Colombia plane crash: Pilot chose to skip refuelling stop
Bolivia's aviation authority yesterday suspended the licence of the airline behind a plane crash that killed 71 people, as blame shifted to the pilot and co-owner of the airline for failing to make a refuelling stop.
The charter flight from Bolivia to Colombia, which was carrying Brazilian football team Chapecoense, came down in the Andes near Colombia's second city of Medellin after an apparent fuel shortage. Of the 77 people on board six survived the impact, including three members of Chapecoense.
Workers in the team's Brazilian home town of Chapeco yesterday erected temporary structures in the stadium to shelter the coffins of 51 victims expected to arrive back today for an open-air wake. Some 100,000 fans, about half the city's population, are expected to attend.
Bolivia said yesterday that it was suspending LaMia's operation certificate, adding that the move implies no wrongdoing, as Colombian investigators said the crash might have resulted from lack of fuel on the plane.
Freddy Bonilla, secretary of airline security at Colombia's aviation authority, said investigators examining the crash site on a wooded hillside outside Medellin found no traces of fuel in the wreckage of the BAE 146, made by Britain's BAE Systems.
Experts said the pilot Miguel Quiroga, the airline's owner, missed opportunities to refuel while flying at the very limit of the jet's range.
Gustavo Vargas, a director at LaMia, told Bolivian press that it was Mr Quiroga who had decided to skip refuelling in Bogota, Colombia's capital, choosing instead to fly directly to Jose Maria Cordova Airport on the outskirts of Medellin. "The pilot was the one who made the decision," Mr Vargas said. "He thought the fuel would last."
A leaked recording from Avianca co-pilot Juan Sebastian Upegui, who overheard the panicked conversation between Mr Quiroga and air traffic control from his cockpit, revealed that the LaMia pilot requested an emergency landing due to a fuel shortage.
Asked how much time the plane could stay in the air, Mr Quiroga replied: "We have a fuel emergency, ma'am, that's why I am asking you [to land] at once...I request an immediate descent."
Shortly after the exchange, the pilot declared a "total electrical failure" and pleaded for navigational assistance before the plane crashed 30 miles from the airport.
Mr Bonilla said at a news conference that the plane was out of fuel at the moment of impact.
Steven Draper, who flew a variant of the LaMia aircraft for British Airways for 15 years, said': "If you are into your fuel reserve, it is a mayday...you have to specify in the call that it is related to fuel, and how many minutes of flying time you have."
Evidence suggests Mr Quiroga did not declare his emergency in time to the air traffic control team, nor communicate how long the aircraft could remain in the air to the Colombian airport.
Chapecoense had been due to play the Colombian side Atletico Nacional on Wednesday in Medellin.
Instead, Nacional's Atanasio Girardot stadium played host to a vigil to honour those who died in the crash.
So far, 59 of the 71 bodies have been identified. This includes 52 Brazilians, five Bolivian, one Venezuelan and a person from Paraguay.