Pilot told Colom­bia con­trollers ‘no fuel’ be­fore crash

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Fer­nando Ver­gara and Joshua Good­man

MEDELLIN, COLOM­BIA >> The pilot of the char­tered plane car­ry­ing a Brazil­ian soc­cer team told air traf­fic con­trollers he had run out of fuel and des­per­ately pleaded for per­mis­sion to land be­fore crash­ing into the An­des, ac­cord­ing to a leaked record­ing of the fi­nal min­utes of the doomed flight.

In the some­times chaotic ex­change with the air traf­fic tower, the pilot of the Bri­tish-built jet could be heard re­peat­edly re­quest­ing au­tho­riza­tion to land be­cause of “fuel prob­lems.” A fe­male con­troller ex­plained an­other plane had been di­verted with me­chan­i­cal prob­lems and had pri­or­ity, in­struct­ing the pilot to wait seven min­utes.

As the plane cir­cled in a hold­ing pat­tern, the pilot grew more des­per­ate. “Com­plete elec­tri­cal fail­ure, with­out fuel,” he said in the tense fi­nal mo­ments be­fore the plane set off on a four-minute death spi­ral that ended with it slam­ming into a moun­tain­side Mon­day night.

Just be­fore go­ing silent the pilot said he was fly­ing at an alti­tude of 9,000 feet and made a fi­nal plea to land: “Vec­tors, senorita. Land­ing vec­tors.”

The record­ing, ob­tained Wednesday by Colom­bian me­dia, ap­peared to con­firm the ac­counts of a sur­viv­ing flight at­ten­dant and a pilot fly­ing nearby who over­heard the fran­tic ex­change. 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 jet­liner, which ex­perts said 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 Medellin for the Copa Su­damer­i­cana fi­nals — the cul­mi­na­tion of a fairy tale sea­son that had elec­tri­fied soc­cer­crazed Brazil.

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 re­cov­ered Tues­day at the crash site on a muddy hill­side. The U.S. National Trans­porta­tion Safety Board was tak­ing part in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause the plane’s en­gines were made by an Amer­i­can man­u­fac­turer.

As the probe con­tin­ued, mourn­ing soc­cer fans in Medellin and the south­ern Brazil­ian town of Chapeco, where the team is from, were con­verg­ing on the two cities’ soc­cer sta­di­ums for si­mul­ta­ne­ous can­dle­light vig­ils. The six sur­vivors were re­cov­er­ing in hos­pi­tals, with three in crit­i­cal but sta­ble con­di­tion, while foren­sic spe­cial­ists worked to iden­tify the vic­tims so they could be trans­ferred to a wait­ing cargo plane sent by the Brazil­ian air force to repa­tri­ate the bod­ies.

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 Bri­tish Aero­space 146 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 its full pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity.

“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 Wednesday at the clinic near Medellin where she is re­cov­er­ing.

“‘We ran out of fuel. The air­plane turned off,’” res­cuer Arquimedes Me­jia quoted Sanchez as say­ing as he pulled her from the wreck­age. “That was the only thing she told me,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors also want to speak to Juan Se­bas­tian Upegui, the co-pilot of an Avianca com­mer­cial flight who was in con­tact with air traf­fic con­trollers near Medellin’s Jose Maria Cor­dova air­port at the time the char­tered plane went down.

In a four-minute record­ing cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia, Upegui de­scribed how he heard the flight’s pilot re­quest pri­or­ity to land be­cause he was out of fuel. Grow­ing ever more des­per­ate, the pilot even­tu­ally de­clared a “to­tal elec­tri­cal fail­ure,” Upegui said, be­fore the plane quickly be­gan to lose speed and alti­tude.

“I re­mem­ber I was pulling re­ally hard for them, say­ing ‘Make it, make it, make it, make it,’” Upe­qgui says in the record­ing. “Then it stopped . ... The con­troller’s voice starts to break up and she sounds re­ally sad. We’re in the plane and start to cry.”

No traces of fuel have been found at the crash site and the plane did not ex­plode on im­pact, one of the rea­sons there were six sur­vivors.

How­ever, there could be other ex­pla­na­tions for that: The pilot may have in­ten­tion­ally dumped fuel in the hopes of re­duc­ing the risk of a fire­ball in a crash, or the air­craft could have suf­fered a fuel leak or other un­ex­plained rea­son for los­ing fuel.

John Cox, a re­tired air­line pilot and CEO of Florida-based Safety Op­er­at­ing Sys­tems, said the air­craft’s amount of fuel de­serves a care­ful look.

“The air­plane was be­ing flight-planned right to its max­i­mum. Right there it says that even if ev­ery­thing goes well they are not go­ing to have a large amount of fuel when they ar­rive,” said Cox. “I don’t un­der­stand how they could do the flight non­stop with the fuel re­quire­ments that the reg­u­la­tions stip­u­late.”

Good­man re­ported from Bo­gota. As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers Alba To­bella in Bo­gota, Ben Fox in Mi­ami, Peter Prenga­man in Rio de Janeiro and Dave Koenig in Dal­las con­trib­uted to this re­port


Res­cue work­ers carry the bod­ies of vic­tims of an air­plane crash in a moun­tain­ous area near La Union, Colom­bia, Tues­day. The plane was car­ry­ing the Brazil­ian first di­vi­sion soc­cer club Chapecoense team that was on its way for a Copa Su­damer­i­cana fi­nal match against Colom­bia’s Atletico Na­cional.


A fan of Brazil’s soc­cer team Chapecoense mourns dur­ing a gath­er­ing in­side Arena Conda sta­dium in Chapeco, Brazil, Tues­day.

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