Why the Chapecoense football team’s plane ran out of fuel

MUCH remains unknown about Lamia Airlines flight 2933, which crashed into the hills of Colombia on November 28th, killing 71 of the 77 people on board. Fans of Chapecoense, a Brazilian football team, must wait to hear the full story of how a chartered plane carrying 22 of their players and several staff members failed to arrive safely. (Only three players are among the survivors.) Many Brazilian reporters covering the crash knew one of the 21 journalists on board, and are starting to ask why these lives were lost in such devastating circumstances.

The chartered plane was to fly the team from Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia to the Colombian city of Medellín for the biggest match of their lives, the final of a continental club tournament. An earlier commercial flight had brought them from São Paolo in Brazil to Bolivia. The private jet was scheduled to stop for refuelling in Cobija, in Bolivia’s north. But it never did. In a black-box recording leaked to the press, the pilot, Miguel Quiroga, could be heard saying that the plane was running out of fuel as it approached Medellín. Colombian authorities have confirmed that the plane had no fuel when it crashed.

Plane crashes owing to fuel exhaustion are extremely rare. Usually, a technical error causes the amount of fuel on board to be misjudged. In 2005, a Tuninter Airlines plane that crashed in the Mediterranean Sea had had its fuel gauge replaced the night before. Technicians mistakenly installed one designed for a smaller aeroplane with a smaller fuel tank. This caused the crew to “fill” the tank with insufficient fuel; 16 of the 39 people on board were killed. In 1983, crew members accidentally fuelled an Air Canada passenger jet using pounds, not kilogrammes, as the unit of measurement. The plane took off with its tank less than half full and was forced into an emergency landing on a racing track (all survived). Yet in this latest tragedy, everyone knew exactly how much fuel was in the plane when it took off: a full tank. What happened?

According to O Globo, a Brazilian news outlet, the first leg of the journey from São Paolo to Santa Cruz de la Sierra was delayed by around one hour. That meant that the refuelling stop in Cobija was not possible, as the airport there shuts down at night. So, the pilot opted to fly directly from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Medellín.

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