Doomed LaMia Flight’s Engines Began Shutting Down Several Minutes Before Crash: Colombian officials say pilots didn’t warn of total fuel loss until it was too late
The Wall Street Journal
By KEJAL VYAS
Updated Dec. 26, 2016 4:49 p.m. ET
BOGOTÁ, Colombia—Pilots of the doomed LaMia charter plane knew its engines were shutting down several minutes before the crash that killed 71 people, but failed to notify air-traffic control until it was too late, Colombian officials said Monday.
Investigators from Colombia’s Civil Aviation Authority said the pilots didn’t report “a total electric failure without fuel” until two minutes before the aircraft collided at 145 miles an hour into a hillside just outside Medellín, Colombia on Nov. 28. While the crew had asked for priority landing, they didn’t indicate imminent danger and investigators said the pilots spoke with controllers “in a completely normal manner.”
“There was no technical failure, only human and managerial error,” Freddy Bonilla, head of the investigation team for Colombia’s Civil Aviation Authority, said in the first official report since the accident.
The 28-day investigation found that the Avro RJ85 aircraft left Bolivia nearly 1,000 pounds overweight and flew at an altitude above 30,000 feet, even though the plane isn’t designed to travel above 28,000 feet, Mr. Bonilla said.
In addition, the flight’s 1,839-mile trip was near the aircraft’s capacity for a tank of fuel, the Colombian official said. “The flight crew was conscious of the fuel limits and that they did not adequately have what was needed,” Mr. Bonilla said, adding that headwinds may have caused the aircraft to use more fuel.
Bolivian aviation officials should not have permitted the flight to take off, Mr. Bonilla said. “The conditions for the flight—as presented in the flight plan—were unacceptable,” he said, noting that the flight form was incomplete, naming only one of a required two alternate landing destinations.
There was no immediate response from the Bolivian government, whose investigators last week blamed the accident on a series of miscues by the airline and the pilot, calling it an “isolated” incident. The country’s airport authority had earlier filed a criminal complaint against one of its officials for allowing the plane to depart despite the incomplete flight plan. The official, Celia Castedo, is seeking asylum in Brazil.
Both Bolivia and Colombia have suspended LaMia’s operating licenses. Pilot Miguel Quiroga, who perished in the crash, was a co-owner of the airline along with Gustavo Vargas Gamboa, who was arrested earlier this month in Bolivia on manslaughter charges
The pilot and his co-pilot discussed the possibility of landing to refuel here in the Colombian capital or in Leticia but decided to continue 45 minutes northwest toward Medellín, Mr. Bonilla said, citing audio recordings of the crew’s communications recovered from the plane’s black box. The recordings were synchronized with a 24-minute video flight simulation and presented by Mr. Bonilla.
Yaneth Molina, the air-traffic controller in Jose Maria Cordova International Airport, described the harrowing final minutes in an interview earlier Monday with Colombia’s Caracol Radio. The LaMia flight, she said, never alerted them of any major problems before suddenly beginning an unauthorized descent for landing, looking to cut in front of three other planes that were scheduled to land before.
“That’s when I called them and they tell me about an emergency,” Ms. Molina said. “There were 71 victims, but it was too close. They were practically on top of the other aircraft. It could’ve been worse,” she said.
Colombian civil aviation officials declined to speculate why the pilots decided not to make a stop or report their low-fuel status earlier. Investigators say a potential refueling stop for the jet, which was crossing over Colombia at night, could have been Cobija. However, that airport lacks runway lights after dark and the flight was already behind schedule. The flight’s operators also had a strong incentive not to declare a fuel emergency because it would have led to sanctions that could have grounded the company, potentially putting it out of business. According to Colombian law, pilots or flight crew members found of negligence can face suspension or fines of nearly $115,000, Mr. Bonilla said.
Onboard were 4 crew members, 20 journalists and Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, a professional Brazilian soccer team on a Cinderella season, traveling to its first ever finals of the South American Cup. Six people survived the crash.
Colombia’s Civil Aviation Authority, which is working with investigators from Brazil, Bolivia, the U.K. and U.S., said it would release a final report with its findings in April.
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