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Op-Ed: Pilots Can be Heroes, but Also Murderers

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Op-Ed: Pilots Can be Heroes, but Also Murderers

Op-Ed: Pilots Can be Heroes, but Also Murderers
December 07
11:30 2016

The LAMIA 2933 crash that killed 71 people in Colombia was a foolish, irresponsible tragedy that should have been avoided by the Captain himself, as well a number of other people who hopefully will be investigated and brought to justice.

It was an accident that hit me personally, a Commercial Pilot myself and as someone who has deeply admired Pilots all my life.

Because on November 28, 2016, the Captain and Co-Pilot of Bolivian-based LAMIA Flight 2933 arrogantly put the lives of their passengers at risk with a series of reckless decisions. These two individuals not only neglected to follow the rules, but also lacked common sense and the responsibility that those four stripes on their shoulders evoke.

The crash 10 miles south of Medellin’s airport not only ended their lives but 69 others, including the Chapoceoençe professional soccer players on their way to play the Copa Sudamericana Final against Medellin’s Atlético Nacional team, journalists, and crew members.

It was also a blot on all those excellence-oriented Pilots around the world who strive to become better, safer, complete airmen.

First-hand on the subject

The night of the event, I was probably one of the first people to hear about it. I was chatting with Pilot friends who often fly to Medellin, and learned that a certain aircraft had plummeted to the ground a few miles short of the runway.

Crude photos rapidly made their way to my cell phone from the few witnesses who arrived at the scene. I noticed there was no smoke, no fire, nothing. The Avro’s fuselage was cut in half, spreading debris all over the tip of a tiny mountain that sits a few feet away from Medellin’s Rionegro VOR.

The wreckage of flight LMI2933 with no signs of burning. © L. Benavides | AP

The wreckage of flight LMI2933 with no signs of burning. © L. Benavides | AP

As soon as I saw the images, the idea of them running out of fuel came to mind. Yes, that unimaginable thing. In this 21st century, how can someone, ever, run out of fuel? I thought.

When I told my friends what I thought had happened, they chuckled. They knew it wasn’t possible. They work in the airline industry and are very well aware of the demanding conditions in which airlines operate. This couldn’t be.

The Untouchable Captain

But you know, Captains do enjoy a certain degree of autonomy in Latin America (as well as many other parts of the world). I’ve heard endless stories where First Officers are shut down as soon as they step into a Flight Deck because the four stripes are on the other guys’ shoulders. Likewise, colleagues have told me numerous stories where their opinions don’t matter, because the Captain in command overrules them.

This kind of bullish behavior is what leads to completely needless accidents like the one that just happened on the hills of Medellin. And I can’t even imagine what kind of ambiance ruled in LMI2933’s Flight Deck, because the Captain in command also happened to be one of the airline’s owners.

Hours after the crash, I received a photo of Flight LMI2933’s original Flight Plan. All very quickly, thanks to the lack of formalities in South American countries. My eyes pointed immediately at two important boxes, Estimated Flight Time and Fuel Range. Not to my surprise, both boxes contained the very same number: 4 hours 22 minutes. It must be a mistake, I thought.

The Flight Plan's ETE and Fuel Range were both the same: 4 hours 22 minutes.

The Flight Plan’s Estimated Time En-route (ETE) and Fuel Range were both the same: 4 hours 22 minutes. © DarioElDeber | SocialShorthand

Naturally, I doubted whether the Flight Plan was real. It couldn’t be, I thought. Such a thing would be an insult to all the Pilots, Crew and Passengers who’ve ever been on a plane before. It’s an atrocious act that can only be seen as a hoax.

But the following morning, I received a transcript of a conversation between the airline’s dispatcher and the airport’s operations office, which verified the entire ordeal. All, thanks to those Latin American informalities.

— “Sir, you can’t file this Flight Plan as is,” Santa Cruz Airport’s Flight Plan Officer, Celia Castedo, said to LAMIA’s dispatcher, Alex Quispe. “Fuel Range and Estimated Flight Time are both the same, you need to correct it.”

— “No, the Captain is well aware and he said that it’s fine. It’s more than enough fuel to reach Medellin. We’ll do it in less time, don’t worry,” replied Quispe, who hours later would die onboard.

And off they went.

Airlines around the world have a team of dedicated people responsible for prepping airplanes for their flights. Among them, is the Flight Dispatcher, a figure with huge responsibilities, including the important task of filing the flight plan, punching in the weight and balance numbers, and handing over all of it to the Captain, who then has to approve it and then sign it.

In the case of LAMIA, things might have been a little different. Since Capt. Miguel Quiroga was also co-owner of this charter airline, he merged his status as Captain and Owner. Boss says, we do! The Flight Plan was signed.

LAMIA’s dark past

Now, jumping back in time, how did Capt. Quiroga become owner at this airline? Perhaps the same way he accepted and filed this scandalous Flight Plan? Negligently.

Even though the flag on the aircraft’s tail is Bolivian, this airline was conceived in Venezuela, the country with a high level of corruption world standards, and is prevalent throughout many levels of  its society. The original owner, Ricardo Albacete, founded LAMIA in 2009 to reactivate the aviation industry in the Andean city of Merida. By 2013, its first aircraft took to the skies from the city of Porlamar, in Margarita Island, to the southern city of Ciudad Bolivar, as a way to promote the service, seeking approval from the Venezuelan Civil Aviation Authority (INAC).

LAMIA's initial route map for its inaugural operations in Venezuela.

LAMIA’s initial route map for its inaugural operations in Venezuela.

However, things didn’t go as planned and the airline never materialized because of political strife. Albacete seems to have been implicated in a large corruption scandal between Spain and China, and was therefore banned from starting operations in Venezuela. He blamed his venture’s failure on INAC and was forced to look elsewhere to let LAMIA spread its wings.

In 2015, Bolivia opened its doors to Albacete. Lamia Corporation SRL was established with two BAe Avro RJ85 aircraft, one of which was involved in the crash. The new airline’s mission was to provide charter flights on special sporting events, for which several soccer teams flew with Quiroga and company in several opportunities.

The airline's first aircraft pictured in Valera, Venezuela during a promotional flight.

The airline’s first aircraft pictured in Valera, Venezuela during a promotional flight.

Quiroga’s social media feeds showcased several selfies with professional soccer players. He was seen as that cool pilot who got to fly with Lionel Messi, considered to be one of the world’s greatest players.

But how could the boss of a company that carried so many important players forget to do his job correctly? It is perhaps because he thought he was untouchable.

A Corrupted Flight Plan

World airline regulations require airplanes to carry enough fuel to reach their destination, plus an alternate airport, plus an additional 45 minutes of fuel.

This regulation makes sure any unforeseen situations at the time of arrival are covered with enough fuel to keep the airplane flying—something that Capt. Quiroga chose to ignore when his flight plan was filed by the airline’s dispatcher, and initially rejected by the airport staff member.

The route chosen for Flight LMI2933 from Santa Cruz to Medellin covered 1,605nm (2,975km) of distance, estimated to last 4 hours 22 minutes—way more than this airplane was built to cover.

The route from Santa Cruz to Medellin covered 1,605nm of distance, five miles higher than the aircraft's maximum range.

The route from Santa Cruz to Medellin covered 1,605nm of distance, five miles higher than the aircraft’s maximum range. © | AviationHerald

According to the aircraft’s manufacturer, British Aerospace, the AVRO RJ 85 (a regional airliner at best), has a maximum range of 1,600nm (2,965km). The filed route exceeded the aircraft’s range by a crucial five miles, omitting any regulations, safety concerns or even the smallest bit of logical sense.

And even though this Flight Plan could have been filed and accepted by anyone else, there’s always the possibility to divert and make a re-fueling stop, should calculations prove that not enough fuel will be at hand to meet the regulations.

In fact, with today’s technology at one’s fingertips reach, we know, every second of the way between Point A and Point B, how much fuel we have, how much time we have left, and with how many pounds, kilos, liters, or gallons of fuel we will have upon touchdown. All these tools are available for the Captain to make a precise decision that will ensure the safety of his passengers and crew.

A range chart taken from the Operating Handbook of the British Aerospace BAe 146 airliner.

A range chart taken from the Operating Handbook of the British Aerospace AVRO RJ85 airliner shows the aircraft’s range with different payload figures. © BAE Systems Remote Runway Ops, Avro RJ-85 Range Performances

But Capt. Quiroga forgot that this 17-year-old aircraft might reach Medellin with its fuel tanks filled with nothing but gas fumes. He didn’t anticipate—negligently—that Medellin’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) would have asked him to circle around [hold] for more minutes than what his atrocious flight plan estimated.

He forgot how to be a Pilot.

Instead, Flight LMI2933 departed Santa Cruz with a full load of fuel, passengers and cargo, bound straight to Medellin, with the Captain-Owner hoping that everything would be in perfect condition, and that he, the Captain-Owner would remain untouchable.

The last minutes of a Calm Captain?

The dramatic air-traffic controller communications were revealed as soon as two days after the crash, showing a very calm Pilot communicating with a nervous Medellin Controller.

As Flight LMI2933 began its approach—presumably with the low-fuel annunciators blinking on the Pilots’ faces—another situation unfolded in the Medellin area with a VivaColombia A320 asking for priority to land because of a system malfunction.

Capt. Quiroga was therefore asked to enter into a holding pattern at 21,000ft to allow the situation to clear, an act that he negligently accepted—and which turned out to be his death sentence.

About three minutes later, while on the outbound leg of the holding pattern, he called back ATC requesting for priority to land because of a certain “fuel problem.” ATC agreed and the fuel-deprived aircraft began its descent and approached into the airport.

This Flightradar24 image shows the holding pattern path LMI2933 flew before its crash.

This Flightradar24 image shows the holding pattern path LMI2933 flew before its crash.

As the airplane descended, Capt. Quiroga called ATC again and advised of a “total failure, both electrical and fuel.” Still, without declaring and emergency, he sounded rather calm and didn’t want to raise any suspicion. He forgot that a ‘total electrical failure’ would have killed his radios, making an exchange of communications with ATC impossible.

The AVRO 85 had run out of fuel. Its generators stopped producing power as all four engines starved to exhaustion. The airplane was now a glider coming down at a sink rate that was impossible to stop.

The ATC cleared the way for the distressing airliner to land while repeatedly verifying the radar for indications of altitude and heading. Quiroga, plummeting down to earth, responded leisurely—still without declaring an emergency—his altitude and heading readings.

Seconds later, after further exchanges with ATC, the last words from Quiroga were heard. “Localizer, localizer!”

Flight LMI2933 had crashed 10 miles south of the runway on the adjacent mountain to the Rionegro VOR. No explosion, or any type of burning were seen and the lives of 71 people were taken away by someone who decided to play God.

From heroes to murderers

Back in the golden days of aviation, when Pan Am Clipper Captains were seen as gods and often followed for autographs, life was good, Pilots were heroes.

I hadn’t been born back then, I know, but movies like Catch Me If You Can and a few conversations with former Pan Am Captains taught me something that I never thought would be lost in these days of aviation monotony.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of hard study, dedication, and strong and strict formation crafted real airmen who, with unbreakable principles, took pride in what they did. And pride and bravery is what they needed, for the simple fact that lifting off the ground a 500-ton aluminum can is an act that defies nature and, with it, carries great responsibility.

This responsibility is what made me fall in love with aviation. A constant admiration towards Pilots who’d carry millions of passengers during their careers, always keeping those strict guidelines that were instructed to them immaculate.

That admiration grew more and more as days passed. I commended those Captains who’d put their hats and suits on after a 10-hour flight, and left behind a spotless airliner that had battled adverse weather conditions and fought against gravity across endless miles of oceanic or inhabited land.

Those very principles of airmanship are what kept me dreaming, day to day, since the day my memory started registering things. I’d find myself drifting away from any situation into my airplane-filled imagination, impatiently waiting for the day when it’d be my turn. I truly relished becoming a Pilot and, too, sharing that responsibility—to one day put that uniform on and earn my four stripes, to carry people around the world, and be seen as a good, responsible Pilot.

Today, I can say that I’m a Pilot. I earned my wings after a very challenging four years of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University training. I became a Commercial Pilot. My training was a solid, professional, and a challenging process that allowed me to understand the severity of transporting, among other things, people who put their lives upon the tip of my thumbs—and to identify other Pilots whose questionable habits could put me, and my passengers at risk.

We studied accidents, Pilot behaviors, psychology, and trends that often lead to negative situations. We studied to guarantee keeping those numbers of takeoffs equal to the numbers of landings. We were taught to always act professionally and identify those situations in which our safety—and our integrity as Pilots—could be compromised.

And what I learned was that, as tough as it sounds, we Pilots are subject to being seen as heroes or murderers.

You see, if we land safely during a severe thunderstorm with strong crosswinds and turbulence, we’re heroes. If our nose gear doesn’t come down but we land safely, saving everyone on board, we’re heroes. If we take off from La Guardia, fly into a flock of birds, our both engines flame out and we safely put the aircraft into the Hudson River and nobody dies, we’re heroes.

But if we decide that pushing the limits is a good idea, if we think playing Macho is the right way to go; if we think putting the life of our passengers at risk, letting our egos overcome our reason; or thinking we’re unbeatable when in reality we’re not, that bad things won’t happen to us, well we’d better think again.

What Capt. Quiroga and his Co-Pilot did, was tantamount to homicide.

First, they deliberately signed that Flight Plan; second, they did not divert to an alternate airport to re-fuel, knowing that whatever they had left in the tanks wasn’t sufficient; third, they did not declare an emergency at any point, fearing a post-landing inspection by the Colombian Aviation Authority that could have cost their airline a hefty fine and the removal of his pilot privileges; and fourth, the shattering fact that if they hadn’t agreed to enter the holding pattern and continue straight to the runway, they would have made it.

Their negligence—much like the atrocious behavior displayed by Andreas Lubitz, taking Germanwings 9525 to crash into the mountains killing everyone on board—has tainted the image of the millions of Pilots around the world who take their jobs seriously, who strive to become better airmen by following the rules and making conscious decisions, who day-to-day enter their Flight Decks with professionalism, and most importantly, with the passion and responsibility that such privilege entails.

But, then again, if they hadn’t entered the holding pattern and landed safely, the Captain’s untouchability would have been reinforced. Perhaps he would have done it again. And again.

His poor choices will now teach us to become better Pilots and remember that none of us are like him, untouchable.

May the souls of the victims rest in peace.


About Author

Enrique Perrella

Enrique Perrella

Commercial Pilot and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Graduate. Aviation MBA, Av-Gas Addict, Spotter, Globetrotter, Airplane Collector, Cook, AS Roma fan, and on my free time, I fly the Airways Ship. Favorite airline, airport and aircraft: Viasa, Tokyo-Haneda, and MD-11. Love to Fly, Fly to Love.

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  1. CJB
    CJB December 08, 06:39

    A fantastic and very well written article about an accident that just shouldn’t have happened.

  2. DH
    DH December 09, 00:49

    By far, the most informative and insightful piece I have seen written about this tragedy. (I’m not a pilot.) The only omission I would note, perhaps warranting a few additional paragraphs:

    I believe to have seen a news report stating that the Co-Pilot was on her very first (commercial) flight in that role. Not an easy position to be in, I would think, in a such a macho environment. It would be interesting to ascertain from any cockpit voice recording that might exist whether, under those circumstances, she deferred completely (contrary to standard industry protocol) to the Captain’s extremely poor judgment and thereby partly contributed to the accident. Such a finding would only reinforce the notion of “the untouchable captain” raised in this article, and the importance of addressing that problem wherever it may exist.

    Indeed, if anything positive could emerge from this terrible loss, it would be that pilots all over the world take a few minutes to re-assess their own cockpit behaviour, with a view to asking the question: How would I have acted in similar circumstances — i.e. of disagreement with the approach pursued by a Captain? {KLM-Canary Islands and various other avoidable accidents come to mind.} The sobering answer may well be: Perhaps I, and my colleagues, would benefit from some refresher training in this essential area.

  3. predrag
    predrag December 09, 09:39

    Excellent article, great sources and insight.

    This case is an extreme example of the deference to the hierarchy that exists in many other segments of society, wherever strict hierarchy exists and is underscored by clear ranking system. Whether military, or hospital, or an airline, this system guarantees that there is accountability at each level, and places responsibility on the shoulders of those who are in the management position. There is a reason that such positions get higher pay levels: there are valid expectations that these people have been trained (and have, through experience, developed) better, more reliable judgement, as well as the ability to make correct judgement in critical moments.

    This captain had exhibited failure to exercise that judgement on several occasions during this doomed flight. Unfortunately, precisely the same hierarchy that affords him the ultimate authority has prevented others to challenge it when it was obvious that the decision was profoundly wrong and potentially extremely dangerous.

    This was one very deadly learning moment for others.

    On an unrelated matter, a grammatical point to the writer: ranks and titles shouldn’t be capitalised. We write about captains, first officers, co-pilots in the same way we talk about presidents, senators, congressmen. Only when we refer to a specific person, we say Captain Kirk, Senator Johnson, President Obama (or Capt. Kirk, Lt. Kirkpatrick, etc). So, always lower-case, except when it precedes the name of a person. The sentence “His poor choices teach us to be better Pilots…” looks as if those Pilots are God-like creatures. Perhaps the pilot in question here thought of himself as one, but the rest of us know full well that we aren’t quite.

  4. Eric Auxier
    Eric Auxier December 09, 18:26

    Great comments.
    It’s true that, technically, “Pilot” etc. isn’t capitalized. However, it has been the long-standing policy of Airways to capitalize it, as a sort of personal honorific from the magazine to those in the profession.

  5. Eric Auxier
    Eric Auxier December 09, 18:38

    Excellent, if chilling, article.
    If these “smoking guns” do turn out true—and it appears likely—I hope this becomes a worldwide wake-up call to the industry, much like the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash in SFO called attention to the ridiculous “Captain is God” hierarchy that that culture cultivates.
    This Stone Age culture that ignores the greatest aviation improvement in recent history—that of CRM (Crew Resource Management)—dramatically reduces safety at its own peril.
    Any time my First Officer points out an error in my procedures or judgement, the first thing I do is thank him or her profusely, and encourage them to continue to be appropriately assertive in pointing out even the simplest of errors that ALL humans—and thus ALL pilots—inevitably make.
    There is no room for ego, nor greed, in a cockpit.
    Assuming your information is true, then, sadly, this Captain’s “error” was made deliberately, with open eyes, by a greedy, egotistical aircraft owner, rather than a sound, grounded, experienced Pilot. And, just as you say, like the Germanwings crash, it casts a pall over the thousands of responsible Pilots who fly safely and smartly the world ’round.
    If he hadn’t been killed, he should have been prosecuted as a criminal.
    Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier

  6. Laura Duque
    Laura Duque December 13, 14:59

    The copilot was a very experienced male pilot. The female co-pilot trainee was on the jump seat

  7. Laura Duque
    Laura Duque December 13, 15:11

    Some Human Factors review won’t harm anyone.Normalization of Deviance: when non-compliance becomes the “new normal”

  8. AvWriter
    AvWriter December 15, 22:57

    Thanks for your insights and comments Enrique. This is the kind of thing that gives foreign countries, especially, a bad name.

    The US aviation system is not without its faults and failures but, as you mention, the macho culture is still alive and well in many other countries.

    Our CRM process pretty much weeds out these kinds of accidents/incidents but as long as we have human beings at the controls, we’ll always have the risk of something like this happening, regardless of the country involved.

    As an aviation copywriter and simulator instructor, I attempt to bring my background as a writer, line check captain, former licensed professional counselor and life-long student of aviation psychology into whatever I do in and out of the cockpit.

    Thanks for your vigilance and humble pride in our profession.

    Bert Botta, TWA/Netjets (ret)

  9. dennisjoy81
    dennisjoy81 December 18, 23:52

    In the business of aviation, it’s better to be a shade under confident. Keeps you alert and cross checking things every now and then. Invariably you will make safer decisions most of the time.
    Nicely written article. Such cases are unheard of in the present century. Though I am not acquainted with chartered/private flights but I would like to believe that if the owner is there on the flight, he can invariably influence the decision-making.

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