The Tenerife disaster, widely considered the worst airplane crash in history, occurred on March 27, 1977, when two jumbo jets (Boeing 747s) collided in a fog on the ground at Los Rodeos airport, Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. At least 560 people died as a ball of fire erupted into the sky, and the explosion heard all across the island.
None survived the Boeing 747 belonging to Dutch national airline KLM, and all 249 on board died. About 60 injured survivors escaped the Boeing 747 belonging to Pan Am airlines, which carried a crew of 16 and 378 passengers.
Neither airline was even scheduled to be at that airport, but both had been diverted from the bigger Las Palmas airport on nearby Gran Canaria island due to a terrorist bomb blast there.
The immediate cause was that the KLM jet was in the process of taking off and hit the Pan Am plane as it taxied across the runway. The KLM pilot was ultimately blamed, and the Pan Am pilot held blameless.
Though not widely reported, the real cause of the crash was poorly spoken English. English is the international language for pilots and air traffic controllers, but miscommunications have caused several deadly crashes. The official report found that "inadequate language" was a cause. The KLM pilot used the phrase "we are now at take-off” when he meant to state that he was now taking off, and thereby proceeded to crash into another airplane on the runway and kill 583 persons on both planes.
- See, e.g., ValueJet Flight 592.
- Report of the Secretary of Civil Aviation, Spain (Oct. 9, 1978), reprinted in Aircraft Accident Digest (ICAO Circular 153-AN/56, 22-68).