May 10: Daily Close Calls On U.S. Runways

Federal regulators say there were 322 close calls on runways last year in the United States alone.

A runway crash not a risk that most airline passengers ever think about. But, once a day, somewhere in America, there is a close call on a runway, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr.

Most are non-events. But, aviation authorities worry it may only be a matter of time before a repeat of the tragedy of 23 years ago, when two Boeing 747s crashed in what remains the worst tragedy in the history of civil aviation.

Bob Bragg had a front row seat to the horror. He was the co-pilot of the Pan Am jumbo jet involved in the crash, called Clipper Victor.

On March 27, 1977, the Boeing 747 was carrying American tourists to the Canary Islands.

When the airport in Las Palmas was closed by a bombing, Bragg's plane was diverted to nearby Tenerife.

When Las Palmas re-opened, Clipper Victor and a Dutch KLM 747 both prepared to take off. A deadly sequence began.

Bragg says, "While we were taxiing down the runway a fog bank came off the mountain and stopped right on the runway."

Eye On America
In part 2, Bob Orr looks at some solutions and the FAA's struggle to end the danger on the runway.
The KLM, ahead of the Pan Am, disappeared into the fog bank. Controllers told the Dutch pilots to turn around at the end of the runway and then wait for Pan Am to pull off onto a taxiway. Bragg says the orders were clear.

Bragg says, "He said, 'Pan Am are you off the runway,' and I said, 'Negative, we're still on the runway.'"

Apparently misunderstanding the command to hold, the KLM pilot began his take off. As the Dutch 747 speeded out of the fog the Pan Am pilots tried desperately to get their 747 out of the way.

Bragg says he saw the KLM plane coming straight at him through his cockpit window.

He says, "I looked back out of my side window and that's when he had lifted off the ground and become airborne… And basically what I did was close my eyes and duck and I didn't even think the guy had hit us."

But he did, and the carnage was complete. All aboard the KLM plane were killed. The Pan Am jet was sliced in half.

Bragg says, "When I opened my eyes I looked up and all the windows were gone in the airplane (and) in the cockpit. The top of the cockpit was gne. I looked back to the left. We had 28 people in the upstairs lounge. The upstairs lounge was just gone off the airplane. It was just nothing there, and I could see all the way to the tail of the airplane."

Bragg jumped out of the cockpit and fractured his leg. Then he turned to dozens of passengers who had crawled onto a wing.

Bragg says, "And while I was standing there yelling at these people, just about the time they all jumped off, the center fuel tank went off, blew up."

Sixty-one people survived in the collision of the jumbo jets, and 583 died.

After Tenerife, the airline industry and aviation authorities around the world vowed to eliminate runway incursions. Two decades later, that still hasn't happened.

Bragg says, "It seems like we have to have a major accident before things like this get taken care of. But my point is, (it's) 23 years after we were talking about doing something and we still haven't done anything about it."