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Calamity and Coincidence: 40 Years Later Are We at Risk of Another Tenerife?

A KLM Boeing 747 similar to the one involved in the Tenerife Airport Disaster
A KLM Boeing 747 similar to the one involved in the Tenerife Airport Disaster

Have I ever witnessed a fully loaded passenger jet takeoff without clearance, like the Tenerife Airport Disaster?  Yes.

There’s another Captain Jacob Van Zanten flying out there somewhere, right now.

If his name doesn’t ring a bell, the crash that killed him, the one he’s blamed for, just might: Tenerife. It remains to this day the world’s most deadly airline accident, with 583 lives lost. March 27 marked the 40th anniversary of the infamous epic ground collision between two jumbo jets on a runway at Tenerife, in Spain’s Canary Islands, off the coast of West Africa.

Perhaps no airline captain in modern history has been more uniformly vilified than KLM Captain Jacob Van Zanten. There is no dispute among investigators that ultimately, the cause of the tragedy rests squarely on Van Zanten’s shoulders. But perhaps if we sift through the carnage again, it yields clues worth examining. Insights into Van Zanten’s actions, and more importantly, maybe even into our own mission-oriented pilot mentality.

Reviewing the Tenerife Airport Disaster

Let’s revisit the confounding day. Van Zanten is at the helm of the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight from Amsterdam, on its way to the Canary Islands. The Pan Am jet is enroute from Los Angeles after a stop in New York. Both flights are charters, carrying primarily cruise ship-bound vacationers.

Neither KLM nor Pan Am are even scheduled to land at Tenerife. What starts a cascade of seemingly insignificant events begins minutes earlier with a single act that ignites a small bomb. Not one person dies from the terrorist blast, but the event becomes the linchpin in a deadly chain reaction that will within hours kill 583 people.

The detonation occurs inside the passenger terminal at Las Palmas airport on Gran Canaria island, the scheduled destination of the two jumbo jets. Las Palmas airport temporarily closes, and both KLM, Pan Am, and a few other flights are diverted to nearby Tenerife, a larger island, but equipped with a smaller airport with a single runway.

After KLM and Pan Am land and wait on the congested, crowded ramp of Tenerife’s Los Rodeo airport, Captain Van Zanten thinks it might be wise to refuel. He’s calculating ways to save valuable time he might later need when dropping the passengers off at Las Palmas, and boarding a new load for the long flight home to Amsterdam. He calls KLM headquarters back in the Netherlands. They agree. Thousands of pounds of fuel begin pouring into Van Zanten’s Boeing 747.

As fate would have it, the destination airport, Las Palmas, suddenly reopens. Since refueling has already begun, Van Zanten elects to continue. It seems the logical thing to do. Unfortunately, this single act will soon haunt him in the final moment of his life, when he will try in vain to lift his lumbering, loaded 747 off the runway and over the Pan Am jet before they collide.

Van Zanten knows time is of the essence, and tension mounts.

Newly legislated Netherlands airline duty time regulations call for draconian penalties, up to and including imprisonment, for pilots who exceed the legal limitations. More issues accumulate. If the KLM flight gets stuck on Tenerife, will there be enough hotel rooms to accommodate the hundreds of passengers? What about the other crowd of passengers waiting to be picked up at Las Palmas? An expensive logistical nightmare looms as Van Zanten pushes to keep things moving.

During the time it takes to refuel, the weather seems to conspire, dropping the visibility precipitously low, a few hundred feet in some spots. American poet laureate Carl Sandburg once eloquently wrote, ‘The fog comes on little cat feet.’ But not at Tenerife. The volcanic island’s airport rises 2,000 feet above the surrounding ocean. More dramatic than fog, actual clouds roll in off the sea, diminishing clear skies to murk in only minutes.

Van Zanten is forced to taxi out in the soupy conditions, and commence a tight 180-degree turn at the end of the runway to line up for takeoff. The illuminated runway centerline lights that would normally aid a pilot are out of service. The turn maneuver requires perfect technique: a 142-foot turn radius on the 150-foot wide runway. Only eight feet to spare, to be executed from the towering vantage of the jumbo jet’s high crow’s nest cockpit.

The fog also makes it difficult for the Pan Am crew to see, as they creep along behind KLM, both invisible to each other and to the controllers in the small control tower. Pan Am misses its first turn – an almost impossible semi-backwards turn for a B747 – and aims for the next more favorably angled taxiway. That short taxiway will take them onto the longer parallel taxiway that leads to the end of the runway, to take off after KLM. More critically, it will get them off the active runway.

In flight KLM Magazine with Captain Van ZantenIf any of Van Zanten’s passengers thumbed through the in-flight magazine as the big four engines roared to takeoff power, they would have seen the airline’s full-color two-page advertisement spread, extolling the Dutch history as timekeepers, and the KLM virtue of making schedules. The proud headline “KLM. From the people who made punctuality possible.” Next to it a photo of an archetypal handsome uniformed airline pilot, the company’s on-time poster boy, none other than Captain Jacob Van Zanten.

At this moment, he has his hands full, completing the tight turn in the heavy fog at the end of the runway. If the visibility continues to deteriorate below legal minimums he will have to delay. He begins to add power, alarming co-pilot Klass Meurs, who speaks up saying, ‘Wait…we do not have a clearance.’ Van Zanten retards the throttles to idle. Meurs then obtains the route clearance and reads it back over the radio to the air traffic controller.
KLM now has a flight plan clearance to their destination. But they do not have an actual clearance to takeoff. There is an exchange among the Spanish controller, the American Pan Am crew, and the Dutch KLM pilots. All are attempting aviation English over the air, but confusion reigns.

Van Zanten mistakenly takes the clearance as a signal that he is cleared for takeoff, and again applies power. The Pan Am crew recognizes something is amiss and nervously broadcasts that they are still on the runway. At that exact instant, the tower controller radios KLM to standby for takeoff. The two microphones, keyed at the same time, effectively cancel each other out with a squeal. Neither transmission is clearly heard by the KLM captain or copilot. Van Zanten does not know Pan Am is still on the runway, dead ahead.

But the KLM flight engineer, Willem Schreuder, a highly-experienced crewmember with over 17,000 hours, senses the uncertainty and asks, ‘Is he (Pan Am) not clear then?’ He states the question a second time. Van Zanten responds with an emphatic ‘Yes’ and by now KLM is picking up speed.

Van Zanten has lost all track of Pan Am’s location.

Further Exploring Van Zanten’s Role in the Tenerife Airport Disaster

What will always be the most vexing question surrounding Tenerife, is why. Not as in why didn’t he ‘know’ exactly where Pan Am was – the jet was impossible to see in the heavy fog. But as in why didn’t he care? Why wasn’t Van Zanten focused on knowing, with certainty before commencing takeoff, that Pan Am was not on his runway?

Armchair accident enthusiasts seem to be divided into two camps regarding Van Zanten, neither of them lenient. One viewpoint is that the 50-year old KLM captain acted in an arrogant and impatient manner the afternoon of the crash, adopting a tone of annoyance and sarcasm. His attitude essentially shut down the valid concerns of his crew, concerns that if more assertively voiced could have transformed a low speed aborted takeoff roll into a non-event.

A harsher assessment of Van Zanten is that he took off with a blatant disregard for the possibility of another jet in the heavy fog occupying his runway. That he was a bully, eventually intimidating his subordinates into silent compliance. A pilot so domineering that he would wait for no one, even if it imperiled his life and his passengers. Not that Van Zanten had a death wish per se, but that he recklessly took the lives of the almost 600 who died in the accident. Well, if you could call it an accident. In the eyes of some, it was practically intentional.

But is that tarnished image the true Captain Jacob Van Zanten? For ten years prior to Tenerife, the husband and father to two children was a training pilot and simulator examiner for KLM. Eventually promoted to Chief Pilot for all of KLM, and put in charge of the B747 training program. The very person belted in next to him during the crash, copilot Klass Meurs, had just been signed off as a new copilot only two months earlier, with Van Zanten administering the checkride.

Having been an airline check airman, I’m aware that one of the many advantages of the position is that you become very current on the maneuvers, emergencies, and general handling of the airplane when you spend day-in and day-out in a full-motion simulator. The downside? Realistic as it is, it’s still not the real world. Van Zanten had spent years in the simulator, and the KLM offices, far away from the realities of line-flying.

Adding to the pressure was his management title and position as de facto training authority for the entire company making the expectations on him even greater than for a regular line pilot. When the bomb blast shut down his destination airport, he was quickly barraged by a panorama of problems and irregularities he wasn’t accustomed to. Line pilots contended often with alternate airports, and weather closing in, and company flight time duty limitations and other factors that affect not only their decisions, but even their mood, and modus operandi.

In some respects, for all his accolades, Van Zanten was a bit rusty out in the real world. And what’s the one voice you never hear in the simulator? Air traffic control.

We’ll never know for sure why his co-pilot or flight engineer didn’t yank the four throttles to idle and prevent Van Zanten’s takeoff roll. Was it, as has been speculated, intimidation? Or was it their hopeful belief that as the captain, as the final authority, he must be right. With such high life and death consequences – and their own unsettled words regarding Pan Am’s location – it is startling that the crew’s own self-preservation instinct didn’t kick in and make them act.

Jan Bartelski, a KLM captain and president of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, described Van Zanten as open-hearted, with a friendly disposition, a man who believed in partnership in the cockpit. “He insisted his first officers address him during flight as ‘Jaap’, the Dutch nickname for Jacob, and not as Captain,” said Bartelski.

Have I ever personally had to stop a captain from taking off? Once. On a parallel runway that was closed, and in the distant invisible dark, cluttered with trucks and construction equipment. But it was an easy call, we weren’t under any of the extenuating circumstances of Tenerife. The consequences? None. And some good came of it, as the close call got the captain to start paying more attention and get his head back in the game of flying, which had been noticeably absent over previous weeks.

Some may always believe that instead of an honest mistake, Van Zanten’s error was the careless arrogance of a pride-filled poster boy. Sometimes the collective takes comfort in easy blame, maybe because somehow it translates into less chance of it happening to them. We’re the pilots raised on crew resource management, the breed that listens. And solicits and accepts input from crewmembers. Even the ones we don’t like. But, every day, every flight? Safe in the bubble atmosphere of team mentality, could we never lapse, at precisely the wrong moment, toppling our own last domino in a sequence that becomes visible to our experienced eyes only in the final helpless seconds?

There would be no reason to suggest Van Zanten believed anything else than his runway was clear, and he was cleared for takeoff. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest he was suicidal or homicidal. He thought he was good to go. An inescapable irony lingers that in trying to remain under duty time, in getting distracted by the schedule, and of avoiding extra expense for the company and inconvenience for his passengers – in trying to be a good employee – he became, momentarily, a very bad pilot.

The Legacy of the Tenerife Airport Disaster

At the time of Tenerife, the Boeing 747 was invented only eight years earlier. Now in the era of more efficient twin-engine jets, the iconic ‘double-deckers’ are being repurposed as cargo queens, to make room for newer and bigger passenger capacity jets like the Airbus A380.

With that increase in size comes an inherent potential for large fatalities in even a single aircraft accident. Most A380’s are configured to carry around 550 passengers, but the jet is certified to carry up to a whopping 853. Imagine two of them in a collision and do the math.

The good news is that the airlines have not yet surpassed the human death toll at Tenerife of 583 lives in a single accident. The concern is that we keep having close calls. The FAA and ICAO have worked to promote effective runway incursion programs to reduce the chance of aircraft ground collisions. But the Wall Street Journal reported last year that hazardous runway incursions in the U.S. increased three years in a row, jumping 25% in 2016.1

It’s also an issue overseas. On October 10, 2016, China Eastern Airlines flight MU5643, an Airbus A320, was involved in a serious runway incursion incident during takeoff from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport. As the A320 accelerated for takeoff, an Airbus A330 wandered across his runway. The China Eastern captain, accelerating through 110 knots, spotted the incursion ahead, hit TOGA thrust and rotated at 130 knots, climbing over the A330, missing it by only 60 feet.

In the end, call it fate, or call it luck, but fortune remains the unseen element X of the accident equation. If you don’t believe luck swirls around airline tragedies, then maybe you haven’t heard of E. Jack Ridout.2 He was one of only 61 survivors at Tenerife, all from the Pan Am jet. That alone was an unbelievable stroke of good fortune, more than most could hope for in a lifetime.

But one year later, in 1978, another deadly airline collision occurred, and Ridout had a ticket on that flight too. It was Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182. The PSA Boeing 727 was hit by a small Cessna airplane over the clear skies of San Diego, killing a total of 144 people. One of the most eerie photos in aviation history shows the sunny silhouette of the Boeing tri-jet, falling from the sky, seconds before impact.

Ridout survived the crash of PSA182 because he decided to skip the flight. What are the odds? On March 27, 1977, it was to some intangible degree, bad luck that conspired with so many other factors, including his own bad decisions, to prompt Captain Van Zanten to take off into the blind without clearance. Jack was incalculably lucky. Jacob was not.

Tenerife Airport Disaster memorial
Tenerife Airport Disaster Memorial, Photo courtesy of Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana, CC0 1.0

Final Thoughts

Have I ever witnessed a fully loaded passenger jet takeoff without clearance? Yes. And like Tenerife, it was at a tropical tourist destination airport. I was 29 years old, in a hurry, and at the controls. Did anything come of it, beyond a gentle scolding from the tower? No.

That’s how I know there’s another Jacob Van Zanten out there, somewhere. I’ve flown with him. And at one time or another, I may have been him. Even as we try so hard to focus on doing the right thing, on getting the job done. There’s a bit of Van Zanten lurking in every pilot. It manifests in its deadliest form as a blind spot to our own human mistakes, to our own bad luck moments, especially the sneaky ones of our own creation.

Featured Image: courtesy of Pieter Van MarionCC BY-NC 2.0 (Editorial Note: While this is a photo of a KLM Boeing 747, it is not a photo of the actual aircraft that was involved in the Tenerife Airport Disaster.)


1 – Close Calls on U.S. Airport Runways Rise Sharply, Wall Street Journal, Andy Pasztor, Retrieved 3-29-17

2 – A TWIST OF FATE: ‘I’ve Been Called a Survivor for Years’, LA Times, Mike Granberry, Retrieved 3-29-17

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Kathleen Bangs is an on-air aviation analyst, former commercial airline pilot, and 2005 overall winner of the International Aerospace Journalist of the Year Award. She has over 10,000 flight hours, and a fondness for the Reverse Cuban 8.