Football Fuel Delay… Disaster

Commercial Pilot Sisy Arias was killed on flight 2933 – it was her first commercial flight as first officer where she was monitoring proceedings from the jump seat.  Here she is climbing out of a Cirrus which is the type I fly.

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:

  1. Request delay information from the ATC when fuel begins to run low
  2. 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
  3. 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?


The track of Flight 2933 from Bolivia to Colombia – FlightRadar24.

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)

Ghastly Ghost-like Venezuelan Aviation

There’s something to say about Venezuela’s shoddy aviation business.  In the contemporary world when your economy cracks up,  first against the wall after the citizen and a few retailers is the aviation business.  Crack pots in Caracas have ensured that its aviation industry has contracted into a tiny shadow of its former self.  Venezuela, because of its geographical position,  used to be quite a centre for aviation.  Not Dubai-sized,  but important.

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Venezuela at top centre South America is in an ideal position.  Well that was until Hugo Chavez grabbed his aviation industry by the throat. 

No more.

It’s own airliners, or those that remain,  prefer to fly out of the country in order to earn forex whereas the domestic business is a disaster.  Decimated by Chavezmo and Chavreckrom and shaken by a bizarre suicidal recklessness which has taken hold of its now technically illegal leadership,  local airlines are on their knees.

Facts please, Des.

Ok, how about the number of domestic passengers plummeting by 45% in two years?  (Source: Association of Airlines of Venezuela or ALAV).   ALAV is in the toilet, so to speak.

There’s no nice way to put this, dear reader,  other than to say that the ghost of the expired president looms like a dark and dirty cloud in the minds of the present-day leadership.  And the effect is rampant inflation and a self-destruct button that Jared Diamond described in his book “Collapse”.

Back in the 80’s, Caracas Simon Bolivar Airport was considered the gateway of the Americas.  Now its a gangplank to a terminal self-obsessed quasi-socialist sea.

This is not a political blog.  I merely point out that when the hoopla world of extremist lunacy takes hold whether right, left or religious,  its the start of a slow (or quick) slide into the financial abyss.

At first Hugo and his political supporters rode the carbon-rich commodity wave like Hawaiian big board surfers and the airlines in his country joined the merry little moment.  All loud shirts and smiling through the power.  But the swell is down.  A terrible calm has descended on Venezuelan aviation.   The anabatic wind has dropped, the posturing which goes with hubris of his sort has left the country with financial gangrene.  It’s eating itself alive.

Let’s go over some reality bits folks.  Nicolas “bugger you all” Maduro, shame,  is the fall guy for Hugo Chaves’ paternalistic and snake-oil ideology.

So Brazil’s last formal airline GOL terminated its links to Venezuela this year.  The effect?  Virtually no-one in the region flies to that godforsaken land of murderous thugs and pandering sycophants.  For a country with the largest oil reserves in the world,  not having aeroplanes flying around is a shocker.

Its state-owned airline Conviasa is convalescing.  Most of the fleet is grounded and operational difficulties include the sourcing of Jet A1.  Not a surprise, seeing that Conviasa was setup by Chavez and its president Cesar Martinez Ruiz in 2012 declared notoriously that “… profits are irrelevant to us as we are a Socialist Airline…”.   Well forget profits, Mr Ruiz.  Just start with breaking even.

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Conviasa convalescing near apron, Simon Bolivar Airport. 

Oh, and if you’re looking to fly to Venezuela from Miami its $600 for midnight flights out of season and up to a distinctly un-socialist $5000 in season.   That’s more than double  the price of a Business Class ticket between London and Johannesburg.  Return.

Not what we’d call the shining light of equality.

Maduro’s government now no longer repatriates cash on time for overseas airlines.   It’s what Zimbabwe did and led directly to that country’s airspace technically shutting down for commercial aviation until recently.

By June 2016, $3.8 billion was owed by Caracas to Lufthansa, American Airlines and Copa.  Yes,  you can still purchase a ticket to fly in and out of Venezuela.  But only in Caracas’ most hated currency,  the US dollar.  That means domestic passengers just don’t have the cash to fly.  Because they can’t access the dollar.  Because the government hoards its enemies’ currency.  Makes sense,  ja?

IATA is starting to take more notice.  This year for example at the IATA meeting in Ireland,  the topic of repatriation of capital earned by airlines was the centre-piece of CEO Tony Tyler’s speech.

It’s only a matter of time before Venezuela airspace resembles the Zombie apocalypse.  Maduro and his underlings carp about the US being behind an attempt to overthrow his left-wing government.  That may or may not be true. What is certainly true is that Nicolas and his dilapidated jackbooted apologists have weakened their own state to such an extent that anyone with a wooden stick and a couple of berets could arrive and knock over what remains of the turgid country which could feature in the next version of that post-apocalyptic video game, Far Cry.

Thirty years ago Venezuela was a central aviation hub in the region.  Now its ghastly.  Ghost-like.