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  • Monday, January 28 2013 @ 12:41 MST
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Flying I've been wanting to get back into the left seat for several months now but since I still have to finish the last four courses of my master of commerce, flight lessons are at least a year in the future for now. So instead, I've been working on my theory, reading my FTGU and trying to absorb as much as possible so that when the opportunity presents itself, I can get my license and ratings as quickly as possible.

It's no shock then that all this flying stuff has nestled itself into my subconscious and cropped up in my dreams. For years I've had a re-occurring dream of watching a mid-air collision. The circumstances surrounding the collision have always been different but I've always on the ground, looking up, watching it happen. I hadn't had a dream like that for several years but the other night I dreamt that I could see YYC from my patio and that I watched a runway incursion happen when a private jet landing on 34 collided with a 747 on 09. I wasn't sleeping very well to begin with because I was wrestling with a bout of insomnia so when I woke up from the 3-seconds of decent sleep that the dream had likely occurred in I was unable to get back to sleep. However, it wasn't because I felt scared by a nightmare (the likely outcome in the past), it was because I couldn't figure out why an ATC would clear a 737 to 09 in the first place and why the captain would take the clearance and a myriad of other thoughts that keep running through my mind every time I restlessly repositioned myself hoping I would find a configuration that I would finally fall asleep in.

When the morning came, I still hadn't slept and I was still thinking about the dream. It was like having a song stuck in my head. The cure for a stuck song, is to listen to it. So I decided to do the same thing with my dream, except in the form of a little obsessive web research.

Having said that, when it comes to runway incursions, there's a clear choice to obsess over: The 1977 Tenerife Disaster. You can read up on this disaster included in the links of this page:

and also watch an excellent NOVA documentary about it here:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/deadliest-plane-crash.html The short version of the event is that a KLM 747 t-bones a Pan Am 747 during the take-off roll resulting in the death of over 500 people. It's known as the 'Titanic' of the air industry and remains the deadliest air accident in history. Although there were a number of unusual factors that lead up to the accident, the final reports were clear. Captain van Zanten of KLM proceeded with his take-off roll without clearance from the tower to do so. What is not clear and what has been mulled over by many people in the past 36 years is why? Why did an experienced pilot with a good record make such an evident mistake? It is about as basic as it gets, after all. It's one of the first things a flight instructor will drill into a student's head as they sit at the hold short line during the first lesson in the air-craft.

Investigators involved in aviation accidents are keen to focus in on every part of the accident in order to find solutions to prevent further devastating accidents. However, the media, the lawyers and the general public need definite blame to be assigned. Our society is desperate to find black and white answers; good guys and bad guys. In this instance, that bad-guy role would fall, posthumously, onto the shoulders of Captain van Zanten. He is often shown in re-enactments of the crash as a terse and grumpy man, incapable of working within a team. In addition to that, aviation has a strong culture of the Pilot-in-Command as having the final say in any situation, as well as the final responsibility. Flight instructors tell students that when they are writing an exam, if the question reads “Who's responsibility...” it's best to just skip to the choice that reads Pilot-in-Command (PIC). When looking at aviation accidents the cause unusually reads “Pilot in command failed to...” and then lists other mitigating factors that contributed to the incident.
Over the years, the Dutch and KLM have continued to point out the other extenuating factors of the crash and insist that Captain van Zanten was not the cockpit-dictator the media has made him out to be. At first glance, it would be easy to assume that this was done in order to lessen the amount that KLM was expected to pay in lawsuits resulting from the accident but that argument falls apart when reading documentation relating to the lawsuits. KLM accepted their responsibility by paying for lawyers for those with lawsuits, giving maximum payouts (under European law a the time) to victims and victims families as well as honouring special requests by certain victims. From the reading and research I have done in the past week (which is in no way exhaustive) I have come to realise that the Dutch and KLM were willing to accept their responsibility in a legal sense, but were not willing to turn a good man into a villain in doing so.

Pilots who knew Captain van Zanten have come to his defence and said that he was a good man who worked well with others. He was well-liked by crew and trainees alike. Much has been made by the media that he was “the poster-boy” of KLM because of an ad run in KLM's in-flight magazine at the time of the accident.

In fact, because Captain van Zanten was head of training for KLM's 747 fleet, he just happened to be around on a more convenient schedule when it came to shooting a photograph for the advertising.

Another point that is often brought forth when it comes to discussing Captain van Zanten's fitness as a pilot was that he was doing more training than flying at the time of the disaster. It is sometimes asserted that he was out of practice himself which is what caused him to make such an obvious mistake. I would suggest that his training position did contribute to the mistake but not because of a lack of hours in the air. I believe that with the diversion, delays and other frustrating factors of the day, Captain van Zanten was thinking like a manager, that day, rather then a pilot. He was well aware that his crew's hours were getting short and that should the delays continue, he would need to call in a relief crew and ground the plane until they arrived. This would be costly, annoy customers and no doubt required Captain van Zanten to explain in detail to the company about why the delay happened. The other option would have been to go over their hours, resulting in disciplinary action.

Admittedly, when one looks at photos of the burning wreckage of the two 747s, it's hard to imagine that the above two options could even remotely seem that bad. Few people, though, when trying to work out the details of company policy are thinking in terms of worst case scenarios. Additionally, both crews of the 747s were getting tired. They were at the end of long days and had been sitting, waiting for news about when they could get going again. It had been an exercise of frustration for all involved. A terse reply from the KLM flight deck to the Pan Am flight deck has often been used as proof of Captain van Zanten's authoritative nature but it is no doubt that everybody delayed at the Los Rodeos airport that day was at the end of their patience. I believe that it was also this managerial mind-set that caused Captain van Zanten to make the decision to re-fuel his air-craft. With so many planes diverted he was trying to plan ahead to avoid further delays. This would become one of the other unusual circumstances that would ultimately lead to the proceeding tragedy. Some experts believe that if Captain van Zanten had had 25 more feet of runway, he would have been able to rotate and miss the Pan Am flight entirely.

Dutch authorities focused their investigation on the tower communication and felt that the tower operators were, in part, to blame for the accident. I'm less inclined to find much fault with the tower in this instance. I question if there was ever any attempt to bring in extra tower and ground crew to deal with the huge influx of traffic that Los Rodeos was never intended to handle. If the tower controller can be criticized at all, it would be for giving the Pan Am flight clearance to backtrack. The safest course of action would have been to let the Pan Am flight sit and wait until the KLM flight was clear but I also understand that the controllers faced a barrage of pilot requests all wanting to get on their way. I know how flight crews can nag. I remember once when I was in a flight lesson, we had been vectored west but the tower had remained unusually silent as we headed further out. My instructor told me to remind the tower that we were there and I told him that the tower would get back us when they were ready to. My instructor was not thrilled with that answer and called the tower himself. The terse response came back that they would deal with us in a minute or two. Having been an RTC, I knew all too well that there was nothing more frustrating than nagging crews when I was trying to deal with a situation. Sure enough, when we were vectored in, we were parked on a taxiway with a lot of other aircraft while the tower brought in a Dash-8 that was unsure if their landing gear was locked. The tower controller at Los Rodeos was tired and not used to the amount of aircraft he was having to depart. No doubt he was keen to get rid of the two 747s. I've noticed when flying into YYC that it's the experienced pilots that demand the most from the tower.

The Pan Am crew would have been wise to take the time to simply wait out the back track and departure of the KLM flight, but burdened by their own deadlines, frustrations and exhaustion, they choose to ask for their taxi clearance and follow the KLM on the runway. Unfamiliar with the airport and with thick fog rolling in as well as non-functioning centre-line lights, the Pan Am was lost behind the KLM.

The bottom line is that Captain van Zanten was the last line of defence against this accident. As he made his 180 degree turn in the fog to reposition for take-off, he knew that the Pan Am 747 had followed him in his backtrack. His impatience was clear as he put in full power only to be reminded by his first officer that they had not yet received clearance for take-off. Although it has been asserted that Captain van Zanten was unable to take suggestions from the crew in his cockpit, but the fact that the first officer didn't hesitate to speak up suggests otherwise. Although Captain van Zanten is frustrated and snaps at the first officer to get their clearance, it is more the reaction of someone who has reached the end of his patience in general rather than that of a man who was unable to work with his crew. By the time Captain van Zanten puts in power a second time, still without clearance, the tired first officer doesn't question it again. As the 747 picked up speed, the flight engineer wonders aloud about the position of the Pan Am flight but is assured by both pilots that the other 747 is clear. By the time Captain van Zanten sees the Pan Am 747 appear through the fog, it's too late to do anything but try and take off. He makes his best attempt, over-rotating and leaving a trench in the runway where his tail hit but, as history records, it just wasn't enough.

Was the devastating crash the fault of Captain van Zanten? Absolutely. Is he a villain who deserves to be remembered only for this terrible crash? No. He was just a guy doing a job and he messed up. In one on-line form, someone mentioned that Captain van Zanten had owned a yellow sports car (cars were a hobby of the late pilot). The person posting painted an image of the car sitting at the airport, waiting for an owner that would never return. The image, to me, made Captain van Zanten a real person in my mind rather then the character in a tragic part of history. Had even one of the events that led to the tragedy at Tenerife on March 27, 1977 not occurred, I imagine that Captain van Zanten would have walked to his car, tossed in his gear in and gratefully driven home after a long shift, never to be known by anyone but those within his own life.


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  • Pilot-in-command....
  • Authored by: KL-4805 on Thursday, June 11 2015 @ 04:33 MDT
Good day, Chantelle

It was a true pleasure to read your opinion! It's so unusual and refreshing to read an opinion which is so very different to what the general public is being fed with for decades and decades!

I completely agree with everything you wrote: I never denied the fact that vZ is heavily responsible for the disaster, but that doesn't mean he was an arrogant, monstrous dictator who mistreated his colleagues and made the lives of everybody around him miserable. I met people who knew him, and yes, a couple of them had no much nice to tell about him, but there have been many more who liked him a lot as a person. And, to be honest, he just doesn't look like a bad person. His eyes and his smile are just too charming to belong to an arrogant bully!

I wrote to you on Facebook, so feel free to write back if you wanna discuss the subject :-)

Best Regards

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