Air-safety experts probing the jetliner crash that killed 71 people, including most of Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer squad, will look at whether the plane ran out of fuel while on a flight close to the limits of its range.
The distance between Santa Cruz in Bolivia, where the BAE Systems Plc Avro RJ85 took off, and Medellin, Colombia, where it was headed, is 1,598 nautical miles, based on calculations using the Great Circle Mapper website. That model, which ceased production in 2003, has a usual range of about 1,600 nautical miles (1.15 statute miles, or 1.85 kilometers).
“There’s a lot of speculation about the length of the sector,” Paul Hayes, safety director at London-based aviation consultancy Ascend Worldwide, said in an interview. “It’s very long for an RJ85. You would not normally think of this aircraft as operating that sort of flight on a range basis alone.”
Since the plane, operated by Lamia Bolivia, would have made its approach to Medellin with a light fuel load, a circling maneuver performed before the crash was most likely a standard procedure to lose altitude in a mountainous area rather than a bid to burn fuel prior to an emergency landing, Hayes said.
In audio broadcast by Colombian and Brazilian media outlets, the plane’s pilot makes ever more urgent pleas to the control tower, asking for an emergency landing, saying it had run out of fuel. He also said there was a “total electric failure.” A female air-traffic controller said the plane would have to wait while a separate plane made an emergency landing.
In the event of the RJ85 exhausting fuel supplies, its engines would have stopped running electrical generators, though batteries should have kept critical electronics functioning for some time, Hayes said.
Gustavo Vargas, a director of Lamia, was in meetings and couldn’t be reached by phone. He told local media he didn’t think the tragedy was caused by a miscalculation of the fuel needed for the flight, adding that the pilot was experienced and would have diverted to Bogota had there been an issue.
David Learmount, consulting aviation-safety editor at Flight Global, said the pilot’s reported remarks to the Medellin tower also would be consistent with an underlying electrical problem that he was conscious he did not have much time to address before running out of fuel.
While there are several other possible explanations for the tragedy, the mountainous terrain around the Colombian city is likely to have been a factor, with little or no room for deviation from the required approach while the crew were making life or death calculations, Learmount said.
The RJ85 and the BAe146, of which it is a derivative, have a good safety record, according to Ascend’s crash database. Its last fatal accident occurred in 2009, when a cargo variant hit a mountain in New Guinea in poor weather, killing its six crew members. The last crash to claim the lives of passengers was in 2006, when a plane overran on landing in Norway and four people died.
Both crashes are typical of incidents involving regional aircraft, which are smaller than full-size airliners and better suited to more marginal routes in less developed markets, often serving airports with short runways or those lacking the most modern navigational aids.
The plane that crashed in Colombia, registration number CP2933, was built in 1999 and flew with a regional unit of Northwest Airlines in the U.S. for eight years, Ascend records show. It then moved to Europe with CityJet Ltd., which still operates large numbers of RJ85s from London City Airport’s truncated runway, before being withdrawn from service in 2010. The plane then moved to South America, where it was largely idle before entering service with Lamia.
There were six survivors of Monday’s crash, according to the latest update from Colombia. The plane had been carrying the Chapecoense team together with officials and journalists to Wednesday’s Copa Sudamericana final against Medellin-based Atletico Nacional.
Because the RJ85 was made in Britain, three investigators from the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch specializing in operations, engineering and flight data recorders are flying out to assist in the probe. BAE, which said 220 similar planes remain in service, will also provide support.