Don’t count on Brazilians naming their sons Miguel for a while, at least not in Chapeco.
Miguel Quiroga was captain of the ill-fated plane carrying the Chapecoense Futbol team less than a month before Christmas. He must have done his share of good, bless his heart. In fact, initial reports dubbed him the hero pilot who obviously dumped his fuel to save lives. However, investigators quickly discovered that strangely, the plane did not burn at all. The narrative quickly changed as evidence mounted that he had been playing a dangerous game with flight regulations.
Quiroga’s folly resulted in an unbelievably horrific end to a dream season in this most football-crazy country. You will see in a moment why I took such a keen interest in this saga. Indeed, this is a huge lesson for every single one of us, especially those in jobs, which other people’s lives depend on. A fiasco of such painful proportions does little to help those paralyzed by the fear of flying – which, by the way, is a rather treatable condition.
Four other times since August 2016, Señor Quiroga reportedly filed flight plans with dangerously tight cushions on fuel. Four times he got away with it. This fifth and fateful time, he filed a flight plan to Medellin, Columbia lasting 4 hours 22 minutes. On that same document, he acknowledged he would be carrying only 4 hours and 22 minutes worth of fuel. Who does that?!
Regulations stipulate that planes should carry at least 30 minutes worth of extra fuel. Bolivian La Mia Airline Flight 2933 disappeared from radar because of a seven-minute delay caused by another plane ahead of it, which also had an emergency. Still, Quiroga did not fess up to Air Traffic Control that he was out of fuel; not until the very last moment. Plain and simple: the pilot lied, the whole team died. He crushed the heart of the Brazilian people. His homeland Bolivia, immediately suspended LaMia’s license to fly. They wasted no time. Amid cover-up allegations and arrests, Bolivia fired the entire top management of its own national aviation authority, which had allowed the flight.
Everyone was just too giddy. In the football world, what the Chapecoense Futbol team had accomplished was just incredibly amazing. They had risen from the minor leagues just 2 years ago. Without any big name superstars, they blasted off all the way to the top in Brazil. Now they were about to play for the championship of Copa Sudamericana – the entire continent, the whole enchilada! An entourage of fawning journalists accompanied their every move to the climax of their Cinderella season.
Then there was co-pilot, Sisy Arias. She was a lovely former model on her very first gig. A gaggle of images sent out live showed these instant celebrities jockeying for pics with her. It looked like a bit of a zoo in the cockpit. Mathematics, the crux of this calling, may have been squeezed out in the hoopla. There is even mention of one of the footballers inadvertently forgetting his video game in checked luggage. To keep the player happy, Captain Quiroga supposedly delayed the flight 20 minutes to retrieve it. As a result, the last airport en route that offered a chance to refuel was closed by the time they got there.
Life is like a vapour, the Good Book says. It was goalkeeper DaniloPadilha’s dramatic penalty save that launched his team into the finals. Of all people, he was one of a handful pulled out of the twisted wreckagealive – but cruelly, not for long.He was able to summon just enough strength to whisper on a call to his wife, “Jesus look after my family and take my breath fast. My friends are waiting for me in heaven, they need a goalkeeper there…”
I couldn’t see!
This pre-Christmas disaster reminded me of one unforgettable experience in my flight training in Ohio. My friend, Puerto Rican gynecologist, Dr. Eddie Estrada and I had started learning to fly about the same time. However, he pulled ahead, as I had to cancel so many of my scheduled practice flights when called out for surgical emergencies. My wife pleaded with me to postpone my flying adventure until the kids were grown. But Eddie liked to boast. And, well, you know guys… Once, even though the weather report out of Cleveland was marginal, I decided that by the hook or the crook, I was going to fly that day.
I reckoned I could sneak in at least 45 minutes of solo flight time after work. There was that feeling of sheer exhilaration as the wheels lifted off the ground. In the words of renowned WWII Canadian fighter pilot John Magee Jr., I “slipped the surly bonds of Earth…and touched the face of God!”
Student-pilots know the drill. If not certified to fly completely by instruments, regulations forbid going anywhere close to clouds. Whatever got into me, I told myself, “Watch this, I’m just going to burst through that wispy band of fluffy stuff over there!” Once in the clouds, it was like flying through ‘pea soup.’ I couldn’t see anything outside the windscreen. “No problem,” I thought. “Just hold steady, Sam. You’ll be out of that soon enough.” But there seemed no end to it. I became disoriented. I eased the plane down to the fading daylight below only to be greeted by tall telecommunication antennas piercing upward into the low-lying clouds. To avoid crashing into one, I yanked the plane back up into the nothingness. I tried again a little later. Same result. And again and again – these blasted obstacles seemed everywhere!
Then I noticed the fuel gauge. It was getting close to E. What now?
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” I declared an in-flight emergency. An American Airlines pilot flying over Canada responded. I quickly outlined my predicament.
“Put on your instrument panel lights. Over.” he instructed.
“Where’s the switch? Never flown at night before. Over.”
“Okay, stay calm now. Over.” He intoned in a very controlled voice, perhaps sensing how my intestinal tract must be reacting.
“What make of aircraft are you flying?” I told him. My hands were locked on the joystick with a vice-like grip.
It seemed like an eternity before he called back directing me where to look. By that time, I had to feel for the switch in almost pitch darkness. The dials and gauges lit up! Thank you Lord! Step by step, he led me through the bearings and vectors. When I emerged from the clouds again, I was directly over my home airport. DIRECTLY! OMG, you genius you! I don’t care if he was thinking, how did they let loose this island boy in our skies. This nameless pilot saved my life! I made a perfect landing. Shakily, I climbed out of the little plane, knelt down and pressed my lips on Mother Earth: mwah, mwah, mwah…
To this day, my wife has no clue of what transpired. I kid you not. Next morning, July 16, 1999, I left for to a conference on a commercial flight out of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. People at my departure gate were glued to CNN. It was focused on several battleships. Helicopters hovered low over the ocean creating those circles of disturbed water. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s John Kennedy Jr. He is a new pilot you know. He was flying to Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts) last night. Radar lost him in that area.”
It didn’t look good. Right there and then, I pledged, “Lord, You see that flying business there…I will leave it to the professionals. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”
Humans being sometimes do stupid things. That’s why they say, to err is human. From the moment I heard Flight 2933 ran out of fuel, I said no way. Fuel is next to breathing for a pilot. You cannot just pull over on the side of the road and stick out you thumb for assistance. But alas, I was wrong again.
When you dissect the fear of flying
It is natural for all thinking beings to be afraid of flying – to varying degrees. Most just do what they have to do in this modern world. Some transform it into a thrill and passion while others are literally paralyzed by it. The syndrome is a combination primarily of acrophobia (fear of heights) and claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces). Adding a touch of fear of motion sickness and fear of terrorism brings this potent witch’s brew to a boil. Statistically, flying is way safer than driving – in any country. Yet stories like this make it much more frightful. The unsuspecting public has no idea what manner of intrigue goes on behind those closed cockpit doors. Thankfully, sedative/anti-nausea medication combined with basic counseling works wonders. Several of my patients have overcome this crippling fear and finally make well-deserved trips.
Many missed Flight 2933, including the team manager’s son. He had lost his passport. Others just barely got on board. As they say, when it’s your time, it’s your time. No doubt you have may your own tale of some close call. Some get a second chance to correct the error of their ways; others, not so much. The dream team from Chapeco thought they had chartered professionals. Miguel Quiroga loved flying. No rule nor regulation could stop him. He kept his passengers happy and he kept getting cushy contracts.Truly, this South American disaster has global implications. Even in his last gasp, local calypsonian Booplay delivered a masterful rendition on pilot error of a different kind. Just like that,“Air Dominica” takes on new meaning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUZ-N1nAbbs
Dr. Sam Christian runs the medical/surgical practice at Urgent Care on Bath Road. His ‘Sparkle’ articles deal with health and development related issues. He can be reached at 767 440-9133 / 265-0886 / 613-8345 or by logging on to www.urgentcareda.weebly.com