Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Air disasters...on the ground...

Tonight I watched a PBS Nova special tonight titled "The Deadliest Plane Crash", which discussed the events leading to the worst commercial aviation disaster to date (in terms of loss of lives due to a single plane crash). Although I have known about this crash for a while, listening to the survivors' accounts of the disaster and the air traffic control problems that still plague airports today, is quite an eye opener for frequent travelers today.

On March 27,1977, a KLM 747 and a Pan Am 747 were both on their way to Gran Canaria International Airport in the Canary Islands, when air traffic controllers at the airport diverted all incoming flights to nearby Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife due to a terrorist bomb explosion at the original destination at Gran Canaria. Both planes landed safely at Tenerife and deplaned, awaiting clearance to continue to Gran Canaria to continue along their original flight plans. When air traffic controllers at Gran Canaria alerted those at Tenerife that the bombed airport was once again open for traffic, both flights scrambled to gather their passengers and crew for an immediate departure to Gran Canaria.

Due to traffic congestion at Tenerife, both the KLM and the Pan Am planes were requested to taxi down the entire length of the runway before turning 180 degrees and taking off in the opposite direction. This required the Pan Am plane to turn off the runway about half way down the taxi path to allow the KLM plane to take off. Unfortunately, a massive fog bank blanketed the airport during the taxiing process, and the Pan Am crew was confused as to where it should veer off the runway to allow the Pan Am plane to pass. At the same time, the captain of the KLM flight, Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten, who was a veteran of the airline and the poster pilot for the airline's ads, decided to begin the takeoff roll before acquiring clearance, before the Pan Am plane cleared the runway. Just before reaching the Pan Am plane, the pilot aggressively tried to make his 747 clear the Pan Am plane, but the two collided, causing the KLM plane to rip the top off of the Pan Am plane and the KLM plane to crash 150 yards later, in a belly-up attitude. All aboard the KLM perished, and 335 of 396 abord the Pan Am plane were killed. There were a total of 583 fatalities.

While initial investigators disagreed on whom to apply the blame, it was later determined that the KLM pilots were at fault for attempting a premature takeoff without proper clearance. Perhaps the single greatest contribution to the disaster was Captain van Zanten's decision to defy air traffic control for the sake of preventing delays. Ironically, a prominent KLM advertisement of the 1970s depicting Captain van Zantenof exhibits the airline's pride on on-time departures:

Since 1977, there have been a number of close calls that could have resulted in a repeat of this accident. In fact, a widely publicized runway incursion occurred at Boston's Logan International Airport on June 9, 2005, when a US Airways Boeing 737-300 and Aer Lingus Airbus A330 were cleared for takeoff at approximately the same time, on intersecting runways. Fortunately, the US Airways First Officer noticed the rolling Aer Lingus flight on the other runway and promptly applied pressure of the control yoke to keep the plane of the ground, when the plane's speed would have normally caused it to lift into the air. The Aer Lingus plane cleared the US Airways plane by 170 feet, and the US Airways plane lifted off the ground shortly thereafter (and just in time before running out of runway), averting a disaster that could have cost the lives of a combined 363 passengers and crew. The pilot and co-pilot both received the Superior Airmanship Award from the Air Line Pilots Association for their heroic actions in averting a disaster at Logan.

With an average of 325 runway incursions (defined as incidents where planes are dangerously located on runways/taxiways when they are not supposed to be) reported each year, many experts agree that it is a matter of time before another disaster similar to that at Tenerife occurs. While measures are being taken to improve runway conflicts, many airports, including Boston Logan and Chicago O'Hare, continue to struggle understanding why such incursions occur despite increased awareness of the problem.


Blogger Ben said...

Great post. Scary, though. Far better to have delays and inconveniences than to die in a collision.

5:52 PM  

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