Can the Chapecoense tragedy happen again?

The Chapecoense air tragedy in Colombia was a horrifying heartbreak for the perished’s loved ones, the club’s supporters, for Brazilians and the global football community.


Funeral home employees in Medellin, Colombia, prepare the coffins of Chapecoense players killed in the plane crash (December 2) Source: AFP

Sadly it wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last, incident in which planes carrying football teams have gone down and questions need to be asked as to why these things happen.

Let us first examine what exactly occurred on that dark evening that saw Lamia Airlines flight 2933 crash into a mountain resulting in the death of 71 people, including 19 members of the Chapecoense football party, and 20 members of the travelling media – a total of 39 members of the football community. There were six survivors: three players, one journalist and two members of the crew.

The team was to fly from Sao Paulo in Brazil to Medellin in Colombia for a Copa Sudamericana match against Atletico Nacional. The club originally wanted to use Lamia to fly from Sao Paulo to its refuelling stop in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, but that request was denied by Brazil’s civil aviation authorities.

The team then decided to fly to Santa Cruz on a Bolivian commercial flight and switch to the Lamia flight for the onward leg to Medellin.

Lamia, a one aircraft discount charter operator, was often used by football teams. Eighteen days earlier Argentina’s national team, including Lionel Messi, took exactly the same flight as Chapocoense did on this fateful day.

The seeds of the tragedy were planted in Sao Paulo where the Bolivian flight was delayed by one hour resulting in a corresponding one hour delay for the onward Lamia flight from Santa Cruz. The Lamia pilot, Miguel Quiroga, had planned for a refuelling stop in Cobija in Bolivia’s north but that never happened. The delay meant that the plane would arrive too late in Cobija where the airport is closed at night.

The pilot decided to fly on to Medellin whose airport was further away from Santa Cruz than the Lamia aircraft’s range with a full tank of fuel. This was the fateful decision that would lead to the crash.

Under international aviation rules any plane flying internationally must carry enough fuel to make it to an alternative airport and, on top of that, must have fuel reserves for an additional 30 minutes’ worth of flying.

The pilot obviously thought that somehow he could reach Medellin, despite breaching regulations, by not having fuel reserves and despite not being able to refuel at Cobija.

Then arose yet another problem. Approaching Medellin airport the pilot asked the tower for priority landing. This was refused because another plane on descent reported leaking fuel and was given priority, forcing Lamia 2933 into a four minute holding pattern. In the end the flight, with 77 people on board, ran out of both time and fuel and crashed into the mountain.

What made things worse in the way Quiroga handled the crisis was that until the very last seconds he didn’t report an emergency presumably because he didn’t want to incur a heavy fine for breaching regulations.

Investigations are still continuing but on this account a series of appalling blunders and cases of negligence committed by the captain appear to have caused the tragedy.

There have been a number of similar tragedies involving travelling football teams down the years.

On 4 May 1949 the football world was shaken when a plane carrying the FC Torino team crashed into the walls of Superga Cathedral outside Turin. The chartered plane, bringing the team home from a game in Lisbon, carried 31 passengers. All were killed. Dubbed Grande Torino, the team was one of the greatest in Italian club football history.

Bad weather and poor visibility were blamed for the crash. Crosswinds caused the plane to drift to starboard and with the pilot unaware of his bearings and with visibility of just 40 metres the three-engine Fiat G.212 crashed into the retainer wall at the back of the cathedral. A plaque placed at the very spot of the collision commemorates the tragedy’s victims.

On 6 February 1958 came the most famous such accident of all when another chartered plane carrying Manchester United crashed on take-off at Munich Airport. There were 38 passengers and crew on board, 23 of whom were killed, including eight players and eight travelling journalists.

The culprit was a combination of bad runway conditions, caused by snow, and the eagerness of

the pilot to take-off and get the team home to Manchester on time.

Slush on the runway caused the take-off to be aborted twice. The pilot, James Thain (who survived), was encouraged to delay the flight until the next day but he insisted that the runway conditions were good enough for take-off. They were not.

The risk was that the slush on the runway would not allow the plane to reach the optimum speed (220kmh) required before the plane could get off the ground. The plane managed to reach a ground speed of 217kmh after which it was too late to abort take-off. Far from increasing speed, the plane began to slow due to the slush, dropping to 194kmh when Thain’s co-pilot, Ken Rayment, screamed, ‘Christ, we won’t make it.’

The plane skidded off the runway, smashed through a fence, crossed a road and crashed into a house.

The team, known as the Busby Babes, lost eight players, among them young starlets Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor. Among the survivors were manager Matt Busby and players Bobby Charlton, Dennis Viollet and Harry Gregg. Jackie Blanchflower also lived but never played again.

The airport authorities took legal action against Captain Thain. Proceedings dragged on for ten years before Thain was cleared.

Manchester United, under Busby, re-built and won their much coveted European Cup, in a dazzling final against Benfica, in 1968.

The most recent of these notable tragedies involving football teams, before the crash outside Medellin, was on 27 April 1993 when a plane carrying the Zambian national team crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 500 metres offshore from Libreville, Gabon.

All 30 passengers and crew were killed.

The flight originated in Lusaka, Zambia, and was headed for Dakar, Senegal. After taking off following a re-fuelling stop in Libreville, the left of the two engines caught fire. The pilot – for reasons that are a mystery – shut down the right engine. The plane, now without power, plunged into the sea.

The Zambian team which perished was a promising one. At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul it thrashed Italy, 4-0. It now took its aim on the 1993 Africa Cup of Nations and keenly eyed its first ever place at the FIFA World Cup the following year.

The country’s best ever player Kalusha Bwalya, then playing for PSV Eindhoven, was not on board because he arranged his own flights from Holland to Dakar.

Remarkably the rebuilt Zambian team reached the Cup of Nations final and lost only 2-1 to Nigeria. In 2012 Zambia triumphed in the Cup of Nations, beating Ivory Coast in Libreville, only a few hundred metres from the site of the crash in 1993.

All such accidents that involve fatalities are heartbreaking tragedies and none should ever be devalued. But we football people are somehow more personally touched whenever football teams and football players go down. They are family. To lose them is to lose sons, brothers, cousins.

There have been many such tragedies down the decades, more than the ones I mention above. All could have been avoided.

One can’t help thinking that in each case there were attempts to minimise costs and cut corners. The common strand across all these tragedies is that all of them happened on chartered flights which tend to be cheaper than normal commercial flights. For example the price offered by Lamia was 40 per cent less than a flight from a major international airline, like Air Colombia.

This urgency to keep costs down has to be among the causes of these appalling tragedies. Surely a lesson for teams wanting to engage in air travel in the future.

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8 min read
Published 7 December 2016 at 5:31pm
By Les Murray