MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) — 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.
Investigators also want to speak to Juan Sebastian Upegui, the co-pilot on 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 that appears to be an audio message to a friend, Upegui 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 nonstop with the fuel requirements that the regulations stipulate.”
Goodman reported from Bogota. Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami and Dave Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report
LA UNION, Colombia (AP) — Colombia’s worst air crash in two decades snuffed out a storybook run by a Brazilian soccer team, and authorities are digging in trying to figure out why a chartered jetliner crashed in the Andes, killing all but six of the 77 people aboard.
The country’s aviation agency said Tuesday that the British Aerospace 146’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder had been found among the wreckage strewn over a mountainside and were already being studied by experts.
Initially, Colombian officials said the short-haul jet suffered an electrical failure, but there was also heavy rain when the crew declared an emergency and the plane disappeared from radar just before 10 p.m. Monday.
Authorities also said they were not ruling out the possibility the aircraft ran out of fuel minutes before it was to land at Jose Maria Cordova airport outside Medellin, a report given to rescuers by a surviving flight attendant. Officials said they hoped to interview her Wednesday.
Emotional pain resonated across the region over the loss of much of the Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil, which just two years after working its way into Brazil’s top league for the first time in decades had fought its way into the championship of one of South America’s most prestigious tournaments.
The aircraft, which departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was carrying the team to Wednesday’s first game in the two-game Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional of Medellin. Twenty-one Brazilian journalists were traveling with the team.
South America’s soccer federation canceled all scheduled matches in a show of solidarity, while the Real Madrid and Barcelona clubs interrupted their training sessions for a minute of silence. Brazil’s top teams offered to lend players to the small club for next season as it rebuilds, saying: “It is the minimum gesture of solidarity that is within our reach.”
In a moving gesture, Atletico Nacional asked that the championship title be given to Chapecoense, whose upstart run in the tournament electrified soccer-crazed Brazil.
Three players were among the survivors. Alan Ruschel was reported in the most serious condition, facing surgery for a spinal fracture. Teammates Helio Zampier and Jakson Follmann also suffered multiple trauma injuries, and doctors had to amputate Follmann’s right leg.
A journalist also underwent surgery and two Bolivian crew members were in stable condition, hospital officials said.
The aircraft is owned by LaMia, a charter company that started in Venezuela but later relocated to Bolivia, where it was certified to operate last January. Despite apparently limited experience, the airline has a close relationship with several premier South American soccer squads.
Earlier this month, the plane involved in the crash transported Barcelona forward Lionel Messi and Argentina’s national team from Brazil following a World Cup qualifying match. The airliner also appeared to have transported the national squads of Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela in the last three months, according to a log of recent activity provided by Flightradar24.com.
Before being taken offline, LaMia’s website said it operated three 146 Avro short-haul jets made by British Aerospace, with a maximum range of around 2,965 kilometers (1,600 nautical miles) — about the distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin.
Hans Weber, a longtime adviser to U.S. aviation authorities, said the aircraft’s range deserves careful investigation. He noted that air distance between cities is usually measured by the shortest route but planes rarely fly in a straight line, with pilots steering around turbulence or changing course for other reasons.
Given the model of the plane and the fact that it was flying close to capacity, “I would be concerned that the pilots may have been cutting it too close,” Weber said.
A spokesman for Bolivia’s civil aviation agency, Cesar Torrico, said the plane was inspected before departing for Colombia and no problems were reported.
Gustavo Vargas, a retired Bolivian air force general who is president of the airline, said: “We can’t rule out anything. The investigation is ongoing and we’re going to await the results.”
Moments before the plane took off, the team’s coaching staff gave an interview to a Bolivian television station in which they praised the airline, saying it brought them good fortune when it flew them to Colombia last month for the championship’s quarterfinals, which they won.
“Now we’re going to do this new trip and we hope they bring us good luck like they did the first time,” athletic director Mauro Stumpf told Gigavision TV.
The team, from the small Brazilian city of Chapeco, was having a breakout season. It advanced to the Copa Sudamericana finals after defeating some of the region’s top teams, including Argentina’s San Lorenzo and Independiente.
The Chapecoense club is so modest that tournament organizers ruled its 22,000-seat stadium was too small to host the concluding match of the two-game final and moved it to a stadium 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the city of Curitiba. Some fans in soccer-mad Brazil were so enchanted with its magical run that they started a campaign online to move the final match to Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana stadium, where the 2014 World Cup final was played.
“This morning I said goodbye to them and they told me they were going after the dream, turning that dream into reality,” Chapecoense board member Plinio De Nes told Brazil’s TV Globo. “The dream was over early this morning.”
Associated Press writer Fernando Vergara reported this story in La Union, Colombia, and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota.