.

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