“A fuel problem has occurred!”

On November 28th 2016 an aircraft of the Bolivian airline “LaMia” crashed into the hills near the Colombian city Medellin – 71 of the 77 people on board lost their lives. Very soon after the crash, an incredible suspicion concerning the reasons for this accident came to life: has the aircraft crashed because it ran out of fuel?

The flight “LaMia 2933” was planned from Santa Cruz/Bolivia to Rionegro in Colombia. As the preliminary accident investigation report shows, the total distance of this flight exceeded the maximum range of this type of aircraft, an Avro RJ85. During the preparation of the flight the filed flight plan showed some more suspicious facts: no standard instrument departure route was filed, no alternate airport was planned, the estimated flight time exceeded the maximum endurance of the aircraft type & the dispatcher had only signed the flight plan, but not printed his name. So every person involved in preparing or using this flight plan must have instantly realised that this flight will not make it to destination without refuelling! Yet, there was no refuelling stop.

Shortly after entering the airspace of Colombia, the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) of the aircraft stopped working – for unknown reasons. Ten minutes before the crash, the crew asked for “priority” to land, because “a fuel problem has occurred”. During the next minutes, one after the other, the four engines of this aircraft ceased operation, because of a very simple reason: the fuel tanks of the aircraft were empty! And still, Air Traffic Control did not receive a Mayday-call – the flight was doomed!

71 passengers & crew lost their life. The final accident investigation report is still in the making. But once it is published – it will be a “must-read” not only by aviation professionals but also by oversight authorities and politicians.

Issues related to fuel planning, decision-making, operational and organizational oversight will fill those pages undoubtedly. The pilot-in-command was at the same time co-owner of the airline. His operational decisions – how much fuel to take on board, whether to stop for a refuel, what kind of flight plan to submit – cannot be seen outside the context of his business aspirations.

“Yes, but that’s Latin America & not possible in Europe” I hear you say? Well, fuel incidents in Europe happen, again and again. Some airlines ‘strongly encourage’ saving fuel or offer incentives to the pilots to reduce their fuel burn. We hear things like: “Can we have priority, otherwise we will have to divert” on the radio transmissions, conspicuously more often from the low-cost side of the industry. From my point of view we should talk about this, before things happen – because setting the right priorities is a significant part of being a pilot!

by Dirk Polloczek

Note: The Final Accident Investigation report is due in April 2017. Download the Preliminary Accident investigation report here