MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) — The pilot of the chartered plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team told air traffic controllers he had run out of fuel before crashing into the Andes, according to a leaked recording of the final minutes of the doomed flight.
In the sometimes chaotic audiotape from the air traffic tower, the pilot of the British-built jet could be heard repeatedly requesting permission to land due to a "total electric failure" and lack of fuel, before slamming into a mountainside late Monday.
A female controller could be heard giving instructions as the aircraft lost speed and altitude about eight miles from the Medellin airport. Just before going silent the pilot said he was flying at an altitude at 9,000 feet.
The recordings, obtained by several Colombian media outlets, seemed to confirm the accounts of a surviving flight attendant and a pilot flying nearby who overheard the frantic pleas from the doomed airliner. These, along with the lack of an explosion upon impact, point to a rare case of fuel running out as a cause of the crash of the airliner, which experts say was flying at its maximum range.
For now, authorities are avoiding singling out any one cause of the crash, which killed all but six of the 77 people on board, including members of Brazil's Chapecoense soccer team traveling to the Copa Sudamericana finals. A full investigation is expected to take months and will review everything from the 17-year-old aircraft's flight and maintenance history to the voice and instruments data in the black boxes retrieved Tuesday at the crash site on a muddy hillside.
Alfredo Bocanegra, head of Colombia's aviation agency, said that while evidence initially pointed to an electrical problem, the possibility the crash was caused by lack of fuel has not been ruled out. Planes need to have enough extra fuel on board to fly at least 30 to 45 minutes to another airport in the case of an emergency, and rarely fly in a straight line because of turbulence or other reasons.
Before being taken offline, the website of LaMia, the Bolivian-based charter company, said the Avro RJ85 jetliner's maximum range was 2,965 kilometers (1,600 nautical miles) — just under the distance between Medellin and Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where the flight originated carrying close to full passenger capacity.
It is also possible the pilot dumped fuel, or a lack of fuel was caused by a leak or some other, unexplained reason.