Bolivia suspends licence of airline behind Colombia crash as it emerges pilot skipped crucial refuel stop

By Oliver Griffin

Miguel Alejandro Quiroga Murakami pleaded on his radio as the jet carrying 77 passengers plummeted to its fate in the Colombian mountains killing 71 people on board. Photo / Micky Quiroga
Miguel Alejandro Quiroga Murakami pleaded on his radio as the jet carrying 77 passengers plummeted to its fate in the Colombian mountains killing 71 people on board. Photo / Micky Quiroga

Bolivia's aviation authority has suspended the licence of the airline behind a disastrous plane crash that killed 71 people, as blame for the crash shifted to the pilot and co-owner of the airline for failing to make a refuel stop.

The charter flight from Bolivia to Colombia, which was carrying rising Brazilian football team Chapecoense, ended in tragedy after an apparent fuel shortage caused the plane to smash head first into the Andes near Colombia's second city of Medellin.

Of the 77 people on board just six survived the impact, including three members of FC Chapecoense.

Rescue workers stand at the wreckage site. Photo / AP
Rescue workers stand at the wreckage site. Photo / AP

On Thursday, workers in the team's small Brazilian hometown of Chapeco erected temporary structures in the stadium to shelter the coffins of 51 victims expected to arrive back on Friday for an open-air wake. Some 100,000 fans, about half the city's population, are expected to attend.

Bolivia said on Thursday that it was immediately suspending airline 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 combing the crash site on a wooded hillside outside of Medellin found no traces of fuel in the wreckage of the BAe 146 made by Britain's BAE Systems Plc.

Experts said pilot Miguel Quiroga, the airline's owner, missed opportunities to refuel while flying at the very limit of the BAE built jet's range.

Gustavo Vargas, a director at LaMia, told Bolivian press that it was Captain Quiroga had decided to skip refuelling the aircraft in Colombian capital Bogota, 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 Sebastián Upegui, who overheard the panicked conversation between Quiroga and air traffic control from his cockpit, revealed that the LaMia pilot requested an emergency landing due to a fuel shortage.

After being asked how much time the plane could stay in the air, 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."

The last photo before the team boarded the doomed flight.
The last photo before the team boarded the doomed flight.

Shortly after the exchange, the pilot declared a "total electrical failure" and pleaded for navigational assistance before the plane crashed just 30 miles from the airport.

Freddy Bonilla, the air safety chief for Colombia's civil aviation authority, said at a news conference that the plane was out of fuel at the moment of impact. This, he said, violated international rules requiring that aircraft maintain sufficient fuel in reserve when flying between airports.

Steven Draper, who flew a variant of the LaMia aircraft for British Airways over a period of 15 years, told the Telegraph: "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 that Quiroga did not declare his emergency in time to the air traffic control team, or communicate how long the aircraft could remain in the air to the Colombian airport, causing the plane to crash.

The tragedy has rocked Chapeco. The team had been due to play 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 Brazilian nationals, five citizens from Bolivia, one Venezuelan and another from Paraguay.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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