In November 2016, sport and aviation were plunged into mourning by the crash of flight LaMia flight 2933. The disaster, which had just six survivors, involved a flight carrying Brazilian football team Associação Chapecoense de Futebol and its entourage. Let’s take a look at how the disaster panned out, and its impacts in both sporting and aviation-based domains.
The flight in question
The purpose of LaMia flight LMI2933 had been to transport the Chapecoense squad from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, to Medellín, Colombia. The team had asked to charter the services of LaMia (Línea Aérea Mérida Internacional de Aviación) for its entire journey from Brazil. However, the nature of ICAO’s freedoms of the air did not permit Chapecoense to do so.
This is because such a flight would have to be operated by either a Brazilian or Colombian carrier. Meanwhile, LaMia had its headquarters in Bolivia, rendering this impossible. As such, the team traveled independently to LaMia’s base in Santa Cruz. It did so with Boliviana de Aviación from São Paulo, Brazil, arriving in Santa Cruz at 16:50 local time.
The reason for Chapecoense’s journey was its upcoming participation in the cup final of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana. This competition is South America’s secondary international club tournament, with the winner qualifying for the following iteration of the Copa Libertadores. Chapecoense’s opponent in the final was Medellín’s Atlético Nacional.
The aircraft involved
LaMia flight LMI2933 departed Santa Cruz with Chapecoense and its entourage onboard slightly late at 18:18 local time. It was operated by an Avro RJ85, the mid-size variant from Avro’s four-engine RJ (Regional Jet) family. According to Planespotters.net, the aircraft was one of three RJ85s in LaMia’s fleet at the time. Its registration was CP-2933.
The plane was more than 17 years old at the time, having first flown for US-based Mesaba Airlines in March 1999. It then joined Irish regional carrier CityJet eight-and-a-half years later, in September 2007. Its transfer to LaMia subsequently followed in October 2013. During its time at LaMia, the airline re-registered the aircraft on two occasions.
Unable to stop for fuel
LaMia had initially planned to operate the flight from Santa Cruz to Medellín with an intermediate stop at Bolivia’s Cobija–Captain Aníbal Arab Airport (CIJ). This break in the journey near the Bolivia-Brazil border was to be used to refuel the aircraft.
This was because its range was rather close to the distance of the flight. Specifically, the crew expected to use 8,858 kg of fuel, and the aircraft had just 9,037 kg in its tanks upon departure. As such, this would leave little room for error when flying directly from Santa Cruz to Medellín.
However, the delayed departure rendered the fuel stop impossible. The reason that the flight could no longer make its planned fuel stop was the fact that, owing to its late start, it would not arrive in Cobija before the airport closed. The New York Post reported that the delay arose after a team member requested to retrieve a video game from his luggage.
Rejected diversion to Bogotá
Around three hours after departure from Santa Crus, at 21:16 local time, the aircraft displayed a low fuel warning indication. At the time, it was around 180 NM (333 km) from Medellín, and just 77 NM (143 km) from nearby Bogotá (BOG), Colombia’s largest airport.
Despite the latter being the more convenient option in light of the low fuel levels, the crew chose not to divert there. By 21:30 local time, the flight had begun its descent. However, the diversion of Bogotá-San Andres flight (as the aircraft in question had a fuel leak) to Medellín forced LaMia flight 2933 to enter a holding pattern. It flew this for two circuits.
Engine failures lead to tragedy
The hold amounted to an additional 54 NM (100 km) of fuel use. This prompted the crew to request priority for landing at 21:49, before declaring a fuel emergency at 21:52. Just a minute later, engines 3 and 4 (right-wing) flamed out due to fuel exhaustion.
Engines 1 and 2 on the left-hand side then experienced the same failure after another two minutes. The loss of these also caused the plane’s flight data recorder (FDR) to cease to function. In addition to the engine failures, the crew of flight LMI2933 also reported an electrical failure. Air traffic control lost radar contact with the aircraft at 21:55.
Unable to maintain altitude in such circumstances, the plane eventually crashed at 21:59 local time. It struck a crest of the Cerro Gordo mountain at a height of around 8,500 feet / 2,600 meters above sea level, with its wreckage scattering on both sides of the crest. Tragically, 71 of the 77 occupants (73 passengers and four crew) lost their lives in the crash.
Rebuilding the team
The crash of LaMia flight LMI2933 saw Chapecoense lose almost an entire squad of talented, young players. This bore parallels to the Munich Air Disaster in February 1958, when a similar tragedy befell Manchester United. Just three of Chapecoense’s players survived, of whom one was forced to retire after requiring a leg amputation following the crash.
The South American Football Confederation canceled the 2016 Copa Sudamericana final. Shortly afterward, Atlético Nacional sportingly requested that Chapecoense could be awarded the title by default. The team has since undergone an extensive rebuilding process. Despite being relegated to Série B (the Brazilian second division) in 2019, Chapecoense triumphantly bounced back at the first time of asking. It will resume Série A action in two weeks.
As for LaMia, the disaster was the end of the line for the Bolivian charter carrier. Investigators deemed that it had insufficiently planned for the flight with regards to fuel contingencies. Subsequently, the Bolivian Civil Aviation Authority suspended LaMia’s air operator’s certificate (AOC), and it has not flown since December 2016. Its two remaining Avro RJ85s, aged 21 and 22 years old, have been in storage ever since.
In memory of the victims of LaMia flight LMI2933.