Cautionary Tales – Tenerife: The most deadly air disaster

30th January, 2024

In 1977, two planes collided on the runway at Tenerife Airport. Why did the crash happen? And, given that it took place on the ground, why didn’t more people escape?

In this new two-parter, Tim Harford explores the most deadly aviation accident in history. Both episodes are available now, ad-free, exclusively for subscribers to Pushkin+.

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Further reading

Collision on Tenerife: The How and Why of the World’s Worst Aviation Disaster is a comprehensive account by author Jon Ziomek and Caroline Hopkins, one of the Pan Am survivors. Fellow survivor David Alexander’s book is called Never Wait For The Fire Truck.

We drew on a range of official reports into the accident, including those conducted by the Airline Pilots Association, the Netherlands Aviation Safety Board, Spain’s Subsecretaria de Aviacion Civil, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The websites Project Tenerife and Peter’s Tenerife Crash Page contain further useful resources, along with reportage in outlets such as Salon, the Los Angeles Times and the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

For more on the Moses Illusion, see From Words to Meaning: A Semantic Illusion and A case study of anomaly detection: Shallow semantic processing and cohesion establishment. For attempts to avoid the Moses Illusion in air communications, see A Guide to Phraseology for General Aviation Pilots in Europe.

For more on the fight, flight and freeze response, see Walter B. Cannon and the Invisible RaysThe Effects of Acute Stress on Core Executive FunctionsWhy People ‘Freeze’ in an Emergency,  Freeze for action: neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing, and Fear and the Defense Cascade.

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