A Terrible Air Crash

As some of you will now, I’ve been going on about Tenerife, where I was on holiday very recently. I mentioned in my last-but-two posts that Tenerife hit the headlines on two occasions. One was when a British naval force under Admiral Nelson failed to take Santa Cruz, in 1797. The other was much more recent, in March 1977.

While on holiday there, I saw a memorial at the Anglican Church in Puerto de la Cruz, to the victims of an air crash. It was quite poignant, standing there by itself. I actually remember it on the news, all thgose years ago, but I had forgotten the details; so I’ve been doing a bit of investigation.

Two jumbo jets collided with one another at Tenerife Airport (now Tenerife North Airport, ). It was very misty, and one – a KLM Boeing 747 – had been given the go-ahead to take off (or so the pilots thought; in fact it seems there had been a misunderstanding, and the traffic controllers had NOT given such permission). As it raced along the runway it crashed into another Boeing 747, which was taxying on the ground. 583 people lost their lives.

It was a huge tragedy. And it must have been a terrible psychological blow to the people of Tenerife. We all feel pride in the places were we call home, and if these become associated with a ghastly event, especially one due to local human error (this one was originally thought to have been caused by the traffic controllers at Tenerife airport), it affects us a lot.

But it made me wonder: what were two jumbo jets doing at a small, provincila airport like Tenerife in the first place? My first port of call, Wikipedia, didn’t help much here, except by saying they had been diverted from Gran Canaria airport, where there had been a bomb alert. But Gran Canaria is very near Tenerife – it’s another one of the Canary islands, and even smaller. So the question becomes: why were two jumbo jets wanting to go to Gran Canaria airport?

The B747 is a long-haul airport usually only seen at the biggest, busiest airports of the world. So what was Gran Canaria (a tiny island in mid-ocean) doing as their destination?

Well, apparently, it turns out, they were both on charter, taking passengers to board cruise liners docked at Gran Canaria. Somehow, this seems to make the accident all the more tragic – the hundreds of people who were killed were happily looking forward to a wonderful, relaxing cruise, when disaster overtook them.

Why am I blogging about this? Partly because I’m interested, I’m afraid. But also – in the British naval disaster I wrote about last week, 280 British and Spanish lives were lost (250 of them British). In this air crash, 583 died.

This is greater than the number of British servicemen and women (258) who died in the Falklands War in 1982. So, in terms of lives lost, it ranked as a very major event indeed. It was the worst air accident so far. I very much hope it remains so.


By Peter Britton