On the 25th of April 1980, a Boeing 727 carrying British tourists to Tenerife in the Canary Islands flew off course in fog and slammed into the side of La Esperanza, killing all 146 passengers and crew. The setting for the disaster was familiar for all the wrong reasons: just three years earlier, the very same airport on this tiny Atlantic island had played host to the deadliest aircraft accident in history. The curse of Tenerife, which had already claimed so many lives, had struck again. But in trying to piece together why the crew of Dan-Air flight 1008 found themselves on a collision course with a mountain, facing dire warnings but unsure which way to turn, Spanish and British investigators came to a deadlock. Was the air traffic controller’s imprecise language the cause, or did ultimate responsibility for avoiding terrain still lie with the pilots? The arguments hinged on a single letter in a single word — one word that changed absolutely everything about the situation. But this confusion, much like Tenerife’s infamous fog, obscured the real problem: a system which was so deficient that the absence of a single letter could lead to disaster.
Dan-Air Comets at London Gatwick, 1968. (Steve Aubury)
In Europe, the tourism industry has long relied on package deals called “inclusive tours,” where holidaymakers buy the plane ride, the hotel stays, and the scheduled activities in a single package from a tour operator. Many airlines over the years have carved out a niche by providing charter flights to inclusive tour operators; other such airlines were founded by the tour operators themselves to reduce costs. While the latter type, such as TUI, dominates the industry today, in the 1970s and 1980s British airline Dan-Air rose to become the largest independent airline in the United Kingdom by doing the former — along with a laundry list of other activities that few other airlines would consider.
Dan-Air was a true jack-of-all-trades. Between its founding in 1953 and its absorption into British Airways in 1992, it carried out a wide range of services, including but not limited to inclusive tour charters, regular charters, scheduled passenger flights, scheduled cargo flights, chartered cargo flights, flights carrying migrant workers, Royal Mail flights, and oil field support flights. If it was possible to make money by conducting a flight, Dan-Air did it. Dan-Air even branched out into continental Europe with a second hub in West Berlin, from which it carried out charter flights for German tour operators and even scheduled domestic passenger flights within West Germany.
Dan-Air’s fleet was equally diverse. The airline developed a strategy of buying extremely cheap second-hand airplanes of a wide range of sometimes unusual types. Early in its period of expansion, Dan-Air managed to acquire a large fleet of de Havilland Comet 4s, the only successful version of the world’s first ever jet airliner, and continued to operate them until 1980. The rest of the airline’s core fleet consisted of equally large numbers of BAC One-Elevens, Hawker Siddeley HS 748 turboprops, and Boeing 727s. Dan-Air was the first British operator to fly the 727, which in its factory layout did not meet British safety standards, forcing Dan-Air make a number of unique modifications, such as an extra emergency exit door on each side. Its Berlin-based 727s were modified even further with extra fuel tanks inside the fuselage to allow them to fly non-stop from Germany to the Canary Islands.
G-BDAN, the Boeing 727 involved in the accident. (Werner Fischdick)
One of Dan-Air’s 727s was G-BDAN, which was scheduled to fly an inclusive tour charter flight from Manchester, England to Tenerife in the Canary Islands on the 25th of April, 1980. The 138 passengers were mostly British tourists who had bought a holiday package that would allow them to enjoy Tenerife’s pleasant beaches, spectacular mountains, and otherworldly volcanic landscapes. In command of the flight were three pilots: 50-year-old Captain Arthur “Red” Whelan, who had over 15,000 flight hours; 33-year-old First Officer Michael Firth, who had around 3,500 hours; and a 33-year-old Flight Engineer, Raymond Carey. A team of five flight attendants brought the total number of occupants to 146.
The route of Dan-Air flight 1008. (Google)
Their destination that afternoon was Tenerife North Airport, formerly known as Los Rodeos. This is a name that strikes fear into the hearts of aviators to this day. Los Rodeos Airport in March 1977 was the scene of the world’s deadliest aircraft accident, when two fully loaded Boeing 747s, both diverted from Gran Canaria, collided on the runway, killing 583 people. Fallout from the so-called Tenerife Disaster was still ongoing when Dan-Air flight 1008 took off from Manchester, bound for this same infamous airport.
One of the main factors that led to the Tenerife Disaster was the airport’s location. Situated on a saddle over 2000 feet (600 meters) above sea level, Tenerife North Airport tended to bear the brunt of the island’s unpredictable weather. Fog frequently formed around the high peaks at the island’s center and rolled over the airfield, which in 1977 created the conditions which prevented the two 747s from seeing each other until it was too late. That same fog was back on the 25th of April 1980, shrouding the mountain peaks in a cloud layer so dense that meteorological stations at higher elevations reported a visibility of zero.
The aftermath of the Tenerife Disaster, 27 March 1977. (History Stack)
At Tenerife, the prevailing winds blow in from the west, out of the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. But today, they were blowing the opposite way, from the east, forcing incoming planes to land on the rarely used runway 12 instead of the usual runway 30. Captain Whelan had flown to Tenerife North Airport 58 times, but he had never once landed on runway 12.
The regular procedure for landing on runway 12 was to fly to the Tenerife North VOR, a VHF radio beacon northeast of the airport. From this beacon (known as TFN), planes would turn toward another beacon called a locator, designated FP, situated just west of the runway threshold. They would then proceed directly away from the airport in line with the runway, turn around over the ocean, and reverse course to land.
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