In the sometimes chaotic exchange with the air traffic tower, the pilot of the British Aerospace 146 jet requests permission to land because of “fuel problems” without making a formal distress call.
A woman controller explained another plane that had been diverted with mechanical problems was already approaching the runway and had priority, instructing the pilot to wait seven minutes.
As the jet circled in a holding pattern, the pilot grew more desperate. “Complete electrical failure, without fuel,” he said in the tense final moments before the plane set off on a four-minute death spiral that ended with it slamming into a mountainside on Monday night.
By then the controller had gauged the seriousness of the situation and told the other plane to abandon its approach to make way for the charter jet, but it was too late.
Just before going silent, the pilot said he was flying at an altitude of 9,000 feet and made a final plea to land – “Vectors, senorita. Landing vectors”.
The recording, obtained by Colombian media, appeared to confirm the accounts of a surviving flight attendant and a pilot flying nearby who overheard the frantic exchange. 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 jet, which experts said 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 football team travelling to Medellin for the Copa Sudamericana finals – the culmination of a fairytale season that had electrified football-crazy Brazil.
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 recovered on Tuesday at the crash site on a muddy hillside.
The US National Transportation Safety Board was taking part in the investigation because the plane’s engines were made by an American manufacturer.