The Deadliest Plane Crash

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: October 17, 2006

On March 27, 1977, on the island of Tenerife, two fully loaded 747 jumbo jets collided on a fog-blanketed runway, claiming the lives of 583 people in what is still the deadliest crash in aviation history. Now, almost 30 years later, near misses on the ground are the leading cause of aviation accidents, raising the question of what can be done to improve runway safety. Featuring moving interviews with the few survivors of the disaster and with top accident investigators, this program examines the fateful confluence of events that led to the Tenerife tragedy and its continuing relevance for air travel today.

Three decades ago, the facts of the accident were shocking and inexplicable. In thick fog, a KLM 747 began an unauthorized takeoff, slamming into a Pan Am 747 that was taxiing on the same runway. The best and the brightest pilots, including KLM's senior captain and head of safety, were at the helm. How could such an accident possibly occur?

"The Deadliest Plane Crash" looks back at the crucial four hours before the disaster, when an improbable chain of coincidences, bad luck, and misjudgments snowballed into tragedy. The situation sounds eerily current. It all began with a terrorist bomb threat to the airport on Gran Canaria Island that diverted air traffic to Tenerife. The small Tenerife airport was soon overcrowded while its control tower was understaffed. Thick fog rolled in and destroyed visibility as the KLM plane loaded up a full tank of fuel. A series of unclear communications and time pressure on the Dutch crew ultimately contributed to the KLM captain's fatal error—one that violated the fundamental rules of aviation and baffled expert investigators for decades afterwards. (See The Final Eight Minutes.)

The program reassesses the evidence and conclusions of the official accident investigations by the Spanish and Dutch authorities. It features gripping firsthand testimony and personal stories from Pan Am co-pilot Robert Bragg, flight attendant Joan Jackson, and passengers who somehow fought their way out of the blazing, disintegrating Pan Am 747.

NOVA also investigates the improvements in runway safety that have been made in the three decades following the Tenerife crash. Disturbingly, runway incursions in the U.S. are still an everyday event—about 325 of them each year.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker discusses new safety technology and shares NTSB's chilling forensic animation that reconstructs recent runway scares. In 1999 two planes at Chicago O'Hare airport missed each other by 80 feet, and a similar near miss happened in 2005 in Boston. In an age when air travel safety is under constant scrutiny, "The Deadliest Plane Crash" vividly dramatizes the need for renewed vigilance both on the ground as well as in the air.


Program Transcript
Program Credits

KLM 747

What can we learn from the worst aviation disaster of all time? Here, the burnt-out skeleton of the KLM 747 after it collided with the Pan Am 747 in 1977.

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