A fuel shortage and poor pre-flight planning, along with some last minute bad luck, might have caused the fatal plane crash that killed 71 people in Colombia on Monday.
While a full investigation is just underway, early evidence from the crash site and testimony from one of the few survivors suggests that the plane, which was carrying a Brazilian soccer team Atletico Chapecoense to a championship match in Medellin, was not properly equipped to make long-haul flights and might have ran out of fuel prior to reaching the airport.
The plane belonged to LaMia, a small charter airline registered in Bolivia. According to the airline’s website, which has since been taken offline, the aircraft was an AVRO RJ 85 “regional jet” built by British Aerospace in 1999 and registered with the international license number CP 2933.
RJ 85s are designed to carry approximately 100 passengers and have a maximum flight range of 2,963 kilometers on a full tank of fuel, according to international airplane catalogue FlugZeugInfo.
But the flight the plane attempted on Monday night might have been longer than that. According to flight radar24.com, a website that specializes in tracking flights in real time, the Lamia aircraft had to cover 2,971 kilometers from Santa Cruz to Medellin. That’s 8 kilometers farther than the aircraft’s maximum flight range.
Another website, WorldAtlas.com, measures that same flight distance at 2,899 kilometers, or 64 kilometers short of the plane’s maximum flight range.
Despite the slight discrepancy in the distance of the flight path, the loaded plane was being pushed to its maximum capacity. Colombia’s Civil Aviation Director Alfredo Bocanegra said on Wednesday that international safety protocols prohibit planes from flying on such a tight fuel budget.
“The plane had to take enough fuel for an extra half hour of flight and maneuverability, which would have allowed it to reach the closest alternate airport” in case of an emergency, Bocanegra told Colombia’s Caracol Radio.
It is not clear yet if the plane had been equipped with extra fuel tanks. The airline’s general manager, Gustavo Vargas, has said in press interviews that his aircraft had passed the normal security tests required by Bolivian authorities. But he said he was not “discarding” the possibility that the plane might have crashed after running out of fuel.
“We can’t rule out any theories,” he told Brazilian magazine Istoe.
Fuel levels could have also have been affected by last-minute bad luck on the final approach to Medellin. Aviation records show that as the soccer team’s plane approached the airport another aircraft from airline Viva Colombia requested a priority landing due to a technical problem and was given advance clearance ahead of the other planes waiting to land.
A video replay of the flight route, stored by Flight Radar, shows the Lamia plane circling prior to arrival at Medellin’s international airport. After circling several times, the plane once again redirects towards the airport then loses contact with the tower 20 kilometers from the runway.
According to Colombia’s Civil Aviation Director, the soccer team’s plane requested priority landing but only after the Viva Colombia flight had already been cleared for its priority landing. Investigators are still trying to figure out why the soccer team’s pilot didn’t instead ask for an “emergency landing”, which is more urgent than a “priority landing” and would have forced air traffic control to immediately clear a runway.
Rescue workers at the crash site report there are no signs that the plane exploded on impact, which also suggests the fuel tank had been near-empty. It might explain how six people managed to survive a crash at more than 150 miles per hour.
A stewardess who survived the crash, and is currently being treated in the hospital, reportedly told rescue workers that the plane had fuel problems. Her full testimony could also be key to understanding what happened on that fateful night, along with the black box recording which has already been recovered from the crash site.
Colombia’s Civil Aviation Authority said that it received a report of electrical problems on the plane at 9:54 PM, just a few minutes prior to the crash. Another hypothesis is that the plane’s engines were jammed by an electrical failure and the pilot purposefully discharged fuel in the moments before the crash in a desperate effort to avoid an explosion.
Lamia has only two planes left in its fleet. But both of which were grounded for repairs prior to Monday’s crash.
The small airline was founded in Venezuela in 2010, but had problems securing funding and permits so it moved to Bolivia and registered as a charter flight company in 2015.
According to Argentine daily La Nacion, Lamia is known among South American soccer teams for providing cheaper rates than its competitors in a market with few providers. The airline was previously used by Argentina’s national team on a shorter flight from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, to Buenos Aires. It has also flown Venezuela’s national team and carried Atletico Nacional, the Medellin club that was going to host Atletico Chapecoense on Wednesday.