Aviation authorities have grounded the Bolivian charter company that lost its remaining working jet in a tragic crash while carrying a Brazilian football team to the Colombian city of Medellin.
Seventy-one people were killed after the LaMia plane carrying the Chapecoense football team crashed as it seemingly ran out of fuel while trying to land at Medellin. Only six people survived.
The Bolivian Civil Aviation Authority said it had indefinitely suspended LaMia’s operating licence and was replacing the management of its aviation authority to ensure a transparent investigation.
The move came as questions were raised about why the plane did not make an intermediate stop to refuel and instead flew a direct route, to Medellin from Bolivia's Santa Cruz, that was at the edge of its range.
The BBC quoted Colombian aviation chief Alfredo Bocanegra saying that the Avro RJ85 aircraft had no fuel when it slammed into a mountain .
"Having been able to do an inspection of all of the remains and parts of the plane, we can affirm clearly that the aircraft did not have fuel at the moment of impact," Bocanegra said.
The plane was supposed to have 30 minutes of fuel in reserve when it reached its destination but “in the case the plane did not have it,’’ another aviation official, Freddy Bonilla, is quoted as saying.
The comments back up reports of a leaked tape in which the pilot, Miguel Quiroga, can be heard warning of an electrical failure and lack of fuel as he desperately sought landing instructions.
The charter company had previoulsy used an intermediate stop when flying between Santa Cruz and Medellin but was unable to do so on this occasion because of delays to the flight schedule, according to an authoritative air safety website.
The Aviation Safety Network said an analysis of Flightradar24 tracking data showed the aircraft had flown to the Colombian city on at least two previous occasions via a stop at Cobija in Northern Bolivia.
The plane was operating on the edge of its capability: the distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin is 2960kms and Airliners.net puts the range of the plane with maximum fuel at 2965km, or 2130km with a maximum payload.
ASN pointed to local media reports quoting LaMia's general director saying the initial plan had been to fly the football team from the sprawling Brazilian city of Sao Paolo to Medellin, with a refuelling stop in Cobija, but this had not been possible due to regulatory problems.
“The Chapecoense team was then flown to Santa Cruz in Bolivia on a regular commercial flight,’’ the website said. “This routing caused delays to the schedule and Cobija could no longer be used to refuel because of night time closure of the airport, according to the airline's general director.
“Flightradar24 tracking data suggest that the aircraft previously flew to Medellin on at least two previous occasions. On August 22 and August 25 the aircraft routed Santa Cruz-Cobija-Medellin.’’
Investigators probing the November 28 crash have secured the flight data and cockpit voice recorders.
The comments by officials confirm separate reports of comments from a surviving crew member as well as a message from an Avianca pilot flying nearby at the time.
According to the Mirror website, the second pilot, Juan Sebastian Upequi, heard Quiroga saying “there’s no fuel’’ as he desperately called for help getting to the runway and shouted “We’re going down, help us!’.
A wire service report said Bolivian flight attendant Ximena Sanchez told a rescuer: “We ran out of fuel. The airplane turned off.’’