Plane crazy

The pilot is being blamed for the crash that wiped out a tiny Brazilian football team heading for unlikely sporting glory. Why did he skip a chance to refuel in his hell-for-leather dash to the match venue?

Boarding their chartered jet at the Bolivian airport of Santa Cruz, the Brazilian footballers of Chapecoense appeared happy and excited in the photos and video clips they posted online only moments before takeoff on the last leg of their journey to Medellin, Colombia.

One of the players, Tiaguinho, had earlier watched a surprise video message from his wife telling him she was pregnant with their first child. Bruno Rangel, a veteran striker, was sad to be missing his daughter’s eighth birthday but hoped to be back for a delayed family party on Friday.

There was another first in the cockpit of the British-built aircraft that had spent three years parked in a hangar in Norwich before a Venezuelan investor bought it for a low-cost Latin American charter airline. Sisy Arias, a recently qualified Bolivian pilot, was making her first commercial flight as co-pilot.

Someone filmed Arias, 29, explaining how proud she was that her tiny Bolivian airline should be part of a sporting adventure that had captured the imagination of a continent. From a remote corner of southern Brazil, far from the economic powerhouse of Sao Paulo and the glamour of Rio de Janeiro, an unsung football team with no big stars had pulled off a Cinderella story for the ages.

Not even Leicester City’s rags-to-riches triumph in last year’s Premier League can match Chapecoense’s extraordinary rise from the Brazilian fourth division in 2009 to the biggest matches in the club’s 43-year history: the two-leg final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s second-largest knockout competition.

In charge of the Monday evening flight to Medellin where the team were due to play the first leg on Wednesday night against Colombia’s Atletico Nacional was Captain Miguel Quiroga — known to his friends as Micky — a veteran civilian and former military pilot who was also co-owner of the LaMia airline to which the four-engined Avro RJ85 jet was leased.

The father of three children aged between five months and four years, Quiroga, 36, sent a text a few moments before takeoff at 6.18pm. Using the WhatsApp messaging service he wrote to his wife: “Mami, I’m leaving Viru Viru airport in Santa Cruz for Medellin. I’ll call when I get there.”

Less than five hours later Quiroga’s aircraft slammed into a Colombian hillside eight miles short of the Medellin runway, killing 71 of the 77 people on board, among them the captain, his co-pilot, 19 players and coaching staff and 20 journalists.

As football teams around the world observed minutes of silence at professional and amateur matches yesterday, Quiroga’s dual roles as pilot and airline co-owner were under scrutiny by aviation authorities.

It appears certain that the plane ran out of fuel when its approach to Medellin, a city surrounded by forbidding ridges and steep Andean foothills, was delayed by problems with another aircraft. The grief that stretched across a continent has been magnified by speculation that Quiroga may have skipped a crucial refuelling stop in order to reduce costs, or out of some kind of misplaced macho urge to impress his passengers with the speed and efficiency of his fledgling airline’s service.

The pilot was reported yesterday to have exceeded safety limits on his aircraft’s range on at least four occasions since August. He was reportedly warned that the flight plan he filed before departing Santa Cruz on Monday showed he was not carrying enough fuel reserves for a flight between airports 1,839 miles apart. The RJ85’s maximum range is listed by one leading aviation website as 1,842 miles.

“He said it would be more than enough,” Celia Castedo, of the Bolivian airport authority, was quoted as writing in an official report. Quiroga told her: “We can reduce flight time, don’t worry.” Why Quiroga was not sanctioned for safety violations has not been explained but one aviation expert was quoted by a Chapeco newspaper as saying: “The pilot was irresponsible and flying on a knife’s edge.”

Of the team that dreamt of sporting greatness, only three players survived Quiroga’s last flight. Jakson Ragnar Follmann, the team’s 24-year-old reserve goalkeeper, had his right leg amputated in hospital and remains in intensive care.

Alan Ruschel, a 27-year-old defender, underwent spinal surgery before being reunited with his fiancée, Marina Storchi, a former Brazilian beauty queen, who said yesterday she had “screamed and screamed and willed him to live” when she heard on television he had been pulled from the wreckage alive.

Storchi said Ruschel is on a ventilation machine and communicates by winking but is now out of danger. “I can’t wait to marry him,” she added.

Helio Hermito Zampier Neto, a 31-year-old defender, was in a stable condition after surgery on several injuries and his father said last week he may be able to play again. One of the journalists and two crew members were also extracted alive from the tail end of the wreckage.

The bodies of 64 victims were returned to Brazil yesterday, the coffins wrapped in shrouds bearing Chapecoense’s green crest. More than 100,000 people — half the town’s population — attended a memorial service in Chapeco. Like the city of Manchester after the Munich air crash of 1958, and the 1949 Turin crash that killed 22 Torino players, this southern Brazilian outpost has suffered a tragedy its residents will never forget.

If there was one player who encapsulated the defiant spirit of a blue-collar team from an obscure agri-industrial town — and who also represented the occasionally delirious excesses of Brazilian “futebol” madness — it was Everton Kempes dos Santos Goncalves, a 31-year-old journeyman striker who trundled around minor Brazilian teams, tried a brief stint in Japan, then joined Chapecoense last December. He promptly became one of the club’s top goal scorers.

One aviation expert was quoted by a newspaper in the ill-fated team’s home city as saying: ‘The pilot was irresponsible and flying on a knife’s edge’

Any player called Everton has a lot to live up to but the name owes most of its popularity in Brazil not so much to football fandom as to the floods of Merseyside immigrants who poured across the Atlantic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to build the country’s infrastructure and work in its mines and coffee plantations.

Paradoxically, it was an Argentine footballer that most inspired Everton’s father, Amaro, who named all three of his sons after Mario Kempes, the great Valencia striker who scored twice for Argentina in the 1978 World Cup final. Everton’s brothers are Erick Kempes and Cleber Kempes.

Everton appeared full of beans as he boarded the plane for Medellin. Videos show the Afro-haired striker joking with cabin crew, mistaking a steward for the pilot and offering a free endorsement. “This is a very important final,” he said to camera. “We are happy to be flying LaMia. Let’s go for it.”

If it seemed to the players unsurprising that they should be travelling to such an important match via a roundabout route with an unknown Bolivian airline, Chapecoense’s decision to spurn commercial flights in favour of a low-cost charter business with only one serviceable plane is now part of the accident investigation.

According to media reports in Colombia and Brazil, LaMia was founded in the Venezuelan city of Merida in 2010 as a mostly short-haul airline with the full name of Linea Aerea Merida Internacional de Aviacion. Plans were announced to buy a dozen planes from China with financial help from the regional government.

Exactly how the airline ended up with three RJ85 jets that had spent three years in a Norwich hangar is not yet clear. When LaMia was refused an operating certificate in Venezuela — reportedly on the grounds that the airline did not comply with operational safety requirements — the Venezuelan owner of the three planes leased them to a pair of Bolivian businessmen, one of whom was Quiroga. To avoid the cost of repainting the planes, Quiroga and his partner, Marco Antonio Rocha, kept the LaMia name and livery.

The new airline quickly found a profitable niche transporting football teams around the continent, even though two of its planes were reportedly grounded at the time of the crash with maintenance issues. LaMia’s charter prices were up to 40% lower than its regional competitors. Both the Chapecoense team and their Colombian rivals, Atletico, had used LaMia before for away games. Quiroga was the pilot when LaMia flew Argentina’s national squad back to Buenos Aires from a match against Brazil in Belo Horizonte. Lionel Messi was among the Argentine stars on board.

When Chapecoense qualified for the Copa Sudamericana final, LaMia applied to the Brazilian aviation agency for permission to fly the team to Medellin from their southern home state, Santa Catarina. The request was denied on the grounds that a bilateral agreement allowed only Brazilian or Colombian airlines to fly directly between the two countries.

The team now faced an awkward slog from their home base in the city of Chapeco via Sao Paulo to Santa Cruz where they boarded flight LMI 2933 to Medellin. Quiroga allegedly told airline staff he would stop to refuel at Cobija in northern Bolivia, about a third of the way into the journey, yet local media reported that Cobija, like many small airports in the Andean region, was closed after dark.

On his flight plan Quiroga listed the Colombian capital, Bogota, roughly an hour’s flying time short of Medellin, as his designated alternative in the event of bad weather or other emergency.

Quiroga must have known by the time he flew over Bogota his fuel was running low. International rules requiring aircraft to carry at least 30 minutes’ worth of fuel beyond their anticipated usage should have deterred him from continuing. Yet he pressed on, apparently hoping for a swift descent into Medellin by 11pm.

What followed was exactly the kind of emergency that compulsory fuel levels are designed to avoid. Just as Quiroga started his descent, a VivaColombia Airbus A320 en route to the Caribbean island of San Andres reported a fuel leak and diverted to the nearest airport — Medellin.

Quiroga was placed in a holding pattern at 20,000ft; precious minutes passed before he finally alerted the Medellin tower to his “fuel emergency”. When power was lost with a jolt, the pilot radioed: “Lima-Mike-India 2933 is in total failure, total electrical failure and [lack of] fuel.” Moments later he pleaded with the female controller, “Vectors [runway co-ordinates], miss. Tell me the vectors.”

As his plane glided helplessly towards the hillside, many of the passengers were on their feet, screaming, according to Erwin Turimi, a flight technician who said he survived the impact “by tucking suitcases between my legs and assuming the foetal position, as they recommend for accidents”. Ximena Suarez, a 28-year-old Bolivian flight attendant, survived with lacerations to her leg.

The pilot must have known by the time he reached Bogota that his fuel was running low, but he pressed on

Juan Sebastian Upegui is an Avianca airlines co-pilot whose plane was also waiting to land when he heard Quiroga’s anguished messages to the control tower. “We were just silent, silent,” he said later. “I remember I laid my head on my arms rooting for him. I was going, ‘Do it, do it, land, land’. I said, ‘F***, the guy’s [out of fuel] at 9,000ft, he’s gonna kick the bucket . . . and the guy continued, ‘Help us! Vectors! Vectors!’ and that was it. The controller lost it and we began to cry.” Quiroga’s last recorded word was “Jesus”.

It is generally agreed to have been Charles Miller, the son of a Scottish railway engineer, who turned up at the port of Santos in 1894 with the first footballs seen in Brazil. Within a couple of years a befuddled Brazilian journalist attempted to explain his countrymen’s enthusiasm for this strange new imported game. “It gives them great satisfaction or fills them with great sorrow when this kind of yellowish bladder enters a rectangle formed by wooden posts,” he wrote.

Over the decades that followed, the “great satisfaction” included five Brazilian World Cup victories and a roll call of home-grown players that rank among the greatest to have played the game: Pele, Socrates, Zico, Rivelino, Ronaldo and Neymar. No Chapecoense player was likely to join that magical elite, but it turned out to be the players from Chapeco that provided Brazil with the greatest of all football sorrows.

Jose Serra, the Brazilian foreign minister, flew to Medellin to thank Colombia for its practical assistance and solidarity after the crash. With tears in his eyes, he pledged that Brazilians would “never forget the way Colombians felt as their own this terrible disaster that interrupted the dream of the heroic Chapecoense team, a fairy tale with a tragic ending”.

The Colombian players of Atletico urged the Copa competition’s organisers to award the cup posthumously to Chapecoense. In the city of Chapeco a steady stream of stunned fans arrived at the club’s Arena Conda stadium to wait for news. No one was more upset and confused than Richard Ferreira do Nascimento, a seven-year-old boy in a green club shirt who sat on his own in the stands, unable to comprehend that his favourite players would not be returning.

His mother, Maristela, tried to tell him that the reason they had come to the stadium on a Wednesday — and not the normal match day on Sunday — was that “the players died in a terrible plane crash”. Richard shook his head fiercely. “That’s not true,” he cried. “They are going to play.” A picture of him staring forlornly from an empty terrace appeared in many Brazilian newspapers.

Yet grief is quickly giving way to outrage as investigators delve into LaMia’s records. There was speculation in South American media last week that flying low on fuel was company policy, a cost-cutting measure offsetting the low charter fares the airline had offered to drum up business.

As a co-owner as well as pilot, Quiroga may have been reluctant to admit that his airline was cutting safety corners to save money. “We don’t understand why he didn’t declare an emergency until he was out of fuel,” said Alfredo Bocanegra, of the Colombian aviation authority.

Ricardo Albacete, the Venezuelan businessman who leased the planes to Quiroga and his partner was last week at pains to distance himself from the running of the airline. “We are neither shareholders nor employees of LaMia Bolivia,” said Albacete. “The plane was operated by the Bolivian company.”

There was another, more elusive, explanation that investigators appear certain to consider. The recorded scenes of passengers and crew in the moments before takeoff show a shared excitement and pride at the little airline’s role in a grand sporting event. Was Quiroga seduced by an urge to show off in front of a potentially influential group of customers? Was he driven to exceed his plane’s limits in order to give a fairy-tale team a quick flight and a good night’s sleep before their biggest match?

A stopover in Cobija or Bogota would have got the players to their Medellin hotel long after midnight. Was Quiroga simply trying to please? Gustavo Vargas, LaMia’s managing director, said the plane “should have refuelled in Bogota . . . we have to investigate why the pilot determined to fly directly to Medellin”.

As for the match that never took place, a trio of Chapecoense fans hit upon the idea of a fantasy contest played out on Twitter in real time with the hashtag #FinalDosSonhos — final of our dreams.

Thousands followed the imaginary game. No one in Colombia complained when Chapecoense won 3-1.

The tragedy of the Busby Babes

The catastrophe in Colombia last week stirred grim memories for British football fans. On February 6, 1958, a plane carrying the Manchester United squad back from a European Cup fixture crashed during take-off in snowy conditions at Munich-Riem airport in the former West Germany.

Twenty of the 44 people on board died, including eight United players. Two other passengers and a co-pilot died later in hospital, bringing the final toll to 23.

The youthful team had been nicknamed the Busby Babes after their charismatic manager, Matt Busby, and they were the favourites to become European champions.

Initially, the investigation into the crash blamed the pilot, but eventually officials concluded that slush had caused the aircraft to skid off the runway.

The victims are commemorated at the old Munich airport and with a plaque and memorial clock at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home.

English football and the wider public were rocked by the tragedy and it was even feared that Manchester United might fold. But Busby returned to manage the team the next season, saying: “There [Old Trafford] the ghosts of the Babes are still.”

Busby rebuilt the team around Bobby Charlton, the young midfielder who had also been on the plane. He later played a crucial role in the England team that won the World Cup in 1966, and went on to become the country’s top goal-scorer, a record broken only in September 2015 by Wayne Rooney.

Manchester United commemorates the crash every year. For the 50th anniversary in 2008 the players wore strips in the style of the 1958 squad, which were numbered 1-11 and bore no advertising, for their derby against Manchester City.

Monday’s tragedy also drew comparisons to the 1972 air disaster known in South America as the Miracle of the Andes, in which a chartered plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team to Santiago, Chile, crashed in the mountains.

Of 27 initial survivors, eight were killed in an avalanche. The remainder stayed alive by cannibalising the bodies of the others. They were rescued after 72 days on the mountainside. Their ordeal was turned into a film, Alive, starring Ethan Hawke, in 1993.

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