The pilot of the chartered plane that crashed in the Andes with a Brazilian soccer team aboard told air-traffic controllers he had run out of fuel, the Associated Press reported, based on a leaked recording of the conversation.
The pilot repeatedly asked for permission to land because of “total electric failure” and a lack of fuel, before slamming into a mountain Monday during the flight from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Medellin, Colombia, according to the recording leaked to several Colombian media outlets.
A controller gave the pilot instructions as the British-made Avro RJ85 lost speed and altitude about eight miles from the airport in Medellin.
The crash killed 71 of 77 aboard, including members of Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer team who were traveling to the Copa Sudamericana finals.
A Bolivian flight attendant who survived the crash, Ximena Sanchez, told rescuers the plane had run out of fuel moments before the crash. Investigators were expected to interview her on Wednesday at the clinic near Medellin where she is recovering.
“’We ran out of fuel. The airplane turned off,’” Sanchez told Arquimedes Mejia, who helped pull the flight attendant from the wreckage. “That was the only thing she told me,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Authorities have avoided naming a specific cause for the crash yet. But the lack of explosion suggested the plane ran out of fuel. The full investigation could take months.
“If this is confirmed by the investigators it would be a very painful because it stems from negligence,” Alfredo Bocanegra, head of Colombia’s aviation agency, told Caracol Radio on Wednesday.
Bocanegra said evidence initially pointed to an electrical problem, but the possibility the crash was caused by lack of fuel has not been ruled out.
Investigators also want to speak to Juan Sebastian Upegui, the co-pilot on an Avianca commercial flight who was in contact with air traffic controllers. Upegui described in a four-minute audio recording to a friend how he heard the doomed flight’s pilot request priority to land because he was out of fuel.
“I remember I was pulling really hard for them, saying ‘Make it, make it, make it, make it,’” Upeqgui says in the recording, which AP said had circulated on social media. “Then it stopped…The controller’s voice starts to break up and she sounds really sad. We’re in the plane and start to cry.”
Planes are supposed to have enough extra fuel to fly at least 30 to 45 minutes to another airport in the case of an emergency. They rarely fly straight to their destination because of changes in their flight plans due to turbulence or bad weather.
John Cox, a retired airline pilot and CEO of Florida-based Safety Operating Systems, said investigators should review the plane’s fuel.
“The airplane was being flight planned right to its maximum. Right there it says that even if everything goes well they are not going to have a large amount of fuel when they arrive,” Cox told AP. “I don’t understand how they could do the flight nonstop with the fuel requirements that the regulations stipulate.”