Tuesday, April 16, 2019

DITCHED! When an aircraft crashed into the sea off Tenerife.

A brief, almost matter-of-fact entry in Noel Reid’s diary on Friday 16th September, 1966 refers to an aircraft that crashed into the sea just off the northern town of El Sauzal on the Canary Island of Tenerife.
“Spantax plane for La Palma had to make a forced landing in the sea near Los Angeles. Very good work by pilot. One male passenger only lost due to fear. I think crew could not unfasten his grip”.

Lt. Colonel Noel S Reid OBE DSO MC TD

Noel Reid served in both World Wars and had been tea farming in Africa in between and for a short spell afterwards before returning to his home town of Puerto de la Cruz. His diary annotations clearly reflected his Army ways with a preference for precise notes.

Los Rodeos airport with Mount Teide in the distance

It was 08.21. The Spantax Airlines Douglas Dakota DC-3 lifted off from Los Rodeos, what is today known as Tenerife North airport, into the cloudy, panza del burro sky towards the west, heading for the island of La Palma. Apart from the pilot, co-pilot and airhostess there were 24 passengers, including three children on board.

Spantax Airlines DC-3 EC-ACX

The Dakota, a faithful old workhorse of the island airways, roared into a gentle climb. All seemed perfectly in order until seconds after entering the first cloud layer when the port engine over-revved. That was one of the worst possible failures to occur in those days and the aircraft began to lose height from 2,600 feet above sea level. The crew realised they were still flying over land but the dense cloud made it impossible for the pilot, Eugenio Maldonado, to judge exactly what their position was. He knew they were surrounded by hills and that there was a very strong possibility that they would plunge into one of them at any moment. 

We are going to kill ourselves”, uttered Fernando Piedrafita, the co-pilot quietly. He seemed remarkably composed.

After a horrifying thirty seconds and losing height rapidly, they spotted the coastline below El Sauzal. Miraculously they had left the hills behind them and the jagged and beautiful cliffs began to drop sharply to the sea.

It’s going to be all right. We’ll ditch her in the sea”, Maldonado reassured his colleague.

Pilot Commander Eugenio Maldonado

Eugenio Maldonado was only 26 years old but his actions were so calm and skilful that he avoided what would otherwise have been a disaster. He quickly informed the passengers of the situation and told them to put on their life jackets because he was going to try to land on the sea. He also asked everyone to remain calm but to be prepared for a rough landing.

In a local press interview thirty-seven years later Maldonado praised those aboard his plane.
 The passengers really responded very well indeed. There were no signs of panic at all”.

Nevertheless at 08.33 the silver Dakota with the familiar Spantax Airlines white and sky-blue colours hit the sea so hard that the pilot of another aircraft flying towards Los Rodeos reported upon landing that there would be no survivors. His pessimistic report led to the emergency services taking rather a long time getting to the scene of the crash. There was nothing they could do, they mistakenly thought.

After the impact the young pilot knew he only had five minutes to get survivors out before the aircraft disappeared under the surface. Luckily, a fishing boat had been netting an early morning catch nearby and was quickly alongside the steaming aircraft to help pick up some of the passengers and crew. The trickiest moment for the pilot was when he asked the mothers to hand over their children. The mothers refused to be separated at first but Maldonado was firm enough to persuade them. The children, followed by the women and the older men were lifted into the fishing boat. The remaining passengers simply had to make do with hanging on to the side of the swaying little falua as best they could.

Meanwhile, Commander Eugenio Maldonado realised that one passenger had a firm grip on the aircraft’s doorway and was refusing to let go.

I can’t swim”, was the only thing the man would say.

I will take you to the boat. You can hang on to me”, implored Maldonado, trying to get him to let go.

But the man wouldn't reply, however much Maldonado insisted. In fact his eyes appeared to stare straight at the pilot. What Maldonado did not realise was that during those few seconds the man was actually dying of a heart attack as the Dakota flooded and began to sink fast. The pilot grabbed the passenger but both men were sucked down into the deep with the aircraft and Maldonado, still holding on to the dead man, began to lose strength. He really thought he was done for but, during those desperate minutes, the airhostess, Mari Carmen Vázquez, in another act of courage, plunged into the depths herself to save her Captain’s life. The pilot, whom she pulled to the surface just in time, was still holding on to a piece of shirt torn from the passenger whose life he had attempted to save.

After recovering enough to check that the rest of the passengers and crew were safe he was landed ashore and was able to report to the emergency services that all except one person on board flight IB261 had survived.

Under Spanish transport and maritime laws at that time Commander Maldonado was actually condemned to death for the loss of one passenger. Perhaps it was assumed that most pilots would die anyway. Nevertheless he was released after an autopsy proved the lost passenger had died of a heart attack and had not been drowned as a result of the accident. The unfortunate passenger, Fernando Izquierdo, was a justice of the peace from the town of La Victoria where he had once been Mayor. So perhaps he would have been pleased to hear that justice had been done.

The Dakota crashed off the stunning northern coast of Tenerife

Maldonado eventually moved to live in mainland Spain. He was distinguished and praised for his skill and bravery in 1966 and never forgot any detail of that particular flight.

What you always have in mind is how to save the lives of the passengers and crew. You automatically organise yourself in such a way that you really believe in what you are doing. A pilot is capable of giving his life to save others.”

His advice to young pilots in an emergency today is not to abandon hope. There is always a solution. Nevertheless, despite modern technology, old twin-engine Dakotas, ungraceful as they might have looked, were probably simpler beasts to fly. There were fewer reasons for failure and the pilot, ultimately in control, had fewer possible solutions to consider.

(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended. This is an adapted version of an article published by the same author in the Island Connections newspaper of Tenerife)

By John Reid Young

Author of books "A SHARK IN THE BATH AND OTHER STORIES" and "THE SKIPPING VERGER AND OTHER TALES", collections of his short stories set in Tenerife and the Canary Islands.

John Reid is also owner of Tenerife Private Tours


  1. Hola, ¿vives en Tenerife?
    Enhorabuena por tu blog y por los datos que publicas.
    ¿Tus libros están editados en castellano?

  2. Muchas gracias por su comentario. Me alegro que le guste mi blog. Ojalá tuviera más tiempo para escribir.
    Sí. Vivo en el Puerto de la Cruz. Desgraciadamente mis libros no están en castellano (todavía) aunque muchas personas han sido muy amables diciendo que debería traducirlos. Saludos.

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