Written by Peter CarterDecember 1, 2016
On Monday a flight over Colombian suffered ‘total electrical failure’ before plummeting into a mountainside.
The flight carrying 77 passengers, including a Brazilian football team, reportedly ran out of fuel and requested to land due to ‘total electrical failure’.
During a leaked recording, the pilot can be heard repeatedly requesting permission to land and a female controller could be heard giving instructions as the aircraft lost speed and altitude about 13km from the Medellin airport. Just before going silent the pilot said he was flying at an altitude at 9000 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.
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 on 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.
Before being taken offline, the website of LaMia, the Bolivian-based charter company, said the Avro RJ85 jetliner’s maximum range was 2965 kilometres – 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.
Surviving flight attendant Ximena Sanchez was interviewed on Wednesday. During the rescue Sanchez said “We ran out of fuel. The airplane turned off”, she said to a rescuer.
Juan Sebastian Upegui, the co-pilot on an Avianca commercial flight who was in contact with air traffic controller, described how he heard the doomed flight’s pilot request priority to land because he was out of fuel. Growing ever more desperate, the pilot eventually declared “May Day! May Day!” because of a “total electrical failure,” Upegui said, before the plane quickly began to lose speed and altitude in an almost three-minute death spiral.
“I remember I was pulling really hard for them, saying ‘Make it, make it, make it, make it,”’ Upeqgui says in the recording, which circulated on social media.
“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.”
Another clue is the crash site itself, where no traces of fuel have been found. Often planes go up in a ball of flames upon impact but one reason six passengers survived was because the plane didn’t explode.
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 non-stop with the fuel requirements that the regulations stipulate.”