November 30, 2016.   The Colombia Crash, and a Primer on Fuel.

A charter flight crashed yesterday near Medellin, Colombia, killing 71 people, including most members of a popular Brazilian soccer team. The aircraft was a British-built Avro RJ85, a variant of the British Aerospace BAe-146, a four-engined regional jet considered obsolete in most of the world. The jet was operated by a small company called LaMia Airlines, based in Bolivia, and was en route from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Medellin. The distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin is about 1,845 miles, and the published range of the Avro RJ85 is, well, 1,845 miles. Indeed fuel exhaustion seems to have been be the culprit, but know that the aircraft range figures cited on websites — and which the media keep throwing around as hard facts — are estimates. Range is more accurately measured by time, not distance, though even that can vary. There is simply no fixed range for any aircraft type. It depends on wind, weather, and altitude.

Calculating the amount of required fuel is a somewhat scientific undertaking. Crews do not ballpark the load with a cursory glance at a gauge, as you might do in a car before a road trip. The regulations can be intricate, especially when flying internationally, and will vary from country to country (a plane is beholden to its nation of registry, plus any local requirements if they’re more stringent), but the U.S. domestic rule is a good indicator of how conservatively things work: There must always be enough to carry a plane to its intended destination, then to its designated alternate airport(s), and then for at least another 45 minutes. The resulting minimum is nonnegotiable. Sometimes, if weather criteria so dictate, two or more alternates need to be filed in a flight plan, upping the total accordingly. If traffic delays are expected, even more will be added. At the bigger airlines, it’s licensed dispatchers and planners who devise the final figures, but the captain has the final say and can request more still. I’m unfamiliar with Bolivian or Colombian regulations, but some version of the U.S. rules are more or less universal.

So, if LaMia flight 2933 succumbed to empty tanks, was it gross negligence, a malfunction, or some combination of the two? Well, it’s worth noting that the captain of the flight was also the co-owner of the company, and Colombian media is speculating as to whether he refrained from declaring a low-fuel emergency to avoid potential penalties against both him and the carrier. Rushing to judgment so soon after a crash is usually a bad idea, but it’s not looking good for LaMia.

However, keep in mind that LaMia is a tiny company and not a commercial airline in the usual sense of the term. Regardless of what countries they are from, established carriers do not play fast and loose with fuel rules. They just don’t. Meanwhile, I know, the words “Bolivia” and “air safety” don’t necessarily feel right in the same sentence, but try to keep an open mind. The South American nation has a long and proud aviation heritage. The former national carrier, LAB, was one of the oldest airlines in the world.

 

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