Alianza Lima Air Disaster

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The Alianza Lima Air Disaster took place on 8th December 1987, when a Peruvian Navy plane chartered by the Lima football club Alianza crashed into the Pacific Ocean[1]. Forty three people lost their lives in the tragedy.

A Fokker F27-400M Friendship, the same model of plane involved in the accident

Contents

Before the Flight

Alianza Lima played a Peruvian league match on 8th December. The team beat Deportivo Pucallpa 1-0, moving into first place in the league table. After the game, players, staff, match officials and other personnel boarded an aircraft which the football club had chartered for the return trip from Lima to Pucallpa, provided by the Air Services branch of the Peruvian Navy. The aircraft was a Fokker F27-400M Friendship, registration AE-560, captained by Peruvian Navy Lieutenant Edilberto Villar. The aircraft, with serial number 10548, had first flown in 1977, and had logged a total of 5908 hours.

The Flight

There were forty four people on board the plane:

The flight took off from FAP Captain David Abenzur Rengifo International Airport in Pucallpa at 6:30pm on 8th December 1987.

The Crash

As the pilots began their descent into Lima, they could not confirm that the Fokker's landing gear was down and locked. The pilot requested a fly-by of the control tower at Jorge Chavez airport so that observers on the ground could confirm that the wheels were down. The observers confirmed that the airplane was ready for landing and at the aircraft mechanic's go-ahead, the pilot brought the plane around for another attempt at a landing. However, the aircraft flew too low to the water, and the right wing struck the surface of the ocean as the plane was lining up with the runway. The Fokker plunged into the water 6.9 miles (11 km) northwest of the airport. At 8:05pm, the control tower lost contact with the aircraft. A state of emergency was declared, and search and rescue teams were dispatched to the scene of the accident. Only one survivor, Lieutenant Villar, was recovered from the water.

Fatalities

Crew members

Passengers

Alianza Lima players

Alianza Lima staff

Other passengers

Survivors

The Captain of the flight, Peruvian Navy Lieutenant Edilberto Villar, was the only survivor.

Aftermath

The day after the accident, Peru mourned the loss of the team and the other passengers. Radio and television stations spread the news of the disaster, and people flocked to the beaches of Ventanilla and Alianza's Alejandro Villanueva Stadium in the La Victoria district of Lima. Over the next several days, some of the corpses were recovered from the sea. People attended mourning masses; went to football matches played in honor of the fallen players; and participated in pilgrimages that started in the various neighborhoods the players had hailed from, stopped at the club's stadium, and ended at Lima's General Cemetery. The team was said to have gone “de La Victoria a la gloria” (from Victory to glory) a pun on the team's home district. President Alan García, Cardinal Juan Landázuri Ricketts, and several state ministers attended various public gatherings, with many declaring themselves to have been 'Aliancistas' (fans) since childhood. The municipal government of La Victoria declared three days of mourning in the district and ordered its decoration in Alianza's blue and white colors. England footballer Bobby Charlton publicly announced his grief, having himself survived the Munich air disaster of 1958, which claimed the lives of many of Manchester United's 'Busby Babes'. Uruguayan club Peñarol wore black mourning bands at the Intercontinental Cup final, in a showing of solidarity with their fallen counterparts. Peruvian footballer Teófilo Cubillas, who had retired the previous year, offered his services as a player to Alianza, and wore their jersey three weeks later when the championship resumed.

Shots were fired during encounters between the families of the deceased and the guards at the naval base where they appeared requesting news and explanations in the days after the accident. The Peruvian Navy sealed itself, making no statements regarding its role in the disaster. The bodies of Luis Escobar, Francisco Bustamante, Alfredo Tomasini, Gino Peña and William León were never recovered. There were rumors that player Tomasini had spent his last moments speaking with the pilot, Villar, the only survivor. His family wished to hire a boat to aid in the search and recovery efforts, but the Navy did not allow it, closing off the accident area to all civilian traffic. In the midst of the difficult moment the country was experiencing due to the activities of the Sendero Luminoso terrorist group, the Navy's behavior led to rampant suspicion, which in turn brewed conspiracy theories.

The club members who died represented most of Alianza's footballing strength at the time; the group of players were known collectively as Los Potrillos del '87 ('The Ponies of 1987'). Among the deceased was youth star Luis Escobar, the sensation of that year's tournament, who had debuted with the main team at age 14. He died at age 18. Players Francisco Bustamante and José Casanova, both in their twenties, played for the national team. Also in their early twenties, forward Alfredo Tomasini, and defenders Daniel Reyes and Tomas Farfán, lost their lives in the accident. Marcos Calderón, widely considered to be one of Peru's best coaches of all time, lost his life, as did José "el Caico" Gonzáles Ganoza, Alianza's starting keeper of 14 years. Alianza's squad was considered by the Peruvian sporting press to represent a sweeping renovation of Peruvian football. Alianza would continue to suffer during the next two decades, almost facing relegation in the year after the disaster. The team did not win a title until 1997, finally ending an 18-season drought prolonged by the loss of their star team.

Investigation

Three people initially survived the crash: Alianza Lima midfielder Alfredo Tomassini, a member of the crew and pilot Edilberto Villar. Villar declared that he escaped through a broken window and as he was swimming, he heard Tomassini shouting for help. He wrote in his report that Tomassini, who was a strong swimmer, showed apathy to keep swimming despite being tall and athletic. In his report, he neglected to mention that Tomassini was injured but later he told his lawyer another version in which the player had a fractured leg. By the time they were floating in the ocean it was 8pm and he knew that they had to hold on until morning. The other survivor was a member of the crew who then disappeared. The pilot said that he rescued Tomassini three times, but the player eventually drowned.

The fact that the aircraft that the team chartered for the trip was owned by the Peruvian Navy was seen as a sign of the economic weakness endured by the Peruvian military at the time, as well as the lack of organization felt throughout Peruvian football. State-owned aircraft were notorious for being in disrepair and frequently crashed.

In 2006, Peruvian television program 'La Ventana Indiscreta' announced that the Naval Aviation Commission charged with investigating the accident had concluded that Lieutenant Edilberto Villar's lack of night-flying experience, his misreading of the emergency procedures, and the aircraft's poor mechanical condition to be contributing factors to the accident. According to reporter Cecilia Valenzuela, the complete official file containing the Commission's findings was illegally secreted away to the United States by Navy Captain Edmundo Mercado Pérez, who presided over the investigation. The file remained locked in a Florida bank vault for 19 years[2].

According to the findings, Lieutenant Villar had logged just 5.3 hours of night-flying in the ninety days preceding the accident, 3.3 of them in the previous sixty days, and had not flown at night in at least thirty days before the crash. The co-pilot, First Lieutenant César Morales, had logged only one hour of night flying in the ninety days preceding the accident, half an hour in the preceding sixty days. Morales had also not flown at night in at least thirty days. Additionally, the F27's maintenance log, which was handed to the pilot before takeoff, showed a series of mechanical defects. Lieutenant Villar had initially refused to fly the aircraft out of concern for its condition.

On the day after the TV documentary aired, 11th October 2006, website 'Living in Peru' (online magazine) reported:

'The airplane did not have an inertial guidance system; UHF communication had low reception; the very high frequency omnidirectional range (VOR number) had low sensitivity; the radius altimeter oscillated preventing the pilots from seeing the exact altitude; and finally, the actuator for the front landing gear had worn down. 'Nevertheless, the report concludes that human error was the main cause of the accident, not following flight procedures and not executing the check list. This is outrageous, a military pilot obeys orders', commented the host of the TV program Cecilia Valenzuela. According to the journalist, the team captain of Alianza Lima, Alex Berrocal, listened to the discussion of the pilots not to fly the plane in that state.'[3]

The official report into the disaster, dated February 1988, also showed that halfway through the flight from Pucallpa to Lima, the crew noted a possible malfunction of the landing gear. A cockpit indicator showed that the gear had not lowered, but officials at Lima checked with observers on the ground, who informed the pilot that he could land safely. Villar then ordered Morales to check the emergency gear lowering procedure in the manual. The relevant page was written in English which First Lieutenant Morales was not fluent in. He mistakenly instructed the pilot to follow step 1.3.1.7, which would flash a red indicator light, rather than step 1.4.3, which would display an orange light[4].

In a letter from the Fokker aircraft company, dated 16th October 1986, the manufacturer noted that Lieutenant Villar had failed a special training course which could have prevented 'his disorientation while operating under pressure, the excessive demand of work in a cabin', but was granted permission to fly the aircraft regardless. Copilot César Morales had received no flight training from Fokker.

According to some sources, the fly-by of the tower caused the Fokker's fuel reserves to become exhausted[5], and the aircraft ran out of fuel as it was repositioning for a second landing attempt.

Statistics

References

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