Tuesday, January 17, 2006

World's worst air disaster - hierarchy plays a part

Yesterday, I watched a National Geographic programme on TV that analysed the world's worst aviation disaster.

In March 1977, two 747s collided on the runway at Tenerife aiport in Spain, killing 583 people. One jet was that of the Dutch airline KLM, the other one Pan Am. The KLM jet was taking off while the Pan Am jet was still on the runway, directly in its path. The KLM lifted off, but its bottom hit the top of the Pan Am.

There were several reasons for the disaster, including fog on the runway and mis-communication between the control tower and pilots.

However, there was an instant at which the disaster could been averted. The KLM flight engineer questioned his captain when he began taking off without confirming with the control tower that the Pan Am was off the runway. The co-pilot asked the same question too, initially. The captain, focused on the take-off, said yes, and continued with the take-off. In fact, the captain hadn't been cleared for take-off by air traffic control.

Both the co-pilot and flight engineer were obviously junior in rank to the captain of the KLM flight, Jacob van Zantent. The captain was highly regarded by his employers - so much so that his photos were featured in the airlines adverts.

The fact that the captain was not just higher in rank but was also highly respected meant the flight engineer and co-pilot did nothing after the captain over-ruled them.

The investigation report released by the Spanish civil aviation department stated, "The fact exists that a co-pilot not very experienced with 747s was flying with one of the pilots of greatest prestige in the company who was, moreover, KLM's chief flying instructor and who had certified him fit to be a crew member for this type of aeroplane . in case of doubt. these circumstances could have induced the co-pilot not to ask any questions and to assume that this captain was always right."

For more on this, see http://atcsl.tripod.com/world_aircrashes.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenerife_disaster

(Please email me your comments at cvdhruve@gmail.com)