Flightcrew of West Caribbean Airways twinjet reported that the aircraft was ‘uncontrollable’ before fatal crash
The crew of the West Caribbean Airways Boeing MD-82 that crashed last week in northern Venezuela had declared an emergency after both engines flamed out within 4min of each other. The day after the 16 August accident that killed all eight crew and 152 passengers on board, the Colombian carrier grounded its entire fleet – a move that has since been followed by an official order from the Colombian civil aviation authority, Aerocivil, to suspend activities.
Although total power loss is rare, this was a similar scenario to the double flame-out suffered by a Tuninter ATR 72 twin turboprop over the Mediterranean Sea north of Palermo, Sicily on 6 August (Flight International, 16-22 August).
The MD-82 crew is understood to have uplifted 15,400kg (34,000lb) of fuel to perform charter flight WCW708 from Panama City to Fort de France, Martinique. This was more than sufficient for the planned 2h 38min flight’s planned route, providing an estimated endurance of 4h. The flight left Panama City’s Tocumen airport at 01:00 local time and headed east, intending to fly a course that would take it over northern Colombia and Venezuela near Maracaibo.
But less than an hour after take-off while cruising at FL330 (33,000ft/10,100m), the crew called Venezuela’s Maiquetia air traffic control centre near Caracas, declaring the aircraft had an engine failure, and calling for descent to 14,000ft. The aircraft was cleared to descend. About 4min later the crew said the other engine had failed, and they added that they were having trouble controlling the aircraft. Maracaibo, Venezuela was the nearest major airport to the West Caribbean MD-82 at the time, and according to Venezuelan minister of the interior Jesse Chacón, the crew indicated their intention to land there, so its emergency services were placed on full alert.
Moments after this last transmission, the aircraft’s trace disappeared from radar, with its last registered height being FL143. Colombian air traffic control has estimated the aircraft’s rate of descent just before the trace disappeared as 7,000ft/min (35.6m/s). Despite this, the aircraft is understood to have flown for another 25min, but without further transmissions or radar returns. The aircraft crashed at 02:27 on the eastern slopes of the Perija mountains 24km (13nm) from Machiques, 144km south west of Maracaibo.
The wreckage indicated a high- velocity impact, but heavy rain doused any post-crash fire. Late last week at least one of the flight recorders had been recovered. Panamanian aviation authorities said on 17 August that the fuel source at Tocumen airport from which the aircraft refuelled had been certified uncontaminated.
On 26 March West Caribbean suffered a fatal accident to a Let L-410 twin turboprop at Providencia airport, Old Providence island, a Colombian province in the Western Caribbean. The aircraft had failed to climb after take-off and hit a hill, killing eight of the 14 people on board.
The Medellin-based airline has since been subjected to special checks by Aerocivil, and in July was instructed to ground its three-strong MD-80 fleet when it was recognised that the carrier had not reacted to an airworthiness directive requiring cabin insulation materials to be replaced. The airline says this has since been done.
Ex-Continental airliner’s three-year rest
The accident aircraft was a Pratt & Whitney JT8D-217A-powered Boeing MD-82 (HK-4374X that was delivered new to Continental Airlines in November 1986. According to AvSoft aviation database ACAS, Continental Airlines retired the aircraft in October 2001 and it was then parked for over three years, much of the time in desert storage at Mojave, California. In January 2005 the MD-82 was leased by owner MK Aviation to West Caribbean Airways.
As of the end of April 2005, the aircraft had accumulated 48,500h and 23,200 cycles.
The aircraft underwent an inspection by Colombia’s Aerocivil agency on the morning of 15 August at the company’s Rio Negro, Colombia base and was flown to Panama City’s Tocumen International airport the same day at local time. The aircraft arrived at Tocumen on 15 August and was briefly inspected by Panamian authorities before departing early the next day.
JACKSON FLORES SAO PAULO