Episode 2: Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571

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Summary:

In our second episode of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, Stephanie tells the tale of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which earned the nickname Miracle in the Andes when it crashed into the mountains on October 13, 1972.



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When Did the Miracle in the Andes Happen?

The flight known as the Miracle in the Andes was scheduled to depart on October 12, 1972 from Montevideo, Uruguay, where 40 passengers were eagerly awaiting takeoff for Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 en route to Santiago, Chile.

Who Were the Passengers on Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571?

Flight 571 wasn’t a typical commercial flight; it was chartered by the Old Christians Club rugby team to transport players and their families for an annual match against the Old Boys Club, which was based in Santiago. The team was a particularly close-knit group of young men. The youngest player was 18 and the oldest was 25, and they practiced and played rugby regularly and competitively, which created a strong and even brotherly bond between them.

There were 45 people in total on the flight that day, including 5 crew members (including the pilot and co-pilot), 20 team members, and 20 friends and family members.

What Was the Weather Like for the Miracle in the Andes Flight?

Reports of bad weather over the Andes Mountains threatened the trip before it took off, and there was a significant amount of concern as to whether or not it was safe to fly at all. Ultimately, the pilot decided it was safe to board and take off; in fact, the team themselves urged the pilots to fly because they were so excited to get to Santiago for their match. Although the plane departed from Montevideo, it touched down not long after takeoff in Mendoza, Argentina, which is only 100 miles away. The storm front was moving in, and it wasn't safe to continue, so the team spent the night in Mendoza.

The next day, October 13, 1972, weather conditions remained less than desirable. Still, the pilots decided the flight would continue: the storm system over the Andes seemed to be breaking up, and by the time the plane would fly through the region the weather would have improved enough to remove visibility and other navigational challenges.

What Plane Did the Miracle in the Andes Flight Use?

Despite the fact the team was physically closer to Santiago than they had been the day before, there was a new puzzle for the pilots to solve. Although it is possible to fly directly from Mendoza to Santiago, the plane they were flying-- a Fairchild FH-227D-- was ill-suited for that particular journey. To fly over the Andes requires planes to reach an altitude of at least 25,000 feet. The Fairchild plane chartered for the flight had a service ceiling of 28,000 feet. Given that the plane was almost at capacity, the pilots would have needed to do some very careful fuel calculations to be sure they could clear the mountains. Additionally, that particular Fairchild aircraft was somewhat widely regarded by pilots as underpowered-- in fact, it earned what would become an ironic nickname: the Lead Sled. It was more customary to avoid the mountains almost entirely, which replaced the direct route with a u-shaped route that added time and distance but avoided some of the perils that threatened planes like the Fairchild. Not surprisingly, that is precisely what the pilots decided to do: their plan was to depart from Mendoza, head south toward Malargue, west through the Planchon Pass toward the Chilean town of Curicó, and finally on to Santiago.

Who Were the Pilots on the Miracle in the Andes Flight?

There were two pilots on this particular flight: Colonel Julio César, who was an experienced Air Force pilot with more than 5,000 flying hours, and co-pilot Lieutenant-Colonel Dante Héctor Lagurara. Lagurara was actually the pilot in command of the aircraft; Ferradas was training him during Flight 571. Why is that relevant? Lagurara was responsible for making many navigational decisions that day.

What Was the Miracle in the Andes Flight Like?

The passengers believed they were going to be in for a bumpy ride immediately after take-off. The plane hit severe turbulence and thick fog as soon as they departed, and the visibility really didn't improve as the plane followed its course toward Malargue. Because of the weather conditions, the pilots could not visually confirm their location, which meant they had to solely rely on radio navigation to ensure they were on track. The pilots were able to successfully navigate through the Planchon Pass, but they incorrectly identified their location shortly thereafter. Believing they had already reached Curicó, they radioed to the tower in Santiago that they were ready to begin their descent. The controller in Santiago had no idea that the plane was still directly over the Andes, not anywhere near Curicó, and so the flight was granted permission to begin its decent into Santiago. It was right about then that visibility likely improved: at that moment, the pilots would have seen the jagged peaks of the Andes Mountains directly in front of them. They would also have known they were on course for a direct hit.

Passengers reported a host of terrifying conditions in the moments following the initial descent. The turbulence became even worse, and the plane shook violently and uncontrollably. Some of the team members tried to laugh it off, at least until the aircraft ground collision alarm sounded, which alerted everyone on board that impact was imminent.

How Did the Miracle in the Andes Flight Crash?

When Flight 571 crashed into the Andes Mountains, it made contact multiple times. The pilots were able to raise the nose of the plane above the mountains, but the first impact came when the tail did not clear the peaks. The second impact tore of the plane's right wing, which occurred with such force that it also tore off the rear portion of the fuselage. The fuselage is the main portion of the aircraft where passengers and many crew members are seated. The first fatalities were reported from this event: when the rear portion of the fuselage was torn off it left a huge hole in the aircraft, and 5 people fell through it. Those people included three passengers, the navigator, and the flight's steward. They were initially considered to be missing, although we now know they did not survive the impact.

The left wing hit the mountains immediately after, which caused the propeller attached to the left wing to slice into the fuselage. Two more people fell out of the new opening. The fuselage itself then crashed into the mountain, and much like a lead sled  it slid for more than half a mile before it collided with a snowbank. That final impact crushed the cockpit, which killed Colonal Ferradas and injured Lieutenant-Colonel Lagurara.

When the plane took off from Mendoza, it carried 45 people. Just over an hour after take off, only 33 of those people were still alive.

What Was the Weather Like When Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 Crashed?

In October, it’s springtime in the Andes, but the mountains were still very much holding on to winter. This is especially true because of the location where the plane crashed. The survivors found themselves stranded at approximately 12,000 feet above sea level, a significant change in altitude from their home in Montevideo as well as a change in climate. They also did not have enough warm clothing for the snowy and icy conditions they were met with. It's also important to think about the impact of the altitude itself: the human body has different, more significant caloric needs at altitude, and it's also much easier to become dehydrated at altitude. Combined with the fact many passengers were severely injured and barely clinging to life, the conditions were almost unbearable.

Who Initially Survived the Miracle in the Andes Flight?

There were 45 people who left Montevideo on Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which means there are 45 unique stories that are part of the tapestry of this particular event. Some of those stories ended during and upon impact, and for some survivors the most critical chapters of their lives began in those initial moments. Two survivors in particular were Gustavo Zerbino and Roberto Canessa, who were both medical students who played on the rugby team. They immediately sprang into action to provide care and comfort for those who needed it. Lt. Colonal Lagurara, the co-pilot on the flight, was still alive despite the fact the impact of the fuselage into the side of the mountain, and he asked a fellow survivor to find his pistol and shoot him with it to end his misery. The passenger declined his request. Another passenger, Fernando Parrado, who was known as Nando, slipped into a coma for three days due to severe head trauma and brain swelling. By the time the sun rose on what would be the first full day on the mountain, five more people had passed away from their injuries, including co-pilot Lagurara and Nando Parrado's mother, who had joined her son on the flight to watch him play in his match.

When Did the Search for the Miracle in the Andes Flight Start?

Conditions on the mountain were unimaginable on the first day, but a plane doesn't crash without someone taking notice. Less than an hour after the crash, the Chilean Air Search and Rescue Service were en route to find the crash site and any survivors. On the first day four planes departed for a remote part of the Andes were rescuers believed the plane likely went down. On the second day eleven planes went out, and three of the planes went close enough to the crash site that the survivors saw them and tried to attract their attention. They didn't succeed, though; the rescuers were searching for a white plane somewhere within miles and miles of ice and snow, and the fuselage easily became part of the stark landscape without any hope of being seen by planes flying overhead. The search continued for eight days, and during that time one of the survivors was able to find and power on a transistor radio found between the seats of the plane, which allowed all of the survivors to listen to search and rescue updates. On the eleventh day, the radio delivered a serious blow to the survivor's confidence: they listened as rescuers called off the search and determined there was no hope that anyone survived the crash.

Piers Paul Read's book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors described the moments after this discovery:

“ The others who had clustered around Roy, upon hearing the news, began to sob and pray, all except [Nando] Parrado, who looked calmly up at the mountains which rose to the west. Gustavo Nicolich came out of the aircraft and, seeing their faces, knew what they had heard… [Nicolich] climbed through the hole in the wall of suitcases and rugby shirts, crouched at the mouth of the dim tunnel, and looked at the mournful faces which were turned towards him. 'Hey boys,' he shouted, 'there's some good news! We just heard on the radio. They've called off the search.' Inside the crowded aircraft there was silence. As the hopelessness of their predicament enveloped them, they wept. 'Why the hell is that good news?' Carlos Páez Rodríguez shouted angrily at Nicolich. 'Because it means,' [Nicolich] said, 'that we're going to get out of here on our own.' The courage of this one boy prevented a flood of total despair."

How Long Were Survivors of the Miracle in the Andes Flight Stranded?

On day 12, of the 45 people who were on Flight 571, 27 were still alive, 16 were known to be dead, and two were missing and presumed to be dead. The search and rescue was called off, and they knew no one was looking for them. They did not know precisely where they were; the only information they knew was what Lt. Colonal Lagurara told them, that they were close to Curicó, which was incorrect. They did not have nearly enough food, water, or warm clothing: at night, the temperatures dropped to -22 degrees Fahrenheit.

What Was It Like for the Survivors of the Miracle in the Andes Plane Crash?

Snow blindness was an issue for the survivors, and most people did not have sunglasses. When they ran out of food, they started to eat the plane itself: several survivors attempted to eat the cotton from inside the seats, which made them sick. Getting water, even in a place surrounded by snow and ice, was a huge challenge because water froze in such cold temperatures, and even touching it with their lips was enough to cause chapping and blisters. This presented a bit of a catch-22, as dehydration happens faster at altitude, which means you simply need more water at high elevations— and water was not readily available. Combined with the fact the survivors were completely out of food after a single week on the mountain, they faced a growing number of hard decisions. 

Did the Survivors of the Miracle in the Andes Flight Become Cannibals?

In a way, it's hard to be surprised by the fact cannibalism became part of the survivor's conversation as they started to run out of food. All of the survivors were Roman Catholic, which is strictly against cannibalism, but the agreed to only consume the bodies of teammates who consented to it before their death in an effort to save their own lives. Additionally, they protected the bodies of people like Nando Parrado's mother and sister.

On Day 17, a new tragedy struck: an avalanche killed 8 people, including Gustavo Nicolich. The avalanche struck while people were sleeping and filled the fuselage with snow. Survivors couldn't escape for three days due to blizzard conditions. Another person who died in the avalanche was Marcelo Perez, the team captain and one of the people who stepped up as a leader in the aftermath of the crash. The survivors resorted to eating the flesh of those who did not survive

Did the Survivors of the Miracle in the Andes Plane Crash Find Help?

It became evident that help would not arrive before death would, which meant the survivors needed to take their mortality into their own hands.

Decided to seek rescue; nominated Roberto Canessa, a medical student and one of the survivors in the best physical condition, to lead a team of fellow survivors to survey the area around the crash site. There were not a lot of volunteers to join him; most people were exceptionally weak from the environmental conditions and the lack of food. Ultimately it was Roberto Canessa, Nando Parrado, and two others— Numa Turcatti and Antonio Vizintin— who set out to seek help. They didn't find help, but about a mile away from the fuselage they did find the tail of the plane, which was the first part of the plane to break off in the crash. The good news is that they found luggage at that part of the crash site, and inside was some food, mostly chocolate, and some additional clothes and some medicine. They also found the plane's two-way radio and the plane's batteries, which was a particularly exciting discovery.

They spent a night camping inside the plane's tail before heading east the next morning, but unfortunately the second night was not as good for them. The four survivors had no shelter during the night they spent there, and they almost froze to death on the mountain because of that. They made the decision to return to the tail of the plane, collect the radio and the batteries, and bring them to the fuselage to see if they could power the radio and make contact with Santiago. The plane's batteries were huge and heavy, and they ended up returning to the fuselage, removing the radio system, and carrying that back to the tail instead. Unfortunately, after days of trying, they couldn't bring the radio to operational status. The radio required a different voltage than the batteries provided, and it simply wasn't possible to get them to work together.

Over the next few days, several more of the survivors passed away. The situation for those who were hanging on was growing more dire by the day, and it became clear that one final attempt to leave the fuselage to seek help was critical. The challenge of how to stay warm remained the biggest problem. To solve it, the survivors fashioned a sleeping bag out of some of the items they had available, including the insulation from the plane's interior and waterproof fabric from the plane's air conditioner. One of the survivors happened to know how to sew, and he taught fellows survivors who all took turns crafting the sleeping bag. They figured the sleeping bag, in combination with body heat, might be enough to keep them alive when temperatures dipped well below freezing. 

How Did the Miracle in the Andes Plane Crash Survivors Get Rescued?

Three men set out on the expedition they hoped would save everyone's life: Parrado, Canessa, and Vizintín. Their climb was so slow that, for the first three days, survivors at the fuselage could watch their progress. Over the course of three days they scaled jagged peaks despite the fact they were in no way equipped to do so; they did not have the right shoes, they were malnourished after months of poor nutrition and almost nothing to eat, and they were still recovering in many ways from the crash itself. On the third day, they climbed what they knew was the tallest peak and the one that would finally show them the warmer, greener valleys of Chile. Instead, they were dismayed to see nothing more than snow and mountains everywhere. They were running out of food, and Vizintín decided to return to the fuselage so that the remaining rations could be split between two people, not three. They were so close to the fuselage that Vizintín was able to use an airplane seat he found as a sled and return back to the other survivors in just one hour.

Parrado and Canessa decided they would continue on together until they found help or died trying. After several days of hiking and sleeping in their sleeping bag, spending their days waist-deep in the melting snow, they finally saw signs of other humans. On the ninth day they saw cows; they stopped close by to build a campfire, and that's when they saw three men on horseback across the river. They couldn't communicate with the men on horseback because of the river and the distance, but one of the men had a piece of paper and a pencil. He tied it to a rock and threw it across the river, and Parrado wrote a note and threw it back. The note said:

I come from a plane that fell in the mountains. I am Uruguayan. We have been walking for ten days. I have a wounded friend up there. In the plane there are still fourteen injured people. We have to get out from here quickly and we don't know how. We don't have any food. We are weak. When are you going to come to fetch us? Please, we cannot even walk. Where are we?

The men let them know they understood and yelled, “Tomorrow.”

They returned the next morning with loaves of bread, and that afternoon a man on horseback reached them and took them to Curicó. Parrado and Canessa were safe.

How Were the Miracle in the Andes Survivors Rescued?

It took two days for helicopter rescuers to bring back all of the survivors. The Chilean army could carry only seven people back at a time, which meant half of the survivors were rescued on December 22 and the other half were rescued on December 23. They were treated for a whole host of medical issues including malnutrition, altitude sickness, dehydration, frostbite, broken bones, and scurvy.

16 people in total survived. They lived for 72 days on the mountain.

What Happened to the Survivors of the Miracle in the Andes Flight?

Many of the survivors of the Miracle in the Andes flight became motivational speakers and published books. Nando Parrado took over his father's hardware store, got married, and became a TV personality and motivational speaker working in the field of trauma. Roberto Canessa became a pediatric cardiologist and motivational speaker. All survivors remained close and gather annually for a reunion.

Where Are the Victims of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 Buried?

The victims of the Miracle in the Andes Flight were buried on the mountain where they lost their lives. In that spot is a simple gravestone with the inscription, “The world to its Uruguayan brothers, Close, oh God, to you.”

Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered by: Crosse deStreit, Salmon Pond Studios
Graphic design and website by: Adam Hubka
Sound editing and music by: Mike Dunn

Photo by Antonio Caruso El Pais (Montevideo)

Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571

A Fairchild FH-227D used to depict Flight 571 in the movie Alive. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 Miracle in the Andes

The Miracle in the Andes Memorial and the mountain that Parrado and Canessa climbed. Photo credit: Wikipedia