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Montevideo, May 23rd 2019 - 19:28 UTC

“Out of fuel” - The Chapecoense jet could barely fly the distance

Thursday, December 1st 2016 - 07:01 UTC
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LAMIA's BAe 146 - RJ 85 was not designed to serve the Viru Viru Medellin route LAMIA's BAe 146 - RJ 85 was not designed to serve the Viru Viru Medellin route

As talks between pilot and control tower of the flight that crashed on approach to Medellin on Monday carrying the Brazilian football team Chapecoense became available and “we're out of fuel” can be heard easily, aviation experts agree that the British Aerospace 146 - RJ 85 has a maximum range of little more than 2900 kilometers, which is roughly the same distance between the airports of origin (Viru Viru in Santa Cruz, Bolivia) and destination (Jose Maria Cordova International in Medellin, Colombia).

 The pilot of LAMIA Flight 339 carrying the Brazilian Chapecoense football team told air traffic controllers he had run out of fuel and desperately requested priority to land before crashing into the Andes, according to a black-box recording, citing fuel and electrical problems. But since another aircraft had already been given that priority, the Bolivian-registered four-engined chartered airplane was put on a holding pattern for seven minutes, which proved fatal.

Aviation experts agree the British Aerospace 146 - RJ 85 jet has a service range of approximately 2,900 kilometers, which seems to indicate there was no extra fuel onboard as mandated by international regulations, should it become necessary to divert to an alternate airport or simply wait in the air for a landing clearance.

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 US National Transportation Safety Board was taking part in the investigation because the plane's engines were made by an American manufacturer.

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.

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.

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.”

Other aviation experts wonder why the captain kept flying when he should have noticed the alarms indicating there was not much fuel left or why he never declared an emergency. To that, the dark businesses behind LAMIA's existence may have the answer. The story of LAMIA is plagued by failures and strange maneuvers in its short life as an airline.

The company went through two Venezuelan states but never got to take off. The owner, who moved his operations to Bolivia, is designated as an alleged frontman of a Chinese billionaire arrested for corruption.

The company was founded in 2009 in Mérida, Venezuela, to which it owes its name: Merida International Airline of Aviation (LAMIA). At that point, company owner Ricardo Alberto Albacete Vidal said his goal was to help that Venezuelan region with flights to Caracas, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto, Las Piedras, Valencia, Margarita, Los Roques and Canaimá with a 12-aircraft fleet.

Albacete received the immediate support of Chavista governor Marcos Díaz Orellana, who managed for some years the permission for the company to start operating, while Albacete continued with the curious promises of the way in which it would operate: there would be an “membership card” whereby LAMIA customers would not be considered “customers,” but “associates” rather. A flat fee would be offered for all tickets and 100% refund of the ticket amount if an “associate” could not travel.

But the airline never got to take off. Albacete, then, decided to change his project and offered it to the governor of the island state of Nueva Esparta, Carlos Mata Figueroa, whose tourist jewel is the island of Margarita. The company, which had not yet made a single commercial flight, was transformed into the Margarita International Aviation Airline. The acronym LAMIA continued to wear, so it did not need to modify its name.

On November 3, 2013, Governor Mata Figueroa welcomed LAMIA only plane, a British Aerospace BAE-RJ85 jet at Margarita as he gave a speech full of thanks to President Nicolás Maduro: “LAMIA is our Margariteña line; at last Margarita will have its own airline and from here we will go to different parts of Venezuela and abroad, as it will cover national and international routes,” said Mata Figueroa. But in the midst of the sharp Venezuelan crisis, which also shook tourism and the air-traffic market, LAMIA was not able to keep its promises there either.

Meanwhile, Albacete tried other dark businesses in Spain. There he was identified as one of the leading front men of Chinese businessman Sam Pa, who was arrested in October 2015 by Beijing authorities for monetary crimes and treason to the Chinese Communist Party. Sam Pa had set up a multi-billion dollar spurious business deal with China-Angolan oil company Sonangol. With the advice of Albacete, the Chinese Sam Pa bought a shipyard in Galicia, which raised numeruous red flags, before the Chinese businessman was detained in his own country.

Finally, without getting off in Venezuela, Albacete decided to move to Bolivia the three planes he had managed to acquire. In November 2015, the brand-new Bolivian company LAMIA Corporation SRL was authorized to start operating as a “small-scale” airline. The owners of the new company were Marco Antonio Rocha and Miguel Quiroga, captain of the doomed flight.

Therefore, Quiroga is believed to have been looking after the company's interests when he filed a flight plan for such a distance and such an aircraft and every time he chose not to admit things were as critical as they were. When he said “electrical failure” he should have said “Out of fuel” or even sought to land before reaching Medellin. With the other two airplanes undergoing repairs in Cochabamba on Monday, that doomed RJ-85 was the company's only airplane to stay airworthy.

In previous months, it had carried many national football teams over South America, including Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela, and clubs Atletico Nacional (Colombia), The Strongest, Blooming, Oriente Petrolero, Real Potosi (Bolivia) and Olimpia (Paraguay).

According to a jet pilot who reviewed the information available, there were various red flags: First, a stopover to refuel should have been arranged for and once airborne, the captain should have never tried to conceal the actual dangers involved.

Former Aerolineas Argentinas pilot Jorge Polanco said in a radio interview in Buenos Aires that “Obviously that plane is not prepared to travel that type of distance, it is not prepared to fly that type of routes.” He explained that this airplane was created in 1983 by the British industry to fly very short distances, an hour or an hour and a half over large cities ... and land and take off on very short runways,“ he said.

According to Polanco, LAMIA is accountable for over 180 deaths throughout its history, ”but people don't know about it.” He also blamed the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) for having LAMIA as a carrier. “You can not cut costs on air transport, cheap becomes expensive ... The clubs obviously want to pay as little as possible,” Polanco explained. “The biggest football stars in the world traveled on that plane and nobody told them 'lads, you really don't want to fly this airline'.”

Categories: Latin America.

Top Comments

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  • Idlehands

    An idiotic disaster caused by the flight captain who was trying to protect his business interests. At least he paid the same price as his victims.

    Dec 01st, 2016 - 11:23 am 0
  • ElaineB

    This is horrendous. You have to question who made the decision to use this airline.

    Dec 01st, 2016 - 01:05 pm 0
  • Marti Llazo

    Aerolineas Cholivianas.

    Dec 01st, 2016 - 01:08 pm 0
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