While we await the proper investigator report, its now clear that the laMia flight 2933 with Brazil’s giant-killing Chapecoense football team on board ran out of fuel. We know this already because a flight attendant has told us, because there was no fire, because the plane was at the very extreme of its endurance. We also know this because Colombian and Brazilian aviation investigators have told us this is the case. We know this because the captain told the Medellin ATC that the the plane “had insufficient fuel”. While some are still searching for an excuse, there can be no excuse and sorry my aviating crew, the buck stops at the very front of the plane and, to be precise, the left front. The seat where the captain is located.
The captain must make decisions about people’s lives constantly. There are many captains I’m reading today who’ve defended the man who took a plane past its refuelling point and flirted with lady Luck. She ran out of patience for a man who’d done this before and this time the disaster has shattered the fairy tale which was Chapecoense Football team on their way to their Copa Sudamericana final in Medellin. For the family of those who perished this must be a shocking revelation. For the fans its doubling infuriating because their courageous team which had climbed to Division A from Division D was not scripted to die in an aviation disaster. Losing 2-1 in the Copa Sudamericana Final would have been painful enough. Losing 71-0 is catastrophic.
The captain apparently decided to continue when it was prudent to reconsider options. He cut into his emergency fuel which is a no-go zone for pilots of commercial airlines. In South Africa this is reported as an aviation incident. It’s 30 minutes of fuel that you just don’t use under any circumstances unless its an emergency. Once you’re in that situation you HAVE to declare an emergency so that ATC and everyone else gets you on the ground pronto. The emergency is declared through those fearsome words “mayday mayday mayday” three times.
For the record, here is the process commercial pilots follow when fuel becomes an issue:
- Request delay information from the ATC when fuel begins to run low
- Declare MINIMUM FUEL when committed to land at a specific aerodrome and any change in the existing clearance may result in a landing with less than planned final reserve fuel – you do NOT say insufficient fuel, you say MINIMUM fuel
- Declare a fuel emergency when the calculated fuel on landing at the nearest suitable aerodrome, where a safe landing can be made, will be less than the planned final reserve fuel – and you do that by saying MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY
Option 3 was required in this instance.
Once you’re in that situation you HAVE to declare and emergency so that ATC and everyone else gets you on the ground pronto
However, this captain used a Spanish euphemism “insufficient fuel” which told the ATC nothing. Insufficient for what? Not enough to continue flying? While both were speaking in Spanish, the actual language which should have been used is English, the language of aviation. When you utter those fearsome words, everything and everyone stops what they’re doing and comes to your support. The ATC was already dealing with a second deviating plane that had reported technical problems. It’s one of those cases where a dangerous game of Russian Roulette was about to come to a bloody end.
The ATC informed the captain that he would have to continue holding for seven minutes while the other airliner was allowed to land. But they were in no immediate danger. Our captain was. He knew it. Sitting alongside him was the first officer. Fate conspired to put 29 year-old Sisy Arias on board. It was her first – and last – flight as crew on board a commercial airliner. The captain appears to have killed her along with virtually the entire giant-killing football team and 20 journalists, coaches, admin staff.
Perhaps had she had more experience she would have forced the captain to reconsider his actions. Perhaps he was showing off his manliness to a newbie? Whatever motivated the captain, Arias was certainly unable to interject as the Avro RJ-85 flew past its scheduled refuelling stop. Machismo perhaps as he showed off for a beautiful young co-pilot? Or the fact that the Captain was co-owner of the entire airline and not refuelling would have saved money? It would have meant no delays for a football team on its grand mission, allowing them more time at Medellin to rest and recreate before the big game?
So many reasons to break the aviation law, all undefensible.
I’m really sorry if this sounds self-righteous, but I have been in a situation as a pilot in a flight from Durban to Lanseria where the highly experienced instructor sitting on my right ordered me to change course to Rand Airport and refuel. We were about to begin burning reserve fuel. When I released how smart he was, how wise, I thanked God that Russell Donaldson was my instructor. More prosaic instructors would have pointed out the fuel issue and then winked and said “Lanseria is only a few minutes away, ignore it” and no-one would have known. Unless we had exhausted the two tanks and crashed. Then the lack of fuel odour and fire, not to mention gauges on “0” would have led to a shaking of heads amongst the aviators who know better.
But Russell didn’t. He pointed out that we were a few minutes away from reserve and the prudent thing to do would be to land at Rand and put in a few thousand rands worth of avgas. That experience I will never forget, and that’s why hearing of this incident has upset me. What was the captain thinking? Was he thinking?
But he didn’t declare any emergency. Neither did the first officer who had unfortunately been scheduled to fly that day on her first commercial flight as crew. I feel really sorry for her, ten years of training and entering probably one of the most exciting days of her short career to be killed by your highly experienced partner in the left seat who spent the final minutes shouting “vectors to the airfield” at the ATC who clearly had no idea that there was a real life emergency going on.
Three players survived the crash along with two crew members and a reporter.
There are a few other things we should be mentioned. The captain of the flight was also the owner of the laMia airline, and a well known Bolivian pilot who was regarded as connected to the Bolivian government. The International aviation agreements stipulate a chartered aircraft must belong to a company that operates in the country of departure or destination – so the Chapecoense Football Team management could not leave from Sao Paulo. They selected to honour the contract with the Venezuelan company that operates from Bolivia and flew there first. LaMia had experience in moving football teams so they cracked the nod. And destroyed the dreams of a small Brazilian town which had become symbolic in a nation challenged by corruption and political chaos.
(An earlier version of this story had the pilot/captain as a Venezuelan national. I apologise for the error)