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Deadliest Plane Crash, The

Classroom Activity

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Activity Summary
Students examine the contributing role of each event that led to the 1977 crash on Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • state what events contributed to the 1977 crash on Tenerife.

  • identify some of the variables involved in air traffic safety.

  • understand that air traffic safety relies on both technology and the people who control it.

Materials for each team
  • copy of the "Thinking Things Through" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of the "Events Chart" student handout (PDF or HTML)

Background
On March 27, 1977, a series of events led to an air crash that resulted in the largest loss of life in the history of flight. Two 747s heading for the Canary Islands—a KLM flight from Amsterdam and a Pan Am flight from Los Angeles—were diverted to Los Rodeos airport at Tenerife when a bomb exploded at the Las Palmas airport, their original destination. After both planes landed at Tenerife, a series of circumstances led to the KLM plane crashing into the Pan Am aircraft as the KLM plane attempted takeoff.

Five hundred and eighty-three people died in the disaster. Because the crash involved American and Dutch flights on Spanish soil, multiple governments were involved in a difficult and sometimes acrimonious investigation.

According to the Dutch report, the cause of the crash was the failure of the Pan Am pilots to turn off at the appropriate taxiway and the fact that the Tenerife controllers used non-standard terminology and were listening to a soccer match while they worked. While the American and Spanish reports acknowledged that the Pan Am mistake played a role, they held that the main fault for the crash lay with the KLM crew, which took off without the proper clearance.

In this activity, students consider which events played a major role in contributing to the 1977 crash and what the underlying cause of each major event may have been.


Procedure
  1. The program contains scenes that may be emotionally difficult for some students. Preview the program before having students view it and choose any sections you may want to fast-forward over while students are watching.

  2. Organize students into teams. As students view the program, have them take notes on events that led up to the crash.

  3. When students have finished watching, provide a copy of the student handouts to each team. Have students work in teams to review the "Events Chart" and add any other events that led to the crash which they may have listed while watching the program.

  4. After they have completed their lists, have students categorize whether they think each event was an action (a decision made or step taken that contributed to the crash that could have been changed at the time) or a condition (a feature of the situation that may have played a role in the crash but could not have been changed at the time). After they have determined the nature of each event, have students work in their teams to list the results of each event they categorized as an "action" event.

  5. Next have students review each action and its results and choose the top three events they think contributed to the crash. After all teams have made their choices, have each team report its choices and reasons for making them.

  6. After all teams have reported, conduct a class poll about which three events students think were most responsible. List on the board the top three events for which the majority of the class voted. Next, have students consider the underlying causes of these three events. (Some underlying causes might include time limit policies as a reason for adding a sense of urgency to take off as soon as possible; the nature of cockpit interactions as a reason no one challenged the KLM pilot's decisions to let passengers off, refuel, and take off; and lack of a standard international communications protocol as a reason for miscommunications between controllers and flight crews.)

  7. For each event, have students recommend changes to address some of the underlying causes. Conclude with a discussion about what it would take to implement some of the proposed changes.

  8. As an extension, have students research changes that have been made in air safety since the onset of commercial flight.


Activity Answer

The following chart lists some of the events that contributed to the crash. Student responses may differ. Accept all reasonable answers.

Event

Action

Condition

Result

bomb explodes at Las Palmas' Gando airport

√*

Gando airport is closed

Gando controllers divert traffic to Tenerife's Los Rodeos airport


too many planes back up at Tenerife, blocking taxiways and making it difficult to move traffic around

Los Rodeos too small to accommodate that day's traffic



Los Rodeos controllers unaccustomed to handling that day's traffic load



KLM pilot lets passengers off plane


additional delay on taxiway while passengers are rounded up and reboarded; pilot uses extra time to refuel the plane

KLM crew decides to refuel


Pan Am flight can't leave because it can't get around KLM plane; additional fuel weighs plane down more, which means it takes more time to get off the ground; added fuel contributes to bigger explosion when planes collide

Los Rodeos controllers decide to backtrack planes simultaneously


planes are on the runway at the same time

fog rolls in



Pan Am pilots not sure where to turn


Pan Am flight remains on runway

visibility drops to 500 meters



Los Rodeos controllers let planes move without seeing them


planes continue preparing for takeoff

KLM pilot initiates takeoff without clearance


planes crash; 583 people are killed

* Some students may consider this event an action in that better security measures may have prevented the bombing. Accept either answer.


Student Handout Questions

  1. Where in the chain of events could decisions have been made that could have affected the outcome? What were some actions that could have been taken that were not? There are many places in the chain of events where different decisions may have affected the outcome. Students may note that:

    • the Las Palmas tower crew could have diverted planes to other airports or put them in a holding pattern, thus lessening the traffic load on Tenerife.

    • the KLM pilot could have decided not to let the passengers off the plane, thus decreasing the plane's wait time on the runway.

    • the KLM pilot could have decided not to refuel, or to take on as much fuel as he did, thus decreasing both runway wait time and the plane's final takeoff weight.

    • the Los Rodeos controllers could have decided to not backtrack the planes, or to only backtrack the planes one at a time.

    • the Pan Am flight crew could have called in for better clarification of its turn-off coordinates.

    • the Los Rodeos controllers could have halted all air traffic movement when they could no longer see the planes.

    • the KLM pilot could have waited for proper clearance before taking off or aborted the takeoff altogether.

  2. Choose three events that your team believes contributed most to the crash. Provide reasons for your choices. Student answers will vary.


Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA—The Deadliest Plane Crash
www.pbs.org/nova/planecrash
Find out to what degree human error can still happen in air travel today, read a transcript of communications during the 1977 disaster, learn about safety improvements following other major air crashes, and weigh the risks of different modes of travel.

Vulnerable System: An Analysis of the Tenerife Air Disaster
www.slis.indiana.edu/faculty/arobbin/COURSES/l547/readings/weick1990.pdf
Presents a detailed report of the 1977 Tenerife plane crash.


Books

Air Accident Investigation
by David Owen. Motorbooks International, 2002.
Presents the major factors involved in a number of air crashes.

Aircraft Accident Analysis
by Robert Sumwalt. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2000.
Summarizes findings from National Transportation Safety Board reports of famous air crashes.


Standards

The "Thinking Things Through"" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see books.nap.edu/html/nses).

Grades 9-12
Science Standard F

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Natural and human-induced hazards




Classroom Activity Author

James Sammons taught middle and high school science in Rhode Island for 30 years. His teaching practices have been recognized by the National Science Teachers Association, the Soil Conservation Service, and the National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

Teacher's Guide
Deadliest Plane Crash, The
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