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They Almost Always Make It

BAE 146 flightThe crash of chartered BAE 146 Avro RJ85 near Medellin, Colombia, took out most of a small Brazilian city’s championship soccer team, team management, and accompanying journalists. While general aviation has been plagued for decades with pilots trying to substitute low-octane air for high-octane avgas, it’s very unusual in the airline world where they have rules, checks, and balances. GA has rules too, we get to write lots of checks and the balance of decision-making is largely left up to the PIC. What follows is a quick early synopsis but of greater interest to me is the state of mind of the captain and how this spiraled into such a disaster. First, the facts as they are known.

The investigation may uncover more—so my standard disclaimer on preliminary accident status applies. The BAE 146 was chartered to fly from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Medellin, Columbia. The aircraft range is about 1,600 nautical miles, just about the distance between the two cities, and the reported flight time was almost exactly the endurance of the jet. Seems pretty obvious that a fuel stop would be needed but there were only a few places along the way. This is mostly mountainous country with lots of jungle so the choices were extremely limited. A small airport, about midway, would close after dark when the flight was expected to pass in range. The other option was Bogota, only 40 minutes away from the final destination.

International rules require turbine aircraft to have a minimum of 30 minutes of fuel remaining—taking into account any contingencies—and if an alternate is required, the ability to get to the alternate after an approach with that amount of reserve. It also states that the reserve has to be calculated at 1,500 agl, an altitude at which turbine engines become extremely thirsty.

There were a couple of other commercial flights ahead of the BAE 146 and the pilot, while explaining that they were low on fuel, did not initially declare an emergency that would have granted landing priority. As bad luck would have it, another aircraft arrived at Medellin at about the same time and asked for priority because of a fuel leak or possibly some other emergency. After several exchanges with the controller, the pilot frantically explained the situation, and shortly after that the aircraft went down. The Flight Data Recorder has been recovered and will tell the tale.

It was noted in some reports that a dispatcher at Santa Cruz airport noted that the aircraft range and distance were the same and objected. A crew member dismissed her concerns saying the captain was confident they had enough fuel. There was some time pressure to get the team to Medellin earlier in the evening and a fuel stop would have been “problematic.” The investigation will likely reveal some international political intrigue, as well. The captain was a part owner of the charter airline that was trying to build up its business ferrying sports teams. His partner—and the airline’s co-owner—a retired Bolivian Air Force officer, was aboard. The general’s son was the head of the country’s aircraft registration authority. Note that by some countries rules if a flight declares a fuel emergency there are often sanctions for the pilot and the company.

A few observations: This will be a well-documented crash that bears strong resemblance to way too many light GA crashes where pilots run out of fuel. When the Air Safety Institute started a fuel awareness campaign, years ago, there were about three crashes per week. It has gradually come down to about one per week. That’s progress but the reasons haven’t changed. You can probably recite them so I won’t belabor the point. The Air Safety Institute’s Fuel Management Safety Spotlight is highly recommended.

Sometimes circumstances conspire—such as having two air carrier aircraft arrive simultaneously with fuel emergencies. But it doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate stronger headwinds, a fouled runway due to a gear-up landing or other mechanical problem, winds exceeding the crosswind capability of the aircraft, weather below landing minimums, etc., etc.

A couple of self-inflicted rules have been helpful to me: If the weather is really lousy or I’m going to a place where there are not a lot of nearby options, about 50 percent of the fuel gets me to the intended destination, 30 percent to a real alternate (not the paper one), and 20 percent is “Aw Shucks” reserve. In less critical circumstances where there are more good options, the ASI Golden Hour will serve piston aircraft pilots well—one hour of fuel on landing, not when you start to think about diverting. Your mileage may vary, pun intended. If a fuel stop is needed, make it about midway on the trip. It’s against human nature to get almost to the destination and suddenly decide to divert. The blog title is applicable in nearly every case of fuel exhaustion.

In the U.S., we are gradually moving away from enforcement to emphasize compliance. There are times when punitive action might be appropriate, but for most first-time offenses a better approach is to educate a misinformed pilot as to why it’s a really bad idea to stretch fuel. If a pilot made an honest, even stupid mistake, government retribution might be viewed as “piling on.” While it’s supposed to act as a disincentive to create the problem in the first place, too many times it serves to dissuade pilots from recognizing that they need to confess and get some help. Obviously, a habit of bad decision-making is not condoned. The mark of a professional is to do the right thing when nobody’s looking! Deliberately making a bad decision may need some additional scrutiny from the authorities.

Aircraft fuel and human life are similar. Both are finite, while our ability to rationalize is infinite. Understand the distinction.

Note:  This will be my last regular blog but I’ll look forward to seeing many of you at various aviation events and will occasionally blog or write when absolutely unable to restrain myself. Stay in touch—you can email me at [email protected] Safe Flights!

3 Comments

  1. We’ll miss your safety blogs, Bruce – they were always thought-provoking.

    As for this sad story, not much to say except that even professionals can talk themselves into just about any stupid thing if their financial or business needs appear to demand it. Get-there-itis on steroids in this case. The human mind is nearly always the weakest link in any accident “chain”.

  2. A long time ago, in an entirely different context, a friend used the terminology, “desperate men do desperate things in desperate circumstances.” It is equally applicable to aviation, and especially to fuel issues. The combination of financial issues, “get-there-itis”, poor planning, time, promises, etc., etc.can create the desperate circumstances, causing the desperate pilot to do desperate things, like trying to stretch the fuel to the last drop, as happened in this tragic case.

    I suspect any pilot who has been flying very long has pushed into the Golden Hour and landed with less fuel than he/she should have. “It’s just a little farther; we can make it” works, if nothing goes haywire. When it happens, though, it’s time to re-evaluate what should have been done, so that it won’t happen again. All it usually takes is making an intermediate fuel stop. If only this pilot, this time, had done that, 77 people would be alive instead of only 6.

  3. Sorry to see you stop blogging. Your articles are always interesting and thought provoking.

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