As Brazil comes to terms with the loss of a top football team and dozens of other passengers in the worst air disaster of 2016, investigators are trying to find out why the chartered jet crashed close to Medellín’s main airport in Colombia.
Seventy-one people died; six survivors are being treated in hospital, four passengers listed on the manifest missed their flight.
Sixty-eight passengers and nine crew were aboard the Avro RJ85 operated by the Bolivian-based airline, LaMia. The charter was carrying a leading Brazilian football team, Chapecoense, plus club staff and journalists. The team was flying to the first leg of the Copa Sudamerica final against Atlético Nacional of Medellín, due to be played on Tuesday evening.
“May God accompany our athletes, officials, journalists and other guests travelling with our delegation,” the club said in a brief statement.
The team, from the small city of Chapeco, was in the middle of a fairytale season. It joined Brazil's first division in 2014 for the first time since the 1970s and made it last week to the Copa Sudamericana finals the equivalent of the Uefa Europa League tournament after defeating two of Argentina's fiercest squads, San Lorenzo and Independiente, as well as Colombia's Junior. One Chapecoense player who was killed in the crash, 22-year-old striker Thiaguinho, only discovered he was to become a father last week.
All football has been suspended in South America for an indefinite period, while other Brazilian clubs have vowed to send free loan players to Chapecoense during the 2017 season. The Mayor of Medellín, Federico Gutierrez, called the crash “a tragedy of huge proportions”.
The 17-year-old jet had taken off from the airline’s home base in Santa Cruz, Bolivia at 6.18pm local time on Monday evening. Four hours, 40 minutes later, it crashed and broke up about 20 miles south of the city’s Rio Negro airport.
Investigators will look at all the factors involved in the crash, including the prevailing weather, the condition of the aircraft, air-traffic control and the behaviour of the pilots as recorded on the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. Early reports suggested the pilots had reported an electrical failure.
Speculation among pilots and aviation safety experts focused on the range of the flight, and whether low fuel could be a factor. The flight from Santa Cruz was 1 850 miles, a sector close to the maximum for the Avro RJ85 jet with a heavy passenger load and without additional fuel tanks.
Pilots routinely load enough fuel for the planned flight plus sufficient for flying a holding pattern, diverting to an alternate airport and a reserve allowing a further 30 minutes of flight.
A contributor to PPRuNe the Professional Pilots Rumour Network wrote: “There are always multiple causes in incidents such as this and I would be very surprised if fuel management wasn’t at least part of the problem.”
Medellín’s main airport is challenging even in fine weather in daylight, at an altitude of over 7,000 feet with higher ground in the area. At the time of the crash the weather is reported to have been poor with heavy rain and low visibility.
Eight minutes before contact was lost, the aircraft entered a holding pattern at 21 000 feet above sea level. It is believed that the pilots were instructed to hold to allow another aircraft to land.
A VivaColombia flight from the capital, Bogota, to San Andres had declared a diversion to Medellín. Six minutes later, the RJ85 aircraft joined the approach to the airport. It disappeared from radar two minutes later, at a height of 15 500 feet.
The captain, Miguel Quiroga, was also part-owner of the airline. Some have speculated that he may have made decisions not based entirely on safety. On the Aviation Herald website, a contributor named Eduardo wrote: “An owner-pilot would also have the profit-company survival factor in his head, when deciding for a straight flight or some refuel stop along the way.”
The Independent has analysed fatal air accidents so far this year. Even after this latest tragedy, the death toll from the crashes of three jets and two propeller planes total 240 far fewer than in 2014 and 2015, when human intervention led to many fatalities.