Pi­lot told Colom­bia con­trollers ‘no fuel’ be­fore crash

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Fer­nando Ver­gara and Joshua Good­man

The pi­lot of the char­tered plane car­ry­ing a Brazil­ian soc­cer team told air traf­fic con­trollers he had run out of fuel be­fore crash­ing into the An­des, ac­cord­ing to a leaked record­ing of the fi­nal min­utes of the doomed flight.

In the some­times chaotic au­dio­tape from the air traf­fic tower, the pi­lot of the Bri­tish-built jet could be heard re­peat­edly re­quest­ing per­mis­sion to land due to a “to­tal elec­tric fail­ure” and lack of fuel, be­fore slam­ming into a moun­tain­side late Mon­day.

A fe­male con­troller could be heard giv­ing in­struc­tions as the air­craft lost speed and al­ti­tude about eight miles from the Medellin air­port. Just be­fore go­ing silent the pi­lot said he was fly­ing at an al­ti­tude at 9,000 feet.

The record­ings, ob­tained by sev­eral Colom­bian me­dia out­lets, seemed to con­firm the ac­counts of a sur­viv­ing flight at­ten­dant and a pi­lot fly­ing nearby who over­heard the fran­tic pleas from the doomed air­liner. These, along with the lack of an ex­plo­sion upon im­pact, point to a rare case of fuel run­ning out as a cause of the crash of the air­liner, which ex­perts say was fly­ing at its max­i­mum range.

For now, au­thor­i­ties are avoid­ing sin­gling out any one cause of the crash, which killed all but six of the 77 peo­ple on board, in­clud­ing mem­bers of Brazil’s Chapecoense soc­cer team trav­el­ing to the Copa Su­damer­i­cana fi­nals. A full in­ves­ti­ga­tion is ex­pected to take months and will re­view ev­ery­thing from the 17-year-old air­craft’s flight and main­te­nance his­tory to the voice and in­stru­ments data in the black boxes re­trieved Tues­day at the crash site on a muddy hill­side.

Al­fredo Bo­cane­gra, head of Colom­bia’s avi­a­tion agency, said that while ev­i­dence ini­tially pointed to an elec­tri­cal prob­lem, the pos­si­bil­ity the crash was caused by lack of fuel has not been ruled out. Planes need to have enough ex­tra fuel on board to fly at least 30 to 45 min­utes to an­other air­port in the case of an emer­gency, and rarely fly in a straight line be­cause of tur­bu­lence or other rea­sons.

Be­fore be­ing taken off­line, the web­site of LaMia, the Bo­li­vian-based char­ter com­pany, said the Avro RJ85 jet­liner’s max­i­mum range was 2,965 kilo­me­ters (1,600 nau­ti­cal miles) — just un­der the dis­tance be­tween Medellin and Santa Cruz, Bo­livia, where the flight orig­i­nated car­ry­ing close to full pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity.

It is also pos­si­ble the pi­lot dumped fuel, or a lack of fuel was caused by a leak or some other, un­ex­plained rea­son.

“If this is con­firmed by the in­ves­ti­ga­tors it would be a very painful be­cause it stems from neg­li­gence,” Bo­cane­gra told Cara­col Ra­dio on Wed­nes­day when asked whether the plane should not have at­tempted such a long haul.

One key piece to un­lock­ing the mys­tery could come from Xi­mena Sanchez, a Bo­li­vian flight at­ten­dant who sur­vived the crash and told res­cuers the plane had run out of fuel mo­ments be­fore the crash. In­ves­ti­ga­tors were ex­pected to in­ter­view her on Wed­nes­day at the clinic near Medellin where she is re­cov­er­ing.

“‘We ran out of fuel. The air­plane turned off,’” Sanchez told Arquimedes Mejia, who helped pull the flight at­ten­dant from the wreck­age. “That was the only thing she told me,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press in an in­ter­view.

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