"It happened so fast that we didn't have time to think”, said the co-pilot of Panam

On March 27, 1977, the worst plane crash in history occurred.

Two Boeing 747 planes, from Panam Airways and KLM, collided on the takeoff runway at Los Rodeos airport, in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, and left 583 dead.

A chain of unfortunate events caused the catastrophe.

Captain Robert Bragg, co-pilot of the Panama plane, was one of the survivors of the tragedy.

Bragg died in February 2017, but in March 2016, the program Witness The BBC was able to interview him about the disaster that forever changed international aviation security procedures.

Here we share his testimony.

“I always thought it was the KLM captain’s fault for trying to take off without clearance,” Bragg told the BBC.

On the day of the accident, Bragg was co-pilot on a Panam flight from Los Angeles, United States, to the island of Gran Canaria, Spain.

But Las Palmas de Gran Canaria airport had been closed due to a bomb explosion, detonated by the separatist group Movement for the Self-determination and Independence of the Canary Archipelago (MPAIAC).

Several flights headed there had been diverted to the neighboring island of Tenerife, whose airport was smaller.

Shortly after landing at his original destination, the plane Bragg was on was also diverted.

Thus, the Tenerife airport was filled with aircraft waiting for the opportunity to continue to their destinations.

Another of the planes that also had to land in Tenerife was a KLM Boeing 747.

The apparatus was under the command of Captain Jacob van Zanten, a veteran and extremely skilled Dutch pilot.

“At that time, no one knew how long Las Palmas airport was going to be closed. We were just there waiting. The airport opened about an hour and a half later and everyone started getting ready to take off,” Bragg recalled a year ago.

“The KLM was parked right in front of us and the pilot decided to start refueling, almost at the same time that they reopened the Las Palmas airport,” said the survivor.

Records show that KLM’s Van Zanten and his crew were reaching the limit of the time allowed for each flight.

Recalling the episode, Bragg argued that the pilot was perhaps in a hurry to be on his way.

“You can’t rush. You have to take your time. One does not hurry to take off or to land”, commented the co-pilot to Witness.

The Panam plane was parked behind the KLM plane when the pilots were ordered back down the runway and around to take off.

“It happened so fast that we didn’t have time to think,” said the Panam co-pilotGETTY IMAGES

But just as the two planes were moving, the weather changed dramatically.

Tenerife airport is built in a place prone to fog, Graham Braithwaite, Professor of Safety and Accident Research at Cranfield University in the UK, told the BBC in 2014.

“The runway was filled with fog and visibility was reduced to about 100 meters. We couldn’t see the KLM plane anymore,” Bragg recalled.

Transcripts of the recordings from both aircraft indicate that there was confusion in their cabins.

The Panam plane was ordered off the runway to allow the KLM plane to take off. But it wasn’t clear which exit he should take, so he was still on the track when the KLM aircraft began to accelerate.

“We knew it was coming down the runway towards us from the landing lights that were shining. At first it didn’t scare us because I thought he knew we were there,” Bragg said.

When the Panam co-pilot clearly saw the KLM, he was already about 60 meters from them. “I was coming down the track straight at us”, he recalled.

According to the transcript of what happened in the KLM cockpit, when the pilot Van Zanten began the takeoff process, he was interrupted by the co-pilot, who reminded him that they did not have “authorization” to do it.

In the 1970s, questioning a pilot was quite unusual.

A few minutes later, when Van Zanten resumed takeoff, an engineer on the plane was concerned. “Has the Panam plane cleared the runway yet?” he asked her. “Yes,” replied the pilot confidently.

But I was wrong.

“We heard a very short 'boom'.  The noise and movement were not very strong.  I thought it hadn't hit us,
“We heard a very short ‘boom’. The noise and movement were not very strong. I thought it hadn’t hit us,” Bragg recalled.GETTY IMAGES

“I could not believe it. She couldn’t believe that she was moving. I couldn’t believe I was taking off”, Bragg told the BBC in 2016.

Bragg calculates that the KLM pilot was running at a speed of 240 kilometers per hour.

“I started yelling ‘get off the track’, ‘get off the track’, ‘get off the track’. It happened so fast that we didn’t have time to think,” said the Panam co-pilot.

“It would have been about 10 or 15 seconds from when we saw it until it hit us. He must have seen us at the same time we saw himbecause it rotated the plane and raised a tire to take off, so hard that it hit the tail of the plane.

It seemed that Captain Van Zanten was desperate to take off over the other Boeing, but since I had just refueled, the plane was very heavy.

“We heard a very short ‘boom’. The noise and movement were not very strong. I thought he hadn’t hit us,” the survivor recalled.

But the KLM plane had hit them. He kept walking down the track and then burst into flames, leaving no survivors.

61 people escaped from the Panam plane, but the fog was so thick that it took several minutes for rescuers to realize that there were two burning planes on the runway
61 people escaped from the Panam plane, but the fog was so thick that it took several minutes for rescuers to realize that there were two burning planes on the runwayGETTY IMAGES

On the Panama aircraft, the cockpit lid was missing.

“When I realized the damage, I jumped, there was about four meters from the cabin to the ground,” Bragg recalled.

“I happily fell on a grassy surface. If I had fallen on the pavement, I would have broken my legs. I got up and saw that there were about 50 people on the left wing of the plane. I started telling them to come down. After we had been there about five minutes, the plane exploded. the plane fell apart”.

61 people escaped from the Panama planebut the fog was so thick that it took several minutes for rescuers to realize that there were two burning planes on the runway.

The researchers later said that non-standard terminologies led to confusion and that important transmissions from the two aircraft to the control tower were not received.

The radio operator spoke at the same time, so they blocked each other.

The culture of the cockpit changed. All cabin crew are trained to question each other, regardless of their rank.

“If he had listened to his co-pilot and his engineer, (Van Zanten) would not have taken off, because the pre-takeoff checks had not been completed,” Bragg concluded.

He just ignored the whole take off process. No one will ever know why he was in such a hurry and took off the way he did,” Bragg said.

Robert Bragg continued to fly until 1997.

This note was originally published on BBC News on March 27, 2017

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