Disturbing Details Emerge About This Week’s Crash In Colombia

Monday night an Avro RJ85 traveling from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Medellin, Colombia, crashed shortly before landing. The flight was being operated by Lamia, a small charter airline with a single plane. 71 of the 77 people on the flight died. The plane was carrying a Brazilian soccer team, which was heading to the South American Cup Finals, after having performed better than ever before.

It was pretty apparent that the plane was low on fuel, both based on the pilot declaring an emergency, and also based on the lack of fire at the crash site.

Well, more details are now starting to emerge about the incident, and they’re disturbing. Very disturbing. They show just how preventable this horrible tragedy was. The Economist has a great rundown of the facts, but to consolidate them even further:

  • The flight from Santa Cruz to Medellin covers a distance of 2,960km, while the range of the Avro RJ85 is 2,965km
  • The black box recording confirms that the pilot could be heard saying they were running out of fuel, and authorities have confirmed that the plane had no fuel when it crashed

vvi-mde

How on earth could a plane try to operate a flight beyond its range?!? As is often the case with these accidents, it seems to be a combination of many unfortunate factors:

  • Before taking Lamia from Santa Cruz, the team had taken a commercial flight from Sao Paulo to Santa Cruz, which was delayed by an hour
  • Lamia had planned on making a refueling stop in Cobija, Bolivia, but that airport shuts down at night, so that was no longer possible due to the delay of the previous flight
  • When the plane departed Santa Cruz, the ground staff raised concerns about the plane flying nonstop, though the pilot made “verbal guarantees” that the plane had enough fuel for the trip
  • The Lamia pilot requested priority to land in Medellin, though another plane had a fuel leak, so got priority (requesting priority is different than declaring an emergency)
  • The Lamia pilot only declared an emergency after the plane was out of fuel and descending
  • The pilot was a co-owner of the airline, which may be why he was so motivated to operate the flight as scheduled; he may have been concerned that if they didn’t get the team where they needed to be on-time, it could cost them future business, and also concerned that if they declared an emergency, it could raise red flags with authorities about why they tried to operate a flight beyond the plane’s range
  • Lamia’s operating license has now been suspended (though their only plane crashed, so that may be a moot point)

Bottom line

More details will no doubt emerge about the incident over the coming days, but the facts at least seem clear. The plane tried to operate a nonstop flight beyond its range, which is mind-boggling and beyond reckless. Over the coming days I suspect we’ll learn more details surrounding the circumstances of this situation.

All crashes are tragic, but this one is especially tragic, since it seems so preventable.

Comments

  1. Lucky, All you wrote is true. He ran out of fuel.
    Conmebol (South America soccer federation) recommends this “airline” for the teams and national squad.
    Other soccer players are telling the news about all the time, the plane got stop to refuel.

  2. I am brazilian and live in Rio de Janeiro. All you wrote is the clear and unbelievable truth. These 75 lives could have been easily saved. Very sad. He just run out of fuel. Thats the disturbing reality. Shame on the pilot, also co owner of Lamia, who deliberatelly killed himself and also 75 inocent lives, dedtroying dreams, hopes and families…

  3. You quote:

    “The flight from Santa Cruz to Medellin covers a distance of 2,960km, while the range of the Avro RJ85 is 2,965km”

    But then you keep writing that the flight was “out of range”. On the numbers you have written it was actually (just) within range?

  4. @ Paul @ RCB — Airlines *never* fly exactly the direct route between two cities. Due to air traffic control, runways used for landing, etc., that simply never happens. So not only is the actual distance flown typically at least a couple of hundred kilometers more, but you also need reserves (enough for your nearest diversion point, plus 30 additional minutes).

  5. He had just enough with a “easy and trouble free trip”. But this is not allowed by international conventions. The plane must have an aternative airport route and also bhe filled up with enough fuel to fly extra 30/45 minutes. It wasnt the case. He took his chances with barely enough to do a door to door flight.
    He was heavy and loaded with almost 80 pax. The weather was bad troughout most of the flight and he had front wind against him. Besides, he couldnt land straight after arrivge at Medellinj descending route because he insanelly didnt declare emergency, but only asked priority. If he has declared at first the emergency of fuel he would have been heavily fined after landing. He took all the chances and lost it, killing 75 innocent people.
    Such a shame.

  6. Compementing. He couldn land straightbhecfause another flight airbus from viva colombia requested.priority bhecause a technical problem and then lamia had to do 2 5 minute loops before declare total emergency. Those loops wasted all the remaining fuel.

  7. @Lucky: Where are you getting the figure of 2,960 km? All of the posts I’ve seen call it out as 2,975 km.

  8. As a pilot, when you talk with ATC or the tower, you have to say what you mean. The term “priority” is merely a request. Declaring an “inflight emergency” is what this pilot should have done. This is the same scenario as the crash of Avianca 52 on approach to JFK in 1990. The copilot requested”priority” after a missed approach. The crew never advised the tower or ATC that they were running out of fuel.

    When you declare an “inflight emergency”, the first controller that gets to you, stays with you until there is no longer an emergency, the plane has dropped below radar coverage or has crashed.

    South American pilots are known as cowboys and here is another example why. The pilot had zero fuel reserves and was already at max range.

  9. “When you declare an “inflight emergency”, the first controller that gets to you, stays with you until there is no longer an emergency, the plane has dropped below radar coverage or has crashed.”

    Not always the case. Depends on nature of emergency and where it happens. Radios have limited distance, so a frequency change may be required if an emergency happens while plane is in the flight levels. Usually radar will still have the pilot switch to tower frequency except in circumstances where that would not be feasable.

  10. Isn’t the range of an aircraft an estimate based on average load and conditions? Clearly weight and wind might drive that number up or down. In any event, it’s shocking that these pilots would risk such a distance. Running out of fuel has got to be the #1 preventable pilot error. Just a horrible tragedy for all those families and it’s rather scary that there are operators with licenses to carry the public who would be this reckless.

  11. The “range” quoted for aircraft is for a hypothetical “standard” cruise flight at a given weight.

    Major factors are the weight, flight profile and of course WINDS. These can make a YUGE difference. Pilot may have THOUGHT he topped off the fuel tanks to overflowing, then had a bit more headwinds than expected. It was negligent to not declare an emergency. Perhaps ATC could have phoned someone to reopen the refueling stop. Even if not, they’d have been first into landing pattern.

  12. Bunch of stuff:

    Whether the range is 2900 of 3100km, it was clearly an irresponsible decision to try to make it without stopping…and to think if they didn’t have to make those two loops while holding they would have likely made it. 🙁

    But the point is they should have had enough fuel for the actual distance + enough to reach an alternate airport + 5-10% more after that. All those pluses would add ~1 extra hour of flying time at cruising altitude….it’s the law…but something the airplane clearly could not accommodate.

    LaMia started in Venezuela before moving to Bolivia, there’s shady business surrounding all of it from the beginning, they bounced around a couple of Venezuelan cities (“we have acquired 15 planes and will start connecting X, Y, Z cities…all thanks to Chavez!”) and in 2015 they bailed and set up shop in Bolivia with (allegedly) 3 planes in their fleet (where the 15 planes at? Or the money to buy them? Hey, Latin America).

    They got the permits to operate in Bolivia and would not be surprised if some of those permits also had shady business going on as well (apparently the general manager of the airline is related to somebody in the aviation authority)…

    At the end it was about money on all fronts…if like you said he declared an emergency, flags would have been raised and the Captain (also a co-owner) would have been in trouble for attempting the flight nonstop…I want to say personnel in Bolivia would have been fined as well, but doubt anybody would have enforced that.

    Worth noting that many, many soccer teams used them before. I’d venture to say they were at least 40% less expensive than the prospect of having Avianca, TAME, LATAM or Aerolíneas Argentinas, etc, take out an airplane out of it commercial routes to work with a team.

    In the last few months they flew the national teams of Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela, and club teams from Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil and Colombia…including Atlético Nacional (the team they were going to face) in the same route in reverse…I may be missing some teams. Some of those flights had fuel stops.

    They had also flown Chapecoense before…and in a TV interview immediately pre-departure, Chapecoense was undoubtedly happy to fly with LaMia again, one of them even saying it was their good luck charm (because they won before, after flying with them).

    In an interview with the GM (few hours post-crash), he detailed their operations and how they became a charter airline because with 1 plane they couldn’t hold any profitable commercial routes. (This is why I say “alleged 3 planes in their fleet.”)

    They saw an opening with soccer teams and started with Bolivian clubs, then expanded to neighboring countries. They would keep a close eye on the international competitions (Copa Libertadores, Copa Sudamericana) and when a team moved on to the next round they would approach them with a quote and a “hey, we can even put your logo on our airplane!”

    I’m sure CONMEBOL (the FIFA arm in South America) loved them too, they were saving several thousands of dollars when it came to reimbursing teams for travel expenses.

    Very sad and unfortunate situation, hopefully measures are taken going forward.

  13. They picked an airline that has one total plane in its fleet? That alone sounds shady. Makes you wonder all the strangers we put our lives in the hands of when we fly.

  14. Had the Pilot declared an emergency, he would have had to prove why, in which case the authorities would have found out about the fuel situation and probably revoked his pilots license for breaking commercial aviation laws.

  15. Man…this reminds me of Avianca Flight 52. Both instances where pilots required priority instead of declaring an emergency. Both flights were dangerously low on fuel. Although in this case, I’d say the whole situation is much more inexcusable. None the less, both were horrible tragedies and my thoughts are with the survivors and families that were involved. Hopefully more details will come soon.

  16. What’s worse is the airplane’s range quoted here – 2,900km is the official range, with maximum fuel. The airplane’s range with full payload is even less – 1,200 nautical miles, which is around 2,220km.
    http://www.jacdec.de/2016/11/29/2016-11-28-lamia-avro-rj-85-crashed-near-medellin-with-81-on-board/

    With close to 80 passenger on 85-seater aircraft, and most of them male adults and athletes, who are a lot heavier than an average person, the aircraft would have been close to full payload and thus, the range of this aircraft would have been much shorter than 2,900km.

  17. flight plan that was leaked on airliners.net shows total endurance (fuel) 4h22min AND the same page, criminally, shows total distance to destination 4h22min.

    Does not have any factors for 5% taxi fuel, 30min reserve, and 5% contingency/missed approach fuel, and fuel to alternate/diversion airport such as BOG (~100nm away)

    But hey, pilot/owner sounds like a stand-up guy. He said he can do the impossible with less fuel. Scary thing is a week or so earlier, he flew another team a nearly identical distance–nonstop.

  18. What’s even more disturbing is why he didn’t stop in Bogota seeing Cobija was out of the question and he knew that he only had a limited amount of fuel to complete this flight. It seems as though when he came close in approximation to Bogota, he must have thought well the amount of fuel left in his tank would last that far for them to reach Medellin in time (whatever that means) and he didn’t feel the need to stop in Bogota as initially was the second option. Not taking into consideration that he could encounter problems ahead. Seems as though they may have done this before, flown all that way with little reserves, that he thought oh well, this time wouldn’t be different. Such a sad and unavoidable accident

  19. I have to say that your comments here are very clear assessments and just common logic. Plus, I think I can say that most of you and myself aren’t at all experts in this field but perhaps some of you are, yet it doesn’t take expertise to have common fair judgement. It’s as simple as you don’t set out to drive for 5 hours and not consider having a full tank of gas and searching a map to locate where you can stop if you run into an emergency. This situation makes this airline seem like a second hand aircraft and airline. But I think it’s not necessary to down size or down grade Latin American Airlines on a general scale. When you think about the amount of flights that travel out of Latin America and the world daily, most pilots are doing what’s right and know what they are doing. Or we might be surprise if we knew how many times we got to our destinations on the wings of grace and faith.

  20. To get into some technical info:
    The only way for this aircraft to have electrical failure is if all the engines are not running. So it has run out of fuel. And it is entirely wrong to keep talking about range of an aircraft based on standard figures for an aircraft. This is for a standard RJ85 under standard conditions. Depending on extra tanks, it can have longer range but I could not find any info.

    Have flown 4:20 with an Avro RJ85 (extra tank) myself with enough fuel to spare for emergencies (min 800kg when landing at alternate airport). These figures changes based on weight, temperature and wind. For example, at colder temperatures, you can put more fuel than the official figures. More weight aft of the plane will give higher range as well. Cruising altitude and wind are factors as well.

    When talking about fuel for alternate airport, I am not sure about Latin Americas but in Europe, you do not need fuel for alternate airport if the destination airport fulfill certain requirements. Like 2 independent runways. Not a good idea but it is legal.
    Another factor that I experienced with the Avro was, that depending on the state of the plane, engine, wind and so on, you might end up using much more fuel than what the official figures says. So his paperwork might have been ok but when airborne, he used much more.

    I am sure that the flight was legal, as no pilot would deliberately start a flight if the figures show that you have not enough fuel to destination unless you can plan a fuel stop somewhere.

    The biggest issue with the crash was the wrong term used by the pilot. When really low on fuel, like in this case, you switch transponder to emergency and declare a Mayday. Then you will get first priority to land. And even if you do not get, he should just have told ATC that he was flying to the field to land. It is better to file a report than to crash. Seems like he was still asking for vectors after he ran out of fuel. As far as I can see, he should have been able to glide the plane down from holding and land even after running out of fuel. These airplanes are really easy to handle, even with all engines out.

  21. Forever will this left my heart broken.
    One human mistake will blow a big change.
    Error.
    Failure.
    Weak heart.
    Greed.
    Im totally in despair with the loss of these beloved people.
    Totally insane.
    Have pilot relatives n friends,
    Safety first of the passengers .
    This is so disturbing.

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