While this blog usually covers stories about Brazilian football, allow me to briefly step away from the pitch to discuss what is the largest news event on the planet at the moment, one tragically connected to Brazilian football. This post in particular, has nothing to do with sport.
LaMia flight 2933 was scheduled to fly from Viru Viru International Airport in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia to Rionegro Airport in Colombia (also known as José María Córdova Airport, close to the city of Medellín). It was a chartered flight, carrying 22 players from Brazilian club Chapecoense (as well as several members of their coaching staff and board of directors) and 21 journalists to the final of the Copa Sudamericana, which Chapecoense were due to play this Wednesday evening against Atlético Nacional.
The club had originally planned to fly directly from São Paulo to Medellín, but as the charter airline in question, LaMia, is Bolivian and Venezuelan owned, Brazil’s civil aviation agency did not sign off on the trip, requiring that it must be performed by a Brazilian or Colombian airline. (UPDATE 16.56: This is according to the 1944 Chicago Convention which establishes commercial aviation rights for airlines wishing to land in another country’s airspace. Travelling from Brazil to Colombia would require LaMia to have “fifth freedom rights” in Brazil, which it does not possess.) As a result, Chapecoense flew via commercial airline to Bolivia (Santa Cruz de la Sierra), in order to take the LaMia charter plane from there to Colombia.
LaMia flight 2933 was an Avro RJ85 aircraft, which according to BAE Systems has a specified range of 1,600 nautical miles (nm). The shortest journey between Viru Viru and Rionegro is 1,605 nm, very slightly exceeding the range of the plane.
Viru Viru airport sits at a modest altitude of 1,225 ft above sea level, meaning there would have been no extra weight restrictions, unlike what is practiced when flying from other major Bolivian airports in Cochabamba (8,360 ft) and La Paz (13,325 ft). This, along with the fact that the plane was at 90% capacity, suggests the payload of the aircraft was near its maximum acceptable levels.
According to aviation experts, when calculating whether an aircraft has the range required to safely complete a given route, pilots must take into account not only the direct distance between the two airports, but also allow for an alternative route. The fact that the most direct route between Viru Viru and Rionegro already exceeded the Avro RJ85’s range signifies that this was a risky flight.
Around five minutes after beginning its descent towards Rionegro, flight 2933 entered into a holding pattern, little more than 12 miles from its destination. It continued its circling pattern for approximately ten minutes, maintaining its altitude and speed, before heading north in a descent, with its speed dramatically decreasing, before losing contact and crashing into a mountain valley close to the town of La Unión. 71 people lost their lives in the crash, which had only six survivors: two crew members, one journalist and three Chapecoense players.
At the time of flight 2933’s descent, another aircraft, VivaColombia flight 8170 travelling from Bogotá to San Andrés, requested an emergency landing at Rionegro due to a suspected fuel leak. Said landing was authorised at 9:45 pm local time, just as LaMia flight 2933 entered its holding pattern, forced to wait for authorisation to land along with another flight, Avianca 9711 from Cartagena.
According to a co-pilot from the Avianca flight, LA 2933 was 3rd in the queue for landing, and LaMia pilot Miguel Quiroga asked about how long the delay would be, mentioning a fuel problem but not declaring it as an emergency. Soon after, the LaMia flight left its holding pattern, making a Mayday call declaring a complete electrical failure and lack of fuel. The Rionegro control tower authorised the emergency landing, but lost contact before the aircraft fell. The absence of an explosion or fire at the crash site would suggest that the fuel tanks of the Avro RJ85 were in fact empty on impact.
Of course, incidents such as this one are the result of a number of factors. There was the electrical fault, possibly caused by adverse weather conditions. There was the traffic at Rionegro airport and the unfortunate coincidence of VivaColombia 8170 requiring its own emergency landing.
However, there is also the fact that LA 2933’s journey was inherently risky due to the aircraft’s limited range. A refuelling stop before Rionegro would have bought them time to make their emergency landing. Gustavo Vargas, LaMia CEO, declared this afternoon that the original plan was to refuel in Cobija, a town on the border between Bolivia and Brazil. This stop was not made, as the flight was delayed in leaving Viru Viru, meaning the airport in Cobija had already closed. Vargas went on to say that the pilot had the option to refuel in Bogotá, but decided against doing so.
There is also the question of the pilot’s delay in declaring an emergency. Presumably aware that the craft was close to capacity and without enough fuel to remain in a holding pattern, choosing not to request emergency landing and entering said pattern was an extremely risky course of action.
Further investigation is underway and more information is bound to surface, but the facts we already have suggest beyond much doubt that the crash was avoidable.
Questions must now be asked of LaMia, an airline that has provided low-cost charter services to a number of South American football teams (both clubs and national sides), reportedly under recommendation by the continent’s football confederation, Conmebol.
Read my tribute to Chapecoense for The Independent: https://t.co/kUO5OGGMmw