On November 28, 2016, LaMia Flight 2933 crashed near the airport in Medellín, Colombia, killing 71 people, including nineteen footballers from the Chapecoense football team, members of its staff, and many journalists. In episode 95 of Take to the Sky the Air Disaster Podcast, we explore the shocking investigation that revealed the flight’s captain, who was also an owner of LaMia, and first officer miscalculated the plane’s fuel supply; failed to contact air traffic control with its fuel emergency in a timely manner; unnecessarily configured the plane for landing too far from the airport, which made the plane descend faster than it should have, thereby, preventing the plane from gliding safely to the runway; and attempted to hide their actions and poor decisions every step of the flight by most likely disconnecting the CVR. The investigation led to the suspension of LaMia’s operations, along with the arrests of one of LaMia’s owners and a flight operator who fraudulently approved the illegal flight plan.
Brazilian Football Team Chapecoense Boards LaMia Flight 2933 on Their Way to Cup Finals
It’s November 28, 2016, and 73 passengers board their privately chartered flight known as LaMia Flight 2933. But these are no ordinary passengers – and the purpose of this flight is very special. Flight 2933 is transporting the Brazilian football team, Chapecoense, from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, to Medellín, Colombia. The reason for Chapecoense's journey was its upcoming match against Medellín's Atlético Nacional in the cup final of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana, which is South America's secondary international club tournament. And the stakes were high for two reasons: one, this was the first-time that Chapecoense made it to the finals, and two, the winner would earn the right to play against the other cup winners.
Joining the team are members of its coaching and administrative staff, and 21 journalists who are ready to capture every aspect of this match up against Medellín. This team of talented passengers and their entourage are joined by a crew of 4, bringing the total number of people onboard to 77.
The Captain is 36-year-old Miguel Quiroga, who has almost 7,000 total flying hours, with about half of those hours on the series aircraft they were flying today, which is the Avro RJ85 (also called the Bae 146). This British-made aircraft has four geared turbofan engines mounted underneath the wings, which gives the plane a very quiet operation, and has been marketed under the name Whisperjet.
Joining Captain Quiroga is 47-year-old First Officer Fernando Goytia, who began flying in the Brazilian military and has 20 years’ total experience as a pilot. At the time of this flight, he also had about 7,000 hours of flying experience. There will be one other pilot joining the captain and first officer today in the cockpit. Sisy Arias is a pilot in training, and she takes the third seat in the cockpit behind the captain and first officer to observe the flight crew as they work.
Flight 2933 took off as planned at 22:08 PM Universal Coordinated Time (or UTC), and then began its four-and-a-half-hour journey toward the airport, climbing first to 28,000 feet (or 8,534 meters), and then to their cruising altitude of 30,000 feet (or 9,144 meters). The flight at this point in the voyage becomes completely routine and happily uneventful for the passengers. But, of course, it won’t stay that way.
LaMia Flight 2933 Pilots Claim Fuel Problems While in a Hold Over Airport Near Medellín
About four hours after takeoff, the crew made the approach briefing to the airport. The Medellín Approach controller, whose name is Yaneth Molina, cleared the flight to continue their descent to 21,000 feet (or 6400 meters) and to head for the GEMLI navigation point, which is located about 19 miles (or 30 km) short of the runway 1 at the airport. The controller also asks Flight 2933 to hold as another plane in the area is descending due to a fuel leak. Flight 2933 joins three other aircraft in a holding pattern near the airport.
Four minutes later, and while still holding, the crew of Flight 2933 makes a request of the controller: they ask for priority landing because of "problems with the fuel". The controller then stated that she would get back with vectors to the localizer (or directions on how to get to the airport) and that it would take seven minutes before they could commence their approach.
The controller then clears a preceding flight to begin its approach, and as quickly as she could, starts to redirect other planes so that this priority landing could be issued to Flight 2933. While she is juggling these tasks, Molina the controller checks in again with the crew of 2933.
She first lets them know there was another aircraft holding below them and then she asks Flight 2933 if they could hold a little while longer. But their response is shocking to her: the flight crew tells her they now have a “fuel emergency” and they request a final approach course AND immediate descent clearance. Molina is shocked, of course, because the situation has gone from “we need a priority landing” (which means we can wait) to “this is an emergency, and we need an immediate descent” (which means we cannot wait a moment longer).
The controller clears Flight 2933 to turn right before it can begin its descent, and she subsequently cancels the approach of that previously cleared flight who was in front of 2933. But the crew of 2933 does not turn right – in fact, they make an opposite turn to the left and begin descending on their own without clearance. Remember, the controller instructed them to turn right, and while they were supposed to be making that right turn, she was still getting other traffic diverted out of the path of 2933.
If passengers did not know of a problem before this moment, they most certainly do now. Inside the cabin, all the lights suddenly go out and the engines go silent. The plane begins to glide downward toward the earth – this would have created a sinking sensation that passengers would have been able to feel.
With Zero Fuel Left, LaMia 2933 Experiences Total Electrical Failure and Begins to Descend
The crew of 2933 then tells the controller they have experienced a total onboard electrical failure – meaning, all systems are down at this point. They have zero power. That sinking sensation felt by the passengers existed because the engines are flamed out.
The controller immediately notifies emergency personnel, so they are waiting at the runway for the eventual landing of Flight 2933. Next, the flight crew realizes they still don’t have vectors to the runway, so they ask the controller to provide them. However, because Flight 2933 began its descent, it has fallen below radar, and the controller does not know its position. Molina asks the crew for their heading so she can pinpoint where they are and give them instructions based on their current heading. The crew gives her their current heading and their altitude – which is only 9,000 feet (or 2,743 meters). This news of their altitude was bone chilling to Molina – because of the mountainous terrain surrounding the airport, a plane had to be at an altitude of at least 10,000 feet (or 3,048 meters) to clear the mountains. In what was to be their last transmission with Molina, the flight crew requested vectors for the runway one last time. The controller stated that the flight was 8.2 miles (or about 13 km) from the runway. And this is the final exchange between control and the flight crew.
LaMia Flight 2933 Impacts Mountains Just Short of Airport, Killing 71 People
Just moments later, Flight 2933 impacted the crest of a mountain known as Cerro Gordo, which stretches into the sky at 8,700 feet (or 2,651 meters). The plane struck the mountain, the impact of which caused it to spin 180 degrees while breaking apart and scattering debris, luggage, and people all along the mountainside. After the final plane piece had come to rest on the ground, the debris field would later be described like a snowball explosion.
When emergency services get to the crash site after much difficulty due to rain, fog, and challenging terrain, they find that most people onboard 2933 have died. Out of 77 people, including the team's players, coaching staff, journalists and crew, there are only seven survivors.
Among the initial survivors, there are two crew members, flight technician Erwin Tumiri and flight attendant Ximena Suarez, plus journalist Rafael Valmorbida, and three Chapecoense players: Alan Ruschel, Helio Hermito Zampier Neto (called simply Neto), and Jakson Follmann. And unfortunately, weeks after the crash, the seventh survivor, player Marcos Danilo Padilha, the 31-year-old goalkeeper, succumbs to his injuries and becomes the 71st official crash victim. In all, nineteen Chapecoense players die in the incident, and almost all the first team and managerial staff are lost. This crash joins a list of some of the world's worst sports tragedies.
We covered two other sports tragedies on the podcast, including episode 15, the Munich Air Disaster, which killed members of Manchester United’s football team in 1958, and in episode 4 on Patreon, Sabena Flight 548, which killed members of the US Figure Skating Team. Check out those episodes if you have not already done so.
LaMia 2033 Crash Survivors Share Accounts of Harrowing Descent and Impact
The survivors of 2933 have since given their account of the crash and rescue, however, many of them cannot recall entire segments of the crash or rescue. Flight technician Erwin Tumiri told how passengers were left terrified as the plane began to plummet to the ground. He said, "I saved myself because I followed the emergency protocol, putting bags between my legs and put myself in the fetal position. I also saw how many passengers rose and began to scream."
Flight attendant Ximena Suarez, who was found hours after the crash near the wreckage, also described the horrifying moment the plane crashed to the ground. Ximena said she remembers it as a "normal flight, all quiet" and had no idea "something bad was going to happen". She said, "We didn't have any idea, if I’d known, I would have acted differently.”
This is a key point – the cabin crew were not alerted to the emergency, so they did not prepare the passengers accordingly. This is likely why some people may have died – because they did not know to get into position or how to do so correctly or that they should have at least been seated and not standing up.
Sensing a crisis onboard as the plane began to sink, reserve goalkeeper Jakson Follmann said he squeezed his hands together in fear. He said that he blacked out when the plane hit the mountainside and that he woke up in the dark, on the ground, where a rescuer found him shouting. After passing out again, he woke up three days later in a hospital, with his family by his side. He found out about the deaths of his team-mates and coaches there. Later, he recounted, “I cried a lot. But the few times I think about the accident, I try to turn my mind around. I try to think about everybody’s happiness, and this is good for me because I only think good things about those who are gone. And this strengthens me.” He added: “I’m very grateful I didn’t see anybody dead, dying beside me. So, the image that stays with me is of everybody’s smiles.”
Neto, another of the Chapecoense players to survive, told his wife on the day of the flight that he had had a dream his airline crashed.
Following the crash, Brazil declared three days of mourning and all football matches in the country were postponed for a week. Because of the tragedy, Atlético Nacional, who was set to play against Chapecoense in the final, requested that cup title be awarded to Chapecoense in honor of their memory. For their incredible gesture of sportsmanship, Atletico Nacional, received the “Centenario Fair Play" award.
The GRIAA Leads Investigation of LaMia 2933 Crash, Rule Out Fuel Leak and Clear Air Traffic Controller
Arriving by daybreak onto the crash scene to begin its investigation is the Air Accident Investigation Group (or the GRIAA). Despite the debris being scattered alongside the mountain, they can tell that the aircraft was configured for landing; however, Flight 2933 crashed just 10 miles (or 16 km) short of the runway. The second thing investigators notice, which proves to be unusual, is there is hardly any scent of fuel. In fact, the debris shows no signs of any fire, which could typically be expected whenever a plane crashes. When they examine the fuel level indicators, they are shocked to see them all at zero. The focus of the investigation then becomes about finding out how and why the fuel got so low.
One of the first things investigators confirm is that the fuel system was operating normally – this rules out the possibility of a leak being responsible for the low fuel level. This also means that the flight crew would have received a warning before the fuel levels dropped to zero.
One of the starting points is to talk to the controller and listen to the communications between the crew of Flight 2933 and air traffic control. As investigators listen back to the exchange, they are disturbed to hear that the crew, which would have known that the plane was low on fuel, did not declare an emergency right away. As soon as the master caution light due to low fuel comes on, regulations say that a crew is required to declare an emergency. However, they did not. The first thing they told the controller was that they simply had low fuel, but they agreed to the hold, and they never followed back up with the controller. In fact, it is only when Molina the controller checked back in with them while they were in the holding pattern did they say they had an emergency.
And investigators are also puzzled to find out that the flight crew also made an unauthorized left turn and began to descend without clearance, which put their plane in the path of other planes. Investigators conclude that the flight crew acted improperly, but they don’t know why the crew did so, especially given all their training and experience.
They also conclude that the controller, Yaneth Molina, did nothing wrong. This is very crucial as the crash happened in 2016, and immediate reports about the crash included the ATC recordings. The implication in those early news reports was that the controller failed to act responsibly, and the captain acted heroically. Many in the public, without having all the information and context, began to blame Molina for causing the crash, and they did so through social media. Molina even received death threats on her private phone line. Officially clearing ATC in this situation was essential to allowing Molina to have her life back.
GRIAA Discovers LaMia Flight 2933 Pilots Knew They Were Running Out of Fuel Well Before Crash
Diving in deeper to the flight data recorder (or FDR), investigators find that the fuel warning light came on forty minutes before the flight crew declared an emergency and when they were still 180 miles (or 290 km) from the airport. When the master caution light alerted, this meant the plane had 20 minutes’ worth of guaranteed fuel left. Procedures would dictate that the flight crew should have at that moment declared an emergency and diverted to the nearest airport, which would have been at Bogota. However, the crew did not follow these procedures, and instead, continued to head for the airport near Medellin.
But despite these red flags, investigators are curious as to why the aircraft was unable to clear the mountain range. When the engines flamed out, and the plane essentially became a giant glider, it was 15 miles (or 24 km) from the airport and 16,000 feet (or 4,876 meters) in the air. Both data points indicated that the plane would have had enough altitude and distance to clear the mountains and glide safely to the runway.
But the reason why the plane did not make it was because while the aircraft was at 18,000 feet (or 5,486 meters), the flight crew extended the landing gear and flaps, which put an enormous amount of resistance on the plane. So instead of the plane gliding, in reality, it was sinking.
Investigators believe the flight crew took these actions when they did because they knew the fuel was critically low (because of the warning they received before), and the crew was afraid that if the engines flamed out, they would not be able to lower their landing gear or extend the flaps. But this configuration happened earlier than it needed to. It was unnecessary for them to have done it when they did.
To make matters worse, the investigative team finds that the cockpit voice recorder (or CVR) stopped recording midflight, and not because of the power outage. There was nothing on the FDR that indicated why the CVR would have simply cut off.
GRIAA Investigation into LaMia Flight 2933 Crash Focuses on Pilots
Clearly the focus of the investigation is now on the two pilots and their past performance. Despite their deep aviation experience, investigators find feedback in both pilots’ files indicating, among several errors that were highlighted, that they needed to do better in preparing during inflight emergencies. The specific annotation in the captain’s file was to "... take the necessary time to prepare the aircraft in an emergency situation...". And for the first officer, the annotation in his file was "Communications with ATC in emergencies must be precise (i.e., PAN PAN or MAYDAY) according to the case ... ". These recommendations for improvement align directly to the failures in their performance during Flight 2933.
The GRIAA also discovered problems with the flight plan – it kept getting denied. The team had asked to charter the services of LaMia for its entire journey from Brazil. But LaMia is a Bolivian-owned charter company, and Brazilian regulations did not allow a Bolivian carrier to conduct flights from Brazil to Colombia. Only flights operated by either a Brazilian or Colombian carrier were permitted to do so. Meanwhile, LaMia had its headquarters in Bolivia, rendering this impossible. As such, the team traveled independently to LaMia's base in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and then from there, boarded Flight 2933 to Medellín.
GRIAA Uncover Negligent and Criminal Acts Committed by Pilots of LaMia 2933 During Flight
But investigators discover that when the plane was in Santa Cruz, 3,600 pounds of fuel was added to its existing supply of 16,396 pounds. When the plane took off, it had a little over 20,000 pounds of fuel. But they needed 26,570 pounds. The fuel supply onboard 2933 was short by nearly 6,000 pounds – this meant they had no reserve fuel. Despite this fact, the flight plan was approved – though fraudulently. But it never should have been approved since 2933’s fuel levels at takeoff never met the legal requirements.
Additionally, and more egregiously perhaps, the captain flew the plane knowing they were short on fuel. But he had done this before. In fact, he had flown this same route three other times without any reserve fuel. What made those flights different was he had been flying in the opposite direction. In that direction, what he was used to, takeoff was at a higher elevation, which meant you had to ascend less of a distance to reach cruising altitude, and therefore, needed less fuel. That is the only reason they made those prior flights without completely running out of fuel.
But the captain was aware they were burning fuel at a faster rate on Flight 2933. While the CVR cut out midflight, the partial recording reveals the flight crew had a specific conversation about the fact that they were going to run out of fuel. They even discussed where they would need to divert and refuel.
But they decided not to divert, and instead, proceeded to Medellín because ATC gave them a more direct route toward the airport. This would reduce their flight time and fuel exhaustion. It still meant their margin of error on the fuel was drastically slim – this flight was a gamble on the part of the captain – and unfortunately, he miscalculated and lost this gamble. And his loss became the loss of 70 other people onboard his aircraft.
According to the GRIAA, the actions of the flight crew are the direct reasons why the plane crashed, and many of these actions also happen to be illegal and are considered criminal acts. In fact, following the investigation, Brazilian Police arrested the Bolivian aviation official who approved the flight plan of Lamia flight 2933 knowing it had too low fuel levels. Her action was considered fraudulent and negligent.
GRIAA Believes Pilots of LaMia 2933 Intentionally Disconnected CVR Before Crash
One last thing we will revisit is the mystery of the CVR cutting off. Based on the other illegal actions conducted by the flight crew, the GRIAA deduced, but could not definitively prove, that the captain or first officer probably pulled the circuit breaker to the CVR intentionally because they did not want an official record of their conversations and decisions made in the cockpit that day. Captain Miguel Quiroga was also a part owner of the airline – this would explain why he took the risks that he did. And it is a glaring conflict of interest.
Following the crash, LaMia the airline experienced major fallout. Its operations were suspended and one of its owners were arrested for having culpability in the crash of Flight 2933. During the investigation, it was discovered that LaMia was barely staying financially afloat. It had not paid its employees for a while, and it had only one plane in operation (the plane that was Flight 2933). As one expert put it so clearly, when an airline is in financial trouble like LaMia was, it cannot be trusted to provide safe flights because they could not afford to pay for safety. The GRIAA also places blame on the Bolivian Civil Aviation Authority for failing to properly oversee LaMia.
Chapecoense Wins Title in 2021 Five Years After LaMia Flight 2933 Tragedy
The survivors of the crash suffered extreme injuries. One of the players, Neto, remained in intensive care with severe trauma to his skull, thorax and lungs. The defender was the last person to be rescued. After undergoing surgery for several injuries, he briefly returned to playing, and then retired in 2019 saying, "My body couldn’t take it anymore. The pain outweighed the pleasure.”
Jakson Follmann suffered what the club said was the most severe injuries – he had to have his entire leg amputated. He obviously never played again. Alan Ruschel had to undergo spinal surgery. He later made a return to football – and we will talk about an important moment in his post-crash football career next.
After the crash, and during the 2017 Brazil Series A campaign, Chapecoense returned to the field with a squad built up of loan players, free signings and promoted youth players, and they amazingly finished in eighth position - an extraordinary achievement after what the club had been through. Sadly, the magnitude of the disaster eventually took its toll on Chapecoense as the club struggled to a 14th-place finish in 2018 before the team was relegated to Brazil's Serie B at the end of the 2019 season.
Despite the incredible destruction caused to the club and the inevitable spiral it caused, the team never gave up hope of a comeback. Led by club captain Alan Ruschel – the only survivor of the plane crash to still play professionally – Chapecoense embarked on a mission to return to Brazil's topflight straight away. With the onset of the COVID pandemic, their return was stalled.
But, amazingly, in 2021, Chapecoense won Brazil’s second division title. And when it did, defender and plane crash survivor Alan Ruschel, lifted the trophy. Following the match he said, "I don't know whether I will stay or not, but I will take this group with me forever, like I take the group of 2016.” And then he added thoughtfully, “People have to respect me, behind the football player there is a human being."
And THAT is the heartbreaking story of the crash of LaMia Flight 2933.