Pilots Can be Heroes, but Also Murderers
by Enrique Perrella
The LAMIA 2933 crash that killed 71 people in Colombia was a foolish, irresponsible tragedy that should have been avoided by the Captain himself, as well a number of other people who hopefully will be investigated and brought to justice.
It was an accident that hit me personally, a Commercial Pilot myself and as someone who has deeply admired Pilots all my life.
Because on November 28, 2016, the Captain and Co-Pilot of Bolivian-based LAMIA Flight 2933 arrogantly put the lives of their passengers at risk with a series of reckless decisions. These two individuals not only neglected to follow the rules, but also lacked common sense and the responsibility that those four stripes on their shoulders evoke.
The crash 10 miles south of Medellin’s airport not only ended their lives but 69 others, including the Chapoceoençe professional soccer players on their way to play the Copa Sudamericana Final against Medellin’s Atlético Nacional team, journalists, and crew members.
It was also a blot on all those excellence-oriented Pilots around the world who strive to become better, safer, complete airmen.
First-hand on the subject
The night of the event, I was probably one of the first people to hear about it. I was chatting with Pilot friends who often fly to Medellin, and learned that a certain aircraft had plummeted to the ground a few miles short of the runway.
Crude photos rapidly made their way to my cell phone from the few witnesses who arrived at the scene. I noticed there was no smoke, no fire, nothing. The Avro’s fuselage was cut in half, spreading debris all over the tip of a tiny mountain that sits a few feet away from Medellin’s Rionegro VOR.
As soon as I saw the images, the idea of them running out of fuel came to mind. Yes, that unimaginable thing. In this 21st century, how can someone, ever, run out of fuel? I thought.
When I told my friends what I thought had happened, they chuckled. They knew it wasn’t possible. They work in the airline industry and are very well aware of the demanding conditions in which airlines operate. This couldn’t be.
The Untouchable Captain
But you know, Captains do enjoy a certain degree of autonomy in Latin America (as well as many other parts of the world). I’ve heard endless stories where First Officers are shut down as soon as they step into a Flight Deck because the four stripes are on the other guys’ shoulders. Likewise, colleagues have told me numerous stories where their opinions don’t matter, because the Captain in command overrules them.
This kind of bullish behavior is what leads to completely needless accidents like the one that just happened on the hills of Medellin. And I can’t even imagine what kind of ambiance ruled in LMI2933’s Flight Deck, because the Captain in command also happened to be one of the airline’s owners.
Hours after the crash, I received a photo of Flight LMI2933’s original Flight Plan. All very quickly, thanks to the lack of formalities in South American countries. My eyes pointed immediately at two important boxes, Estimated Flight Time and Fuel Range. Not to my surprise, both boxes contained the very same number: 4 hours 22 minutes. It must be a mistake, I thought.
The Flight Plan’s Estimated Time En-route (ETE) and Fuel Range were both the same: 4 hours 22 minutes.
Naturally, I doubted whether the Flight Plan was real. It couldn’t be, I thought. Such a thing would be an insult to all the Pilots, Crew and Passengers who’ve ever been on a plane before. It’s an atrocious act that can only be seen as a hoax.
But the following morning, I received a transcript of a conversation between the airline’s dispatcher and the airport’s operations office, which verified the entire ordeal. All, thanks to those Latin American informalities.
— “Sir, you can’t file this Flight Plan as is,” Santa Cruz Airport’s Flight Plan Officer, Celia Castedo, said to LAMIA’s dispatcher, Alex Quispe. “Fuel Range and Estimated Flight Time are both the same, you need to correct it.”
— “No, the Captain is well aware and he said that it’s fine. It’s more than enough fuel to reach Medellin. We’ll do it in less time, don’t worry,” replied Quispe, who hours later would die onboard.
And off they went.
Airlines around the world have a team of dedicated people responsible for prepping airplanes for their flights. Among them, is the Flight Dispatcher, a figure with huge responsibilities, including the important task of filing the flight plan, punching in the weight and balance numbers, and handing over all of it to the Captain, who then has to approve it and then sign it.
In the case of LAMIA, things might have been a little different. Since Capt. Miguel Quiroga was also co-owner of this charter airline, he merged his status as Captain and Owner. Boss says, we do! The Flight Plan was signed.
LAMIA’s dark past
Now, jumping back in time, how did Capt. Quiroga become owner at this airline? Perhaps the same way he accepted and filed this scandalous Flight Plan? Negligently.
Even though the flag on the aircraft’s tail is Bolivian, this airline was conceived in Venezuela, the country with a high level of corruption world standards, and is prevalent throughout many levels of its society. The original owner, Ricardo Albacete, founded LAMIA in 2009 to reactivate the aviation industry in the Andean city of Merida. By 2013, its first aircraft took to the skies from the city of Porlamar, in Margarita Island, to the southern city of Ciudad Bolivar, as a way to promote the service, seeking approval from the Venezuelan Civil Aviation Authority (INAC).
However, things didn’t go as planned and the airline never materialized because of political strife. Albacete seems to have been implicated in a large corruption scandal between Spain and China, and was therefore banned from starting operations in Venezuela. He blamed his venture’s failure on INAC and was forced to look elsewhere to let LAMIA spread its wings.
In 2015, Bolivia opened its doors to Albacete. Lamia Corporation SRL was established with two BAe Avro RJ85 aircraft, one of which was involved in the crash. The new airline’s mission was to provide charter flights on special sporting events, for which several soccer teams flew with Quiroga and company in several opportunities.
The airline’s first aircraft pictured in Valera, Venezuela during a promotional flight.
Quiroga’s social media feeds showcased several selfies with professional soccer players. He was seen as that cool pilot who got to fly with Lionel Messi, considered to be one of the world’s greatest players.
But how could the boss of a company that carried so many important players forget to do his job correctly? It is perhaps because he thought he was untouchable.
A Corrupted Flight Plan
World airline regulations require airplanes to carry enough fuel to reach their destination, plus an alternate airport, plus an additional 45 minutes of fuel.
This regulation makes sure any unforeseen situations at the time of arrival are covered with enough fuel to keep the airplane flying—something that Capt. Quiroga chose to ignore when his flight plan was filed by the airline’s dispatcher, and initially rejected by the airport staff member.
The route chosen for Flight LMI2933 from Santa Cruz to Medellin covered 1,605nm (2,975km) of distance, estimated to last 4 hours 22 minutes—way more than this airplane was built to cover.
According to the aircraft’s manufacturer, British Aerospace, the AVRO RJ 85 (a regional airliner at best), has a maximum range of 1,600nm (2,965km). The filed route exceeded the aircraft’s range by a crucial five miles, omitting any regulations, safety concerns or even the smallest bit of logical sense.
And even though this Flight Plan could have been filed and accepted by anyone else, there’s always the possibility to divert and make a re-fueling stop, should calculations prove that not enough fuel will be at hand to meet the regulations.
In fact, with today’s technology at one’s fingertips reach, we know, every second of the way between Point A and Point B, how much fuel we have, how much time we have left, and with how many pounds, kilos, liters, or gallons of fuel we will have upon touchdown. All these tools are available for the Captain to make a precise decision that will ensure the safety of his passengers and crew.
A range chart taken from the Operating Handbook of the British Aerospace AVRO RJ85 airliner shows the aircraft’s range with different payload figures. © BAE Systems Remote Runway Ops, Avro RJ-85 Range Performances
But Capt. Quiroga forgot that this 17-year-old aircraft might reach Medellin with its fuel tanks filled with nothing but gas fumes. He didn’t anticipate—negligently—that Medellin’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) would have asked him to circle around [hold] for more minutes than what his atrocious flight plan estimated.
He forgot how to be a Pilot.
Instead, Flight LMI2933 departed Santa Cruz with a full load of fuel, passengers and cargo, bound straight to Medellin, with the Captain-Owner hoping that everything would be in perfect condition, and that he, the Captain-Owner would remain untouchable.
The last minutes of a Calm Captain?
The dramatic air-traffic controller communications were revealed as soon as two days after the crash, showing a very calm Pilot communicating with a nervous Medellin Controller.
As Flight LMI2933 began its approach—presumably with the low-fuel annunciators blinking on the Pilots’ faces—another situation unfolded in the Medellin area with a VivaColombia A320 asking for priority to land because of a system malfunction.
Capt. Quiroga was therefore asked to enter into a holding pattern at 21,000ft to allow the situation to clear, an act that he negligently accepted—and which turned out to be his death sentence.
About three minutes later, while on the outbound leg of the holding pattern, he called back ATC requesting for priority to land because of a certain “fuel problem.” ATC agreed and the fuel-deprived aircraft began its descent and approached into the airport.
As the airplane descended, Capt. Quiroga called ATC again and advised of a “total failure, both electrical and fuel.” Still, without declaring and emergency, he sounded rather calm and didn’t want to raise any suspicion. He forgot that a ‘total electrical failure’ would have killed his radios, making an exchange of communications with ATC impossible.
The AVRO 85 had run out of fuel. Its generators stopped producing power as all four engines starved to exhaustion. The airplane was now a glider coming down at a sink rate that was impossible to stop.
The ATC cleared the way for the distressing airliner to land while repeatedly verifying the radar for indications of altitude and heading. Quiroga, plummeting down to earth, responded leisurely—still without declaring an emergency—his altitude and heading readings.
Seconds later, after further exchanges with ATC, the last words from Quiroga were heard. “Localizer, localizer!”
Flight LMI2933 had crashed 10 miles south of the runway on the adjacent mountain to the Rionegro VOR. No explosion, or any type of burning were seen and the lives of 71 people were taken away by someone who decided to play God.
From heroes to murderers
Back in the golden days of aviation, when Pan Am Clipper Captains were seen as gods and often followed for autographs, life was good, Pilots were heroes.
I hadn’t been born back then, I know, but movies like Catch Me If You Can and a few conversations with former Pan Am Captains taught me something that I never thought would be lost in these days of aviation monotony.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of hard study, dedication, and strong and strict formation crafted real airmen who, with unbreakable principles, took pride in what they did. And pride and bravery is what they needed, for the simple fact that lifting off the ground a 500-ton aluminum can is an act that defies nature and, with it, carries great responsibility.
This responsibility is what made me fall in love with aviation. A constant admiration towards Pilots who’d carry millions of passengers during their careers, always keeping those strict guidelines that were instructed to them immaculate.
That admiration grew more and more as days passed. I commended those Captains who’d put their hats and suits on after a 10-hour flight, and left behind a spotless airliner that had battled adverse weather conditions and fought against gravity across endless miles of oceanic or inhabited land.
Those very principles of airmanship are what kept me dreaming, day to day, since the day my memory started registering things. I’d find myself drifting away from any situation into my airplane-filled imagination, impatiently waiting for the day when it’d be my turn. I truly relished becoming a Pilot and, too, sharing that responsibility—to one day put that uniform on and earn my four stripes, to carry people around the world, and be seen as a good, responsible Pilot.
Today, I can say that I’m a Pilot. I earned my wings after a very challenging four years of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University training. I became a Commercial Pilot. My training was a solid, professional, and a challenging process that allowed me to understand the severity of transporting, among other things, people who put their lives upon the tip of my thumbs—and to identify other Pilots whose questionable habits could put me, and my passengers at risk.
We studied accidents, Pilot behaviors, psychology, and trends that often lead to negative situations. We studied to guarantee keeping those numbers of takeoffs equal to the numbers of landings. We were taught to always act professionally and identify those situations in which our safety—and our integrity as Pilots—could be compromised.
And what I learned was that, as tough as it sounds, we Pilots are subject to being seen as heroes or murderers.
You see, if we land safely during a severe thunderstorm with strong crosswinds and turbulence, we’re heroes. If our nose gear doesn’t come down but we land safely, saving everyone on board, we’re heroes. If we take off from La Guardia, fly into a flock of birds, our both engines flame out and we safely put the aircraft into the Hudson River and nobody dies, we’re heroes.
But if we decide that pushing the limits is a good idea, if we think playing Macho is the right way to go; if we think putting the life of our passengers at risk, letting our egos overcome our reason; or thinking we’re unbeatable when in reality we’re not, that bad things won’t happen to us, well we’d better think again.
What Capt. Quiroga and his Co-Pilot did, was tantamount to homicide.
First, they deliberately signed that Flight Plan; second, they did not divert to an alternate airport to re-fuel, knowing that whatever they had left in the tanks wasn’t sufficient; third, they did not declare an emergency at any point, fearing a post-landing inspection by the Colombian Aviation Authority that could have cost their airline a hefty fine and the removal of his pilot privileges; and fourth, the shattering fact that if they hadn’t agreed to enter the holding pattern and continue straight to the runway, they would have made it.
Their negligence—much like the atrocious behavior displayed by Andreas Lubitz, taking Germanwings 9525 to crash into the mountains killing everyone on board—has tainted the image of the millions of Pilots around the world who take their jobs seriously, who strive to become better airmen by following the rules and making conscious decisions, who day-to-day enter their Flight Decks with professionalism, and most importantly, with the passion and responsibility that such privilege entails.
But, then again, if they hadn’t entered the holding pattern and landed safely, the Captain’s untouchability would have been reinforced. Perhaps he would have done it again. And again.
His poor choices will now teach us to become better Pilots and remember that none of us are like him, untouchable.
May the souls of the victims rest in peace.