Air Transport World

Dangerous ground. (the frequency of collisions on the ground are three times greater than midair ones)

Tenerife is a Spanish island in the Atlantic, the largest in the Canary archipelago. For tourists on both sides of the ocean but particularly those in Northern Europe, the island offers colorful seaside towns, a 200-year-old botanical garden and memorable views from atop the tallest mountain in Spain. But within the aviation community, the name Tenerife evokes feelings of awe and dread. It there, on March 27, 1977, that a KLM Boeing 747 tore through the top of a Pan Am 747. Both aircraft were destroyed. The KLM jet had been on takeoff roll; Pan Am's was taxiing. Aviation's worst disaster, which killed 583, took place not in the air but on the ground.

What happened at Tenerife was unique only in the scale of its destructiveness. Runway collisions had occurred before and more have taken place during the 14 years since. An analysis of FAA data from 1975 through 1989 showed that surface collisions occurred three times as often as those in midair. Even so, the surface-collision rate for U.S. commercial airlines was just 0.05 per 100,000 aircraft flight hours.

While runway collisions don't happen often, near-collisions do. The combined rate of all these "runway incursions"-not only the accidents themselves but the close calls as well-is what indicates the prevalence of airport-safety deficiencies.

The FAA defines runway incursion as "any occurrence at an airport involving an aircraft, vehicle, person or object on the ground that creates a collision hazard or results in loss of separation with an aircraft taking off, intending to take off, landing or intending to land." The agency tabulated 186 such occurrences at U.S. airports in 1988; in 1989, the figure climbed to 224 and to 282 in 1990.

On top of that, a string of fatal accidents has occurred. During a span of just over a year, the normally rare ground collision became alarmingly common. First, an Eastern Airlines 727 overtook a Beech King Air and sheared off its top as both aircraft landed at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport. The pilot of the King Air was killed, the co-pilot seriously injured in the january, 1990 crash. …

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