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The Deadliest Crashes in History

Air transportation is the safest way to travel, however, our world has witnessed some terrific unforgettable air crashes. In this article, we are to list the Top 10 deadliest air disasters of all time listed in an article written by Patrick Smith.

  1. Pan Am Flight 1736 and KLM Flight 4805, 1977 (583 fatalities)
  2. Japan Airlines Flight 123, 1985 (520)
  3. Saudi Arabian Flight 763 and Kazakhstan Airlines Flight 1907, 1996 (349)
  4. Turkish Airlines Flight 981, 1974 (346)
  5. Saudia Flight 163, 1980 (301)
  6. Iranian military Il-76 crash, 2003 (275)
  7. American Airlines Flight 191, 1979 (273)
  8. American Airlines Flight 587, 2001 (265)
  9. China Airlines Flight 140, 1994 (264)
  10. Nigeria Airways Flight 2120, 1991 (261)

What’s the number one deadliest crash in history and how could it have been avoided? Let us go back 43 years ago, it was March 27, 1977, two aircraft, Boeing 747s, a Pan American World Airways and a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Tenerife Airport. It was a series of unfortunate events, referring to the Tenerife information center, at 1:15 pm on the day of the accident, the planes were supposed to land on Las Palmas Airport but a small terrorist bomb exploded in the terminal building of Las Palmas Airport. And there was allegedly a second one so the airport authorities closed the airport in the meantime and asked the two airplanes to divert to the nearest airport for the time being, which was Los Rodeos, Tenerife. Los Rodeos was not equipped whatsoever to handle many large aircrafts, it had only one runway and one taxiway running parallel to it, there were also several smaller taxiways connected to this main runway. The aircrafts both arrived at Los Rodeos airport. Whilst on the ground, the captain of the KLM flight decided to refuel, to save time, but if he only knew how that simple move changed everything. The weather was fine until just before the accident, and if not for KLM requesting extra fuel at the last minute, both would be on their way sooner. During the delay, there was a sudden haze that covered the entire airport and that fuel also meant extra weight, affecting how quickly the 747 can become airborne. Because the taxiway normally leading to runway 30 is unavailable the aircrafts had to use the runway itself for taxiing. Once they reach the end, they’ll make a 180-degree turn before taking off in the opposite direction. This technique though rare is called a “back-taxi.” On that fateful day, it put two 747s on the same runway at the same time, not only were they invisible to each but also to the tower, due to weather, and the airport, unfortunately, had no ground tracking radar.

Five hundred and eighty-three people were killed in what remains the biggest air disaster in history CREDIT: GETTY

KLM taxis first into the runway with Pan Am following several yards behind. The Captain of the KLM reached the end of the runway, turned around, and waited for permission to take off. While the Pan Am was supposed to taxi to taxiway C3 but made a mistake due to low visibility and continued to taxiway C4 and that as well adds a few seconds more on the runway where they could’ve gotten off of it way earlier.

Boeing 747-121 (N736PA) ‘Clipper Victor’

Meanwhile, already in position and ready for takeoff, KLM’s first officer, takes the radio and receives the ATC route clearance, it’s not a takeoff clearance but rather a procedure outlining turns, altitudes, and frequencies for use once airborne. As stated by Patrick Smith, the route clearance was mistaken for a takeoff clearance. The first officer starts to prepare everything for takeoff and then finishes off with an unusual, somewhat hesitant phrase, backdropped by the sound of accelerating engines. “We are now, uh, at takeoff”. The captain releases the brakes. “We gaan,” he is heard saying on the cockpit voice recorder. “Let’s go.” And with that, they started their takeoff without clearance.

KLM Boeing 747-206B (PH-BUF) ‘The Rhine’

When the first officer said “At takeoff” even though it’s not standard phraseology among pilots. But it caught the attention of both the Pan Am crew and the control tower. They were both in disbelief that the KLM has started moving so they both reached for their microphones simultaneously.


“And we’re still taxiing down the runway,” says the Pan Am first officer.

And the tower’s message to KLM. “Okay,” says the controller. “Stand by for takeoff. I will call you.”

There was no reply. This silence was taken unfortunately as an acknowledgment.

Both of these messages were enough to make the pilot of the KLM stop in his tracks but sadly the captain received neither one of those transmissions. The problem was because they occurred simultaneously, they overlapped.


Pilots and controllers communicate via two-way VHF radios. The process is similar to speaking over a walkie-talkie: a person activates a microphone, speaks, then releases the button and waits for an acknowledgment, so the Pan Am and the towers messages overlapped and canceled each other out.


Hence KLM’s captain hears only the word “okay,” followed by a five-second squeal, so he keeps going.

Ten seconds later there is one final exchange, clearly and maddeningly audible on the post-crash tapes. “Report when runway clear,” the tower says to Pan Am.


“We’ll report when we’re clear,” acknowledges Pan AM.

Focused on the takeoff, KLM’s captain and his first officer miss this. But the second officer, sitting behind them, does not. Alarmed, with their plane now racing forward at a hundred knots, he leans forward. “Is he not clear?” he asks. “That Pan American?”

“Oh, yes,” KLM’s captain answers emphatically.


In the Pan Am cockpit, nose-to-nose with the still unseen KLM aircraft fast approach the Pan Am crew feeling something isn’t right.

“Let’s get the f*** out of here,” Pan Am’s captain says nervously.

A few moments later, the lights of the KLM 747 are seen dead ahead, 2,000 feet away and closing fast.


“There he is!” cries Pan Am’s captain, shoving the thrust levers to full power. “Look at him! Goddamn, that son of a bitch is coming!” He yanks the plane’s steering tiller, turning left as hard as he can, toward the grass at the edge of the runway.

“Get off! Get off! Get off!” shouts Pan Am’s first officer.


Finally, KLM’s captain sees them, but it’s too late. He pulls back on the elevators, almost makes it, but just as his plane breaks ground, its undercarriage and engines slices into the ceiling of the aircraft, instantly destroying its midsection and setting off a series of explosions.

image: https://alchetron.com/Tenerife-airport-disaster
from commons.m.wikimedia.org

All of the passengers and 14 crew members passed away from the KLM and 326 passengers and 9 crew on the Pan Am flight died, primarily due to the spilled fuel igniting and exploding. 56 passengers and 5 crew from the Pan Am made it out alive. Some people who had survived the crash and were out on the runway were killed by shrapnel flying from the 747’s engines, which were still running after the impact. Firefighters initially rushed to the KLM aircraft, believing, due to the thick fog, that there was only one plane involved. Ironically, that was the plane that had no survivors.


On the report of the extensive investigation on this tragedy by 70 investigators is that there are five main reasons behind this devastation:

  1. The KLM flight started its take-off without proper clearance.
  2. The Pan Am flight missed the third exit it was told to use, instead of carrying on towards exit four.
  3. The loss of two crucial radio messages, due to their being broadcast at the same time and causing cross-interference, resulting in meaningless radio hiss-and-crackle.
  4. Use of non-standard responses, such as “OK”.
  5. The airport being forced to accommodate several large airplanes, way beyond its capacity.

Even though it’s too late but good nonetheless, improvements were made to the airport after the catastrophe making sure an accident like that to never occur once again. All of those reasons listed above were addressed one by one and made a rule for each one to prevent such accidents in the future.


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