Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Perfect Storm . . . on a Runway

by Julia Buckley
People think it's odd that I don't fly. I've never wanted to--not since childhood. Part of it is just my Capricorn nature. Just as travel lovers can barely wait until they're in the air again, I can barely imagine not staying on the ground. I like the ground. I realize that adventurous people have an entirely different vision of the world.

But something always comes along to verify my decision to stay off of a plane. Last night, it was NOVA, one of my favorite shows, and their Tuesday night show entitled: "Worst Plane Disaster." I should have run in the other direction, but this story of the crash of two planes in 1977 on a tiny island called Tenerife was fascinating in a horrible way. 583 people died in total, but the fateful series of events that led to their deaths is the sort of thing that one would think might happen only in suspense fiction--or a horror novel.

First of all, the two planes were both headed for an airport on Gran Canaria Island. Within minutes of their arrival, a terrorist called the airport and said there was a bomb in the terminal. Officials rushed to evacuate the airport, and minutes later a bomb went off. The airport was immediately closed.

So when a Pan Am 747 and a KLM 747 (with an all-Dutch crew) radioed in for landing instructions, they were both sent to the much tinier island airport at Tenerife.

The two planes followed instructions and landed; the Dutch crew, in a terrible irony, even let their passengers disembark and wander around the airport. Both planes were stuck on the tarmac until the other airport declared that it was open. When this announcement was made, the Dutch crew scrambled to get all of the passengers back on the plane. One airport official had to go looking for a family whose children had wandered away. They were found and ushered back onto the plane. The attendant, interviewed for the show, said that it haunts him to think that, if he hadn't found them, they would be alive.

The Dutch plane took on fuel, a decision that would have fateful consequences.

The two air traffic controllers were not used to the number of planes that were diverted to them; they were listening to a soccer game while they communicated with the planes.

In addition to this potential confusion, the weather worsened while the planes waited on the tarmac. A fog rolled in, and visibility lessened.

By the time the 747s were cleared for take-off, the visibility had decreased. The captains of each plane had to continuously check with the tower, who had them both on the same runway. The plan was that they would both taxi to the end of it, then turn around for take-off.

The American crew was told to turn off the runway at the third intersection; they were unfamiliar with the airport and confused by the fog. They weren't sure if they were supposed to count three from where they started, or three from where they were when they received the information. The three men in the cockpit discussed this, and it can be read on the PBS website under the heading "The Final Eight Minutes."

In the end, the crash, which killed all but 28 people on board the American 747, was investigated by 70 officials from three countries. The reasons for the crash were many, but it was ultimately the pilot error by the captain of the KLM flight which was blamed for the fiery crash. As NOVA puts it:

"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 to come."

There was one survivor of the Dutch flight--a KLM flight attendant who decided not to re-board the plane, but to stay on Tenerife because her boyfriend was there. She tried to convince some friends to stay with her, but they got back on the plane.

One aviation expert said that this tragedy was one of those bizarre combinations of events--without any of the invidual parts, perhaps the tragedy could have been prevented. But with all the elements combining in endless ironic layers, the people on board both planes seemed to be the victims of Fate.


Lois Winston said...

I always tell myself I'm safer in a plane than in a car. Statistics bear that out. I never used to fear flying until 9/11. It's not the planes I fear now but the terrorists. I live down the road from the airport where one of the planes was hijacked.

Julia Buckley said...

That's a scary thought, Lois! And yes, that is intimidating.

I've heard that plane statistic again and again, but a part of me says, "Yes, but you can potentially survive a car crash--rarely do people survive a plane crash."

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I had a co-worker killed on that big Northwest crash years ago. Until then, I never thought much about plane crashes, but when it hits close to home, it changes things. And my niece flew out of Boston to visit me in CA the day before 9/11. That still gives me the shivers. To me, flying is a necessary evil. But the older I get, the more I want to drive to destinations. In spite of vehicle accidents and gas prices, it's more civil and comfortable. If I only had more time to do that ... sigh.

G.M. Malliet said...

I'll take a train if I can, any day, although statistically it's probably less safe than driving. Think I read that somewhere. I just wish the gov't would put more money into more, safer trains that run on time.

Beth Groundwater said...

One thing I do when planning overseas travel is that I stay away from foreign airlines who don't have a great safety record. If they're banned from landing at European airports, that's a good sign to stay away no matter how cheap their flights are!

Julia Buckley said...

That's sad, Sue Ann. I love Stephen Colbert, and I read that he lost both a father and a brother in a plane crash when he was ten years old.

GM, I too have heard that trains have a fair amount of accidents, but I still think I'd be able to haul myself aboard a train.

Beth, you sound very travel-savvy!

Keith Raffel said...

Julia, you ever seen The High and the Mighty, a 1954 classic film? About tracing the reasons behind an air crash.

Darrell James said...

Call me a control freak, but I'm with you, Julia. At least in the car I have some measure of control. What I hate most about flying, however, is being crowded into a small space and being held captive for several hours.

Julia Buckley said...

And Darrell, you have no control over who is piloting. Remember the story recently of the drunk Russian pilots, and the passengers who begged them not to fly the plane?

And I won't call you a control freak, because I'm probably more of one.

Keith, I'll have to look up that movie. I had sort of promised I would devote my summer to more old movies, and so far I haven't watched movie one. :)

Diana said...

I guess I'm a lone voice as I adore flying. Not the process; thedelays at airports, the security checks, and crowding into scrunched seats to find I'm stuck next to the lady who brought an infant on board (sheesh). But, I love the feeling of flying! Now, jumping out of a plane, that was a whole other experience and not one I'll repeat again.

Julia Buckley said...

Diana, I'm amazed to hear you jumped out of a plane! WHY?

But it doesn't surprise me to hear that you love flying. I think people who truly love being in the air describe flying quite beautifully.

Keith Raffel said...

Julia, I was mixing up two movies. Funnily enough, both are based on Ernest Gann novels. The other one is Fate Is The Hunter.

Julia Buckley said...

The first one sounded more like it was about airplanes. :)

Keith Raffel said...

Nope airplanes, too.


Carol Grace said...

Julia, how do you get around without flying? I hate driving, I prefer planes and boats and trains.
I love Stephen Colbert too.

Julia Buckley said...

I don't go many places. :) I might consider a boat, if I had twelve life preservers on. Yes, I've exposed myself as a huge coward.

Keith, you are a font of knowledge.