Varig Flight 254
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A Varig Boeing 737-200, similar to the one involved.
|Date||3 September 1989|
|Summary||Major navigational error resulting in fuel exhaustion|
|Site||near São José do Xingu, Brazil
|Aircraft type||Boeing 737–241|
|Flight origin||São Paulo–Guarulhos Int'l Airport|
|1st stopover||Uberlândia Airport|
|2nd stopover||Goiânia–Santa Genoveva Airport|
|3rd stopover||Brasília International Airport|
|4th stopover||Imperatriz Airport|
|Last stopover||Marabá Airport|
|Destination||Belém–Val de Cães Int'l Airport|
Varig Flight 254 was a Boeing 737-241, c/n 21006/398, registration PP-VMK, on a scheduled passenger flight from São Paulo, Brazil, to Belém, Pará, Brazil, with several intermediate stopovers, on 3 September 1989. Prior to take off from Marabá, Pará, towards the final destination, the crew entered an incorrect heading into the flight computer. Instead of flying towards its destination, the plane flew due west and after some time was over a remote area of the Amazon jungle. Attempts to reach an alternative airport were unsuccessful, and the plane eventually ran out of fuel. The pilot made a belly landing in the jungle, 1,050 mi (1,690 km) northwest of Rio de Janeiro. There were 54 occupants on board—48 passengers and a crew of six; 13 passengers died, and many more sustained serious injuries. The survivors were rescued two days later.
Early moments of the flight
The flight was a scheduled service from São Paulo to Belém with stopovers in Uberaba, Uberlândia, Goiânia, Brasília, Imperatriz, Marabá, and finally Belém. The São Paulo–Belém route had an approximate duration of eight hours and 20 minutes. At 9:43, flight 254 left Guarulhos International Airport, São Paulo, heading towards Belém. The flight crew consisted of 32-year-old Captain Cézar Augusto Padula Garcez, First Officer Nilson de Souza Zille, 29, and four flight attendants. The flight went smoothly through all the stops, and at 17:20, the crew was arranging the final preparations at Marabá Airport while the passengers were embarking.
While First Officer Zille was making an external inspection of the aircraft, Captain Garcez consulted the flight plan for the magnetic heading to Belém, the flight plan read 0270. Garcez interpreted this as 270 degrees, but the intended meaning was 027.0 degrees. Varig's heading notation for the flight plan was changed to four digits from three while Garcez was on vacation, and it did not explicitly specify the position for the decimal point, which was implicitly located to the left of the rightmost digit. That confusion was the primary cause for the disaster, along with other minor errors. The captain therefore set the left-side Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI) to 270 degrees, i.e. a due west course. This heading was inconsistent with flying from Marabá to Belém.
After setting the HSI, Garcez programmed the aircraft Flight management system (FMS) to the distance to Belém (187 nmi or 346 km or 215 mi). The flight plan indicated an altitude of 29,000 feet (8,839 m) (FL290), and a leg duration of 48 minutes. When co-captain Zille got to his seat, instead of checking his own flight plan to adjust his HSI – as he was required to do – he only copied the captain's indicator and set his to the same parameters. At 17:45, flight 254 took off from Marabá, and the autopilot started a long 158° curve to port, instead of the 41 degrees heading correction to starboard that should be expected during a normal flight to Belém. It is reported that the mistake may have been due in part to the crew listening to a Brazil v Chile World Cup football qualifying match on the radio.
When Garcez believed the aircraft to be close to the destination, he attempted to use his VHF radio to communicate with Belém Tower. Failing to do so directly, he used another Varig airliner operating flight RG266, as a radio relay to talk to Belém Airport. When Garcez managed to establish communications with Belém, he requested descent clearance, and received such. Upon performing his descent, the captain found it very odd that he could not recognize any of the characteristic geographical features of the Belém area (such as the Marajó Island and the Amazon River estuary), and even asked the Tower Controller if the city was without electricity. In 1989, Belém airport still had no radar, and so the Controller informed Flight 254 that it was the only one in its airspace, and gave it landing clearance.
After the FMS started indicating negative distance to its destination, Captain Garcez decided to execute a 180-degree turn and locate Belém visually. He also descended the aircraft to 4,000 feet (1,219 m) and reduced its speed to 200 knots (370 km/h; 230 mph). Reluctant to use the HF radio to request help, the captain decided to take visual reference from a river he located below the plane, believing it to be the Amazon. The river was actually the Xingu, which runs chiefly south-north, while the Amazon runs west-east.
At that time, the flight had already taken 30 minutes longer than scheduled, and the passengers were getting anxious. When First Officer Zille finally took notice of their initial mistake, he and the captain decided, after checking their navigation charts, to make contact with Santarém airport (they believed it to be the closest airport in the vicinity), and made an almost 180-degree turn, now establishing a 350 magnetic course. After some calculations, Garcez realized that the aircraft did not have the necessary fuel to reach Santarém, and he started heading south again (along the now properly identified Xingu river). Finally, he decided to contact Marabá airport again, to find his location. The radio frequency of Goiânia locator was the same as Marabá's, and Garcez tuned to Goiânia's locator (Goiânia is located approximately 675 nmi (1,250 km; 777 mi) south of Marabá). The captain was already nervous, and unfortunately he failed to notice that the tuned locator's Morse code identifier was not consistent with Marabá's beacon.
At 20:05, Belém Center called Flight 254 again demanding a report. The captain stated that he had a 170 magnetic heading to Marabá (in reality it was Goiânia), and that he was receiving a bearing from the Carajás beacon (which actually was the Barra do Garças beacon). Garcez was perplexed when Belém informed him that the Carajás locator had been shut down since 19:30, and the Center decided to try and illuminate the Carajás runway, in an attempt to facilitate Flight 254's orientation. Realizing that he would not have enough fuel to reach Belém, the captain decided to head for Carajás Airport, which would have been the correct decision if he had not mistaken Goiânia for Marabá. In another stroke of bad luck, Flight 254 passed, at approximately 20:30, 100 nautical miles (185 km; 115 mi) away from the Serra do Cachimbo Air Force base, a very large airfield which the 737 could have successfully reached.
After that, it was inevitable that the aircraft would have to make a forced landing over the rainforest in the north of Mato Grosso. At the time there were no written procedures for such an emergency situation. Garcez and Zille decided to fly at 8,000 ft (2,438 m) until they ran out of fuel, thus avoiding a possible explosion upon landing, and with the engines on, they would still have hydraulic power to command the aircraft (devices such as the ailerons and flaps are hydraulically activated). They also decided to keep the plane flying slightly above stall speed, which in this case was around 150 kn (278 km/h; 173 mph). During their descent, they spotted very few lights through the jungle (which were the houses of farms that had electrical generators). At 20:40, Garcez informed Belém center that he would be making a forced landing over the jungle, and when he had 15 minutes left of fuel, he informed his passengers of the situation. When there was around 100 kg (220 lb) of fuel remaining, the left engine stopped. The right engine ran for a further two more minutes, and then stopped as well.
Even after shutdown, the engines were still windmilling (rotating due to the passage of the air through them). This gave the airplane some rudimentary and unreliable hydraulic control, but better than having no power at all. Garcez commanded the lowering of the flaps, which only moved to position Two, (around 10 degrees) due to the failing hydraulic system. With the batteries discharged, there was no electrical power and the only four instruments working in the cockpit were the artificial horizon, the altimeter, the airspeed indicator and the vertical speed indicator. The only thing the crew could see on the horizon were faint light spots due to distant forest burnings, and at 21:06, local time, the plane crash-landed over treetops that extended over 50 m (164 ft) above ground.
The deceleration due to the crash was so intense that passengers without their seatbelts were flung to the front of the airplane, and some seats detached from the floor, also racing forward. When the aircraft fell through the foliage, two thick trees tore away both wings, and caused a severe torsion of the fuselage, which contributed to more seats detaching, and to the collapsing of the false roof over the passenger's heads. After reducing its speed to about 35 kn (65 km/h; 40 mph), the aircraft ran for little more than 30 m (33 yd) and stopped, lying on its right side.
Two days later, four of the survivors decided to try to walk and look for help. After about two, or three hours of walking in the jungle, a group led by Alfonso Saraiva found the house of the Curunaré farm, in São José do Xingu. That farm had no radio, so they were taken by car to another farm, Serrão da Prata, at 12:30, Tuesday. With the help of radio operator João Capanema Jr., they were able to contact Franca Airport (Franca is a city 400 km north of São Paulo), and at 16:27 of that Tuesday, an EMB Bandeirante airplane from the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) dropped food packages over the wreckage. By 12:00 Wednesday, all survivors had been rescued by FAB.
Forty one survivors were rescued from the crash site by helicopter which flew them 50 km (30 mi) to São José do Xingu, and from there they were flown by Embraer EMB 110 Bandeirante turboprop planes to Cachimbo Airport 185 miles to the northwest. They were then flown later to Brasilia Base Hospital near Brasilia.
Upon investigation, it was concluded that the crash had been caused primarily by negligence on the part of the flight crew. Customary investigations showed that the aircraft was in perfect condition for the flight, and that its mandatory periodic inspections had been properly conducted. It was concluded that the main factor for the accident was an error in reading the correct heading from the flight plan by the commander, compounded by the co-pilot copying the setting from the commander's panel instead of checking the flight plan.
Additionally, there were several contributing factors to the accident: the pilot did not realise he should be receiving a stronger VHF signal from Belém if he was nearing that airport, he should be receiving the local radio stations from Belém instead of other distant stations at the same frequencies, he should have checked his position and heading against the sun and geographic landmarks, and the airline's support team in Belém did not take action upon realizing the aircraft arrival was delayed.
The story of the accident was featured on the fourteenth season of the Canadian TV series Mayday (known as Air Emergency in the US, Mayday in Ireland and Air Crash Investigation(s) in the UK and the rest of world) in an episode entitled "Vanishing Act", first aired on 10 February 2015.
- Air navigation
- Air Traffic Control
- Dead reckoning
- Distress radiobeacon
- Flight plan
- Flight planning
- List of airline flights that required gliding
- Pilot error
- Situational awareness
- Gol Transportes Aéreos Flight 1907 Another 737 which crashed as a result of a mid-air collision 40 miles away from Varig Flight 254's crash site.
- Gregg Newton (7 September 1989). "Varig Airlines Crash". Corbis. Retrieved 27 February 2011.
- Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network. Some English text, mostly Portuguese.
- "Disparition d'un Boeing brésilien en Amazonie" [Brazilian plane disappears over the Amazon]. Le Monde (in French). Agence France-Presse. 5 September 1989. Archived from the original on 1 July 2012.
- "Bresil: L'accident d'un Boeing de la Varig Les rescapés de l'Amazonie" [Brazil: A Varig Boeing's accident leaves survivors in the Amazon]. Le Monde (in French). Agence France-Presse. 7 September 1989. Archived from the original on 1 July 2012.
- "Amazon crash survivors owe their lives to unemployed teen". Houston Chronicle. 7 September 1989. p. 16. Archived from the original on 4 July 2012.
- Brooke, James (6 September 1989). "After Trek From Brazil Crash, Survivor Says 46 of 54 Live". The New York Times. Archived 28 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine
- Germano da Silva (2008), p. 352–360.
- "Jet With 54 on Board Missing in Brazil : Disappears Over Amazon; Toll in Cuban Crash May Reach 150". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. 5 September 1989. Archived 22 March 2015 at the Wayback Machine
- "46 vivem e só oito morrem no Boeing achado na mata" [46 live and only eight dead in a Boeing found in the forest]. Folha de S. Paulo (in Portuguese). 6 September 1989. Archived from the original on 4 July 2012. Retrieved 4 July 2012.
- "Vanishing Act". Mayday. Season 14. Episode 3. 2015-02-10. National Geographic Channel.
- The complete Boeing 737 write-off listing
- "Accident information : Boeing 737 Varig PP-VMK". Airfleets.net. Retrieved 27 February 2011.
- Lucky just to be alive, Jorge Mederos, Associated Press, published in The Free Lance Star, 7 September 1989, Page 17.
- "Varig: Flight 254 - Vanishing Act". IMBd. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
- Germano da Silva, Carlos Ari César (2008). "Rumo errado". O rastro da bruxa: história da aviação comercial brasileira no século XX através dos seus acidentes 1928–1996 (in Portuguese) (2 ed.). Porto Alegre: EDIPUCRS. ISBN 978-85-7430-760-2.
- (Portuguese) Final accident report (Google Cache)
- "O mergulho na selva" [Deep into the forest] (in Portuguese). veja.com. 13 September 1989. Archived from the original on 4 January 2013.
- Marco Aurélio Roncato de Moura's accident description in Portuguese.
- Varig Flight 254 crash site photograph
- Blackbox recording of Captain's last announcement and radio traffic in Portuguese