The Deadliest Plane Crash

When I was a kid I remember my dad watching PBS.  I always thought they aired boring programs about nature and other stupid things, or so I thought.  Who really cares about the migration patterns of birds, anyway?  I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree since PBS is on quite often in our house now a days.  We mostly watch PBS Kids, but there are some really interesting programs in the evenings.  I guess I just needed to grow up a bit to appreciate PBS.  Anyway...

Last night on NOVA was the show "The Deadliest Plane Crash."  Before watching the program I knew the sweeping details of the accident, but the program had so much detail I will now never forget any detail.  The details of the accident are chilling.  In short, in 1977, on the island of Tenerife, a KLM Boeing 747 crashed into a Pan Am Boeing 747 on the runway (KLM was taking off, and Pan AM was taxing).  In total, 583 people died.  All 248 passengers on the KLM flight died.  As for the Pan Am flight there were 335 fatalities and 61 survivors.  Four of the survivors, including the FO and two FAs were interviewed, and as I said before the details are chilling.

There was an accident investigator that was interviewed during the program and his point of view was very interesting.  Towards the end of the program the discussion was about, what I will call, CRM (crew resource management).  Steve has mentioned CRM before, and I think that they even have to have classes on it.  From what I gather, CRM is when a cockpit has open communication.  Yes, the CA is the "boss" sort of speak, but the two pilots need to work as a team to fly as safely as possible.  Disclaimer: this is my, and only my, take on CRM from what I gather from years of being around pilots.   

During one of Steve's classes they aired the cockpit voice recorder of an accident (I think it was this accident).  There was an issue with the landing gear and the CA was most occupied with the fuel that he was not listening to the FOs warning of low fuel.  The plane crashed because it ran out of fuel.   I can't imagine being a pilot, sitting in class, and listening to the exchange in the cockpit.  Chilling!  Lesson learned? There are a couple of people up there for a is important to listen to one another and work together.

Now, going back to the Tenerife accident, apparently the KLM CA was not practicing proper CRM.  Yes, it was before CRM came to, but back in the day I guess the CA was the king of the plane.  During the reenactment of the crash, it shows the cockpit of the KLM plane and the three pilots, or is it two pilots and a flight engineer.  (note: I need to ask Steve if a flight engineer is considered a pilot).  At one point, the CA started to roll and the FO told him to stop since they didn't have proper ATC clearance.  The second time the CA began to roll, again before proper ATC clearance, the FO or Flight Engineer failed to speak up, probably afraid to embarrass the CA again.  The plane was barreling down the runway, and crashed into the Pan Am flight.  Now, I don't think the entire blame of the crash was on the KLM CA, but that was a part of why the accident happened.

On a much much much lesser scale, to relate CRM to my life, the other day Steve told me that he had to advise his CA on something.  They were holding and their speed needed to be at a certain point and the CA didn't catch it.  Steve pulled out the FOM (flight operation manual) to confirm the speed, advise the CA and the speed was reduced.  This is effective CRM, if you ask me. 

Watching programs on a plane crash are both good and bad for me.  The programs always educate me a little bit more.  I always ask Steve a number of questions after a program, so little by little I learn about aviation  But, at the same time they also make me realize that plane crashes do happen which I don't like to think about.

Next week on NOVA...B-29 Frozen In Time.  Not really my cup of tea since I am sure it will be focused bit more on mechanics and whatnot, but I do know one of Steve's good friend may enjoy it since he works on planes like this. 


  1. I watched that show last night, as well. It was very chilling. Sometimes the perfect combination for disaster come together. That's why everyone in a responsible position, from pilots, to the president, to anyone driving on the interstate, needs to be aware of things that can go wrong.


  2. And that is exactly what the investigator said! He said that in all the accidents he studied there was never a one distinct was a chain of things that caused the accidents. With this it was the diversions, crowded airport, busy ATC, weather...


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