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The Tenerife crash - March 27th, 1977

The radio communications become then quite confusing.

17 :02 :18 (Mecanician) – Third he said?

17 :02 :19 (Captain) – Three?

17 :02 :21 (Tenerife control tower) – -ird one to your left.

17 :02 :22 (Captain) – I think he said first.

17 :02 :26 (First officer) – I'll ask him again.

17 :02 :32 (First officer) – Left turn.

17 :02 :33 (Captain) – I don't think they have take-off minimums anywhere right now.

17 :02 :39 (Captain) – What really happened over there today?

17 :02 :41 (PanAm employee) – They put a bomb (in) the terminal, Sir, right where the check-in counters are.

17 :02 :46 (Captain) – Well we asked them if we could hold and -uh- I guess you got the word, we landed here.

The controller was next heard talking to the KLM jumbo crew.

17 :02 :50 (Tenerife control tower to KLM 747) – KLM four eight zero five how many taxiway -ah- did you pass?

17 :02 :55 (KLM 4805) – I think we just passed charlie four (fourth one) now.

17 :02 :59 (Tenerife control tower) – O.K. ... at the end of the runway make one eighty and report -ah- ready -ah- for ATC clearance.

Both aircraft were still backtracking down the runway, but the PanAm 747 was lost in the fog, the latter making it very difficult to spot the exit taxiways. The control tower had confirmed earlier that the aircraft must exit the runway into the third taxiway.

17 :03 :48 (Tenerife control tower) – ...er seven one three six report leaving the runway.

17 :04 :59 (Tenerife control tower) – -m eight seven zero five and clipper one seven ... three six, for your information, the centre line lighting is out of service.

Both 747 minutes before the disaster
This picture was taken at the Tenerife airport, a few minutes prior to the crash. It shows both 747 that will collide in a few minutes. Foreground, the KLM one. Background, the PanAm one.

Yet more bad news. In addition, the crew of the PanAm 747 had just passed the third taxiway without seeing it. They had seen the first one, missed the second one, and were now passing the third one thinking it was the second one. They were now headed for the fourth one.

Meanwhile, the Dutch 747 had finished backtracking the runway and was now making a u-turn. The fog dissipated slightly and the visibility increased to 700 meters. This was an opportunity that the KLM captain wasn't about to miss.

17 :05 :45 (First officer to the control tower) – Uh, the KLM ... four eight zero five is now ready for take-off ... uh and we're waiting for our ATC clearance.

17 :05 :53 (Tenerife control tower) – KLM eight seven zero five uh you are cleared to the Papa Beacon climb to and maintain flight level nine zero right turn after take-off proceed with heading zero four zero until intercepting the three two five radial from Las Palmas VOR.

17 :06 :09 (KLM first officer) – Ah roger, sir, we're cleared to the Papa Beacon flight level nine zero, right turn out zero four zero until intercepting the three two five and we're now (at take-off ??).

The 747 obtained clearance, but was not allowed to take off as yet. However, its captain, in a hurry, started advancing the throttle, having forgotten that another aircraft was still taxiing down the runway. The stressful situation was probably to blame.

17 :06 :13 (Captain) : We gaan. (We're going)

17 :06 :19 (Tenerife control tower) : OK

The Panam first officer was talking simultaneously :

17 :06 :19 (PanAm first officer) : No .. eh...

The controller was struck by a sudden doubt. He reminded the KLM captain that he had not been cleared for take-off.

17 :06 :20 (Tenerife control tower) : Stand by for take-off, I will call you.

17 :06 :20 (PanAm first officer) : And we're still taxiing down the runway, the clipper one seven three six.

Paths of both 747
Paths of both 747

The last two messages were radioed simultaneously and were therefore heard as a long four-second high-pitched sound. The KLM 747 speed increased. Some 1,500 meters further on, the PanAm 747 was still taxiing down the runway.

17 :06 :25 (Tenerife control tower to the PanAm 747) - Roger alpha one seven three six report when runway clear

17 :06 :29 (PanAm first officer) - OK, we'll report when we're clear

17 :06 :30 (Tenerife control tower) - Thank you

The KLM captain did not react. He may have misunderstood and thought that the PanAm 747 had just cleared the runway.

17 :06 :32 (KLM first officer) – Is hij er niet af dan? {Is he not clear then?}

17 :06 :34 (KLM captain) – Wat zeg je? {What do you say?}

17 :06 :35 (KLM first officer) – EstIs hij er niet af, die Pan American? {Is he not clear that Pan American?}

17 :06 :36 (Angry KLM captain) – Jawel. {Oh yes. - Emphatic}

Areas where debris were found
Areas where debris were found

Meanwhile, the PanAm jumbo jet reached the fourth taxiway. Suddenly, the PanAm captain spotted the landing lights of the KLM Boeing approximatively 700 meters away in the fog.

17 :06 :41 (PanAm captain) – (screaming) He’s coming… look… this son of b**** is coming

17 :06 :41 (PanAm first officer) - (screaming)