In the Arms of Oblivion: The crash of Austral Líneas Aéreas flight 2553

A massive crater was all that remained of Austral Líneas Aéreas flight 2553 after its terrifying death spiral over Fray Bentos. (Accident Investigation Commission)

On the 10th of October 1997, an Argentine airliner bound for Buenos Aires suddenly plunged from the sky over the Uruguayan countryside. The out of control DC-9 slammed into the ground at over 1,200 kilometers per hour, obliterating the plane and leaving a massive crater in the bush near the town of Fray Bentos. All 74 people on board were killed in what remains the worst air disaster in the history of both Uruguay and Argentina. But the plane, operating a domestic flight within Argentina, was never supposed to be over Uruguay at all; in fact it had deviated far to the east in attempt to avoid a line of thunderstorms. Could the storms have had something to do with the crash? After pulling the plane’s mangled black boxes out of the dirt, investigators discovered that the story was far more bizarre than anyone had anticipated. It all began with the weather — and it ended with the first officer making an input that tore a wing apart in midair, sending the plane spiraling 30,000 feet down through the darkness as the crew fought a hopeless battle to save the lives of their passengers. But it was the story in between the lines that would endure for decades after the crash — a story that cut right into the heart of Argentina’s entire aviation system.

LV-WEG, the DC-9 involved in the accident. (Kambui, via Wikimedia)

Since its founding in a merger in 1971, Austral Líneas Aéreas, a wholly owned subsidiary of Argentina’s flag carrier Aerolíneas Argentinas, has operated domestic flights within Argentina using a varied fleet of small jets and turboprops. By 1997, the core of its fleet consisted of several variants of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and its larger sibling, the MD-80 series. Among the DC-9s in its fleet was LV-WEG, an early model DC-9 manufactured in the United States in 1969. By 1997, the plane was 28 years old and had seen service in several countries, but Austral did not have the capital to invest in an upgrade.

On the 10th of October 1997, LV-WEG was scheduled to operate a regular passenger flight from the city of Posadas in extreme northeastern Argentina to the capital, Buenos Aires. In command of the flight were Captain Jorge Cécere, a veteran pilot who had only just started flying this aircraft type, and First Officer Horacio Núñez, who had fewer total hours but was much more familiar with the DC-9. Joining them that night were three flight attendants and 69 passengers, making for a total of 74 people on board.

The planned route of flight 2553. (Google)

The plan for the flight (designated flight 2553) was to fly southwest on a designated airway called UA688, then turn south onto the UA300 airway, which would skirt the border between Argentina and Uruguay all the way to Buenos Aires. The weather along the route that night was extremely poor: a line of major thunderstorms had sprung up on the wide open pampas, stretching across northern Argentina and into Uruguay. Witnesses in the area reported turbulence, hail, and lightning — but, incredibly, none of this was mentioned in the weather report provided to the crew of flight 2553. No warning about severe weather had been issued because the local meteorological office had already shut down for the night, and the airline dispatcher never requested data from other zones along the flight path between Posadas and Buenos Aires.

Without any specific knowledge of the bad weather ahead of them, Cécere and Núñez took off from Posadas at 9:18 p.m. local time and headed southwest Along the UA688 airway. Eight minutes later, observing the bad weather on radar, the area controller in the city of Resistencia asked, “Are you going to make a detour from the route?”

With First Officer Núñez at the controls, it was Captain Cécere who responded. “Well,” he said, “I’ll inform you — I don’t think so.”

Indeed, flight 2553 reached its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, then continued on course for a further 25 minutes without leaving the UA688 airway. But at around 9:46, the crew must have spotted the storms on their radar, because flight 2553 began to deviate to the left of its track, turning southeast to try to make an end run around the line of storms. The crew, who were now in contact with a regional air traffic controller based in the Buenos Aires suburb of Ezeiza, apparently never asked for permission to do this.

Flight 2553 begins to deviate from the designated airways to avoid storms. (Google)

The conversations within the cockpit began to be recorded only after 9:48, when the plane had already begun its eastward diversion. It was clear that Captain Cécere believed he could skirt around the storms, as he commented, “I’m staying that way, I prefer to stay a bit to the left.” But the wind was blowing the storm clouds in the same direction, prompting him to add, “Look, look how it’s moving!” Apparently deciding that flying through some part of the storm was inevitable, he went on the public address system and warned the passengers that they might experience some slight turbulence.

As the pilots deviated farther to the east to avoid the storms, they began to lose track of their position. They had not been informed before the flight that the navigational beacon that they were supposed to be using in this area, located in the town of Gualeguaychú, was inoperative. As a result, they weren’t sure how far exactly they had deviated relative to the Gualeguaychú beacon, and at 9:50 they strayed across the border and entered Uruguayan territory. It was not until six minutes later that anyone mentioned their navigational situation.

“From here if we go straight to Gualeguaychú, we get into Uruguayan territory, see?” said First Officer Núñez.

“We’re right there,” said Captain Cécero, presumably showing Núñez on a map.

“Huh? We’re right there,” said Núñez, pointing somewhere else. He explained that they weren’t going to Gualeguaychú, but to the waypoint beyond it. Neither pilot yet realized that they were actually in Uruguay.

At 10:03, flight 2553 passed through the edge of one the big cumulonimbus clouds that had been looming ahead of them for the past several minutes. Static electricity raced across the outside of the plane, and the eerie lights of St. Elmo’s Fire lit up the windscreen. Turbulence began to jolt the plane in multiple directions. Moments later, freezing rain began to pour out of the clouds, impacting the plane with a continuous tapping sound audible on the cockpit voice recording. “What static from this puta madre!” Cécero exclaimed. “’Slight turbulence,’ I told them,” he said, joking about his understated passenger announcement.

How ice in a pitot tube affects airspeed indications. (Boldmethod)

Unknown to either pilot, they had entered an area of supercooled water droplets within the thundercloud. Powerful updrafts in the center of a storm can carry rain from lower elevations up to altitudes well above the freezing line, where the droplets become supercooled — they remain liquid, but freeze instantly when contacting an object, such as an airplane. This freezing rain rapidly began to stick to the DC-9 — and in particular, the plane’s pitot tubes. The pitot tubes are a set of four cylindrical sensors, open at one end, which measure the plane’s airspeed. Air rushing into the open end of the tube applies pressure to the sensor inside; this pressure is then compared to the static pressure outside the plane to determine the speed at which it is moving through the air. As ice built up around the openings of the pitot tubes, the airflow into them became partially obstructed, resulting in a slow decrease in the airspeed readings provided to the crew. Although the indicated airspeed was dropping, the actual speed of the plane remained constant, and at first neither pilot noticed.

However, at 10:05, Captain Cécero decided it was time to leave 35,000 feet and begin their descent toward Buenos Aires. “Lower the speed, because that’s how we go down,” he said to First Officer Núñez. Núñez throttled back to begin the descent, but little more than a minute later, the pilots’ airspeed indicators suggested that the were going too slowly. In reality, this was because of the blocked pitot tubes; their real speed was still normal. Unaware of the problem, Cécero warned, “Be careful, the speed!”

“Yeah,” said Núñez, advancing the throttles slightly to bring their speed back up. But instead, it kept dropping.

“Give it some spark,” said Cécero, observing the continued downward trend on his airspeed indicator.

“Yes, yes, I already…” said Núñez.

Over the next thirty seconds, this back and forth conversation continued, with Cécero asking for more thrust, Núñez increasing power, and the indicated airspeed dropping still lower. Flight 2553 began to descend from 35,000 feet without permission from air traffic control.

“I’m going to put some anti-ice on you,” Cécero said, implying that the cause of the problem could be ice in the engines reducing their power output. He switched on the engine anti-ice systems and waited to see if this made any difference.

“Let’s see — because if it’s not going to be that…” Núñez wondered aloud.

“Watch your speed!” Cécero repeated. “It kept going down…”

Only now did Cécero call the Ezeiza controller to request permission to descend. “Ezeiza, 2553, requesting descent,” he said over the radio.

“Sir, you are in Uruguayan territory,” the controller replied. He couldn’t authorize a descent if the plane was in a different air traffic control sector.

Cécero apparently didn’t hear him. “Pay attention!” he said to Núñez. “Lower the nose!” He hoped that by pitching down, they would succeed in increasing their airspeed. Seconds later, he keyed his mic and again said, “Ezeiza, 2553, requesting descent!”

“Contact Montevideo on 28.5, 53,” said another pilot who was listening to the conversation.

Flight 2553’s real airspeed vs. indicated airspeed after the pitot tubes froze. (Own work)

By this point, the pressure on the crew was escalating rapidly. Their airspeed kept falling, well below the normal value for this stage of the flight, and nothing seemed to fix it. Furthermore, they were in Uruguay, talking to an Argentine controller, who could not authorize them to change flight levels. And yet they had no choice but to descend — at such a low airspeed they would stall if they tried to climb. They didn’t know that the airspeed readings were wrong, and the plane was actually accelerating downward.

At this point Captain Cécero finally realized there was something wrong with his airspeed figures. “Reduce your speed!” he suddenly exclaimed to First Officer Núñez. “My airspeed indicator has jammed! Don’t go any lower!” Although he was unsure of the plane’s real speed, he must have concluded that it was rather fast, given the low pitch angle and high power setting. Therefore, Núñez would need to stop trying to speed up right away, or they could risk exceeding the plane’s maximum speed.

But while Núñez now knew that Cécero’s airspeed indicator had malfunctioned, he had no reason to believe that his own indicator was not working properly. It still showed a low airspeed which could decay dangerously — possibly resulting in a stall — if he complied with Cécero’s command to level off. In order to increase lift and lower their stall speed, he wanted to extend the slats — a set of control surfaces which extend forward from the leading edges of the wings, and which are normally used to enable low speed flight during takeoff and landing. “Give me… listen to me!” he exclaimed. “Give me slats!”

But Captain Cécero didn’t hear him, because at that very same moment, he keyed his mic and said to air traffic control, “To what level!?”

“Give me slats, right away!” Núñez repeated.

“Ezeiza, 2553, repeat the level for me?” Cécero asked. Despite his jammed airspeed indicator, his highest priority still seemed to be the acquisition of descent clearance, and he still didn’t seem to understand that they were in Uruguay.

“2553, change now to Montevideo, 128.5,” said the controller. “You are in Uruguayan territory.”

“Please, authorize me to descend!” Cécero pleaded.

“Wait a second, wait a second!” said the controller, who was otherwise occupied. Flight 2553 had gone totally rogue, descending without permission through a busy airway, and the controllers in both Ezeiza and Montevideo were scrambling to prevent a midair collision.

Real airspeed vs. indicated airspeed (continued), and the relationship between these values and the first officer’s request to extend the slats.

At that moment, First Officer Núñez decided he had waited on Captain Cécero long enough. He grabbed the slat lever and extended the slats himself — a decision which proved to be utterly catastrophic. Below 15,500 feet, the slats cannot be extended at airspeeds above 250 knots (463km/h); above 15,500 feet, the limit is a Mach number of 0.57 (Mach number being a function of both airspeed and altitude). Núñez’s airspeed indicator, drawing from a pitot tube blocked with ice, showed that they were traveling at around 215 knots; but the real speed of the airplane at that point was 320 knots with a Mach number of 0.84, far above the slats’ structural limit. Almost as soon as Núñez extended the slats, tremendous aerodynamic forces tore at least one of them right off the plane.

The loss of one or more slats had a devastating impact on the aerodynamic shape of the affected wing or wings, effectively ruining their ability to generate lift. The plane instantly pitched down and rolled over into a terrifying spiral dive, spinning like a top as it nosedived downward from 30,000 feet.

Dios mio! Dios mio!” Núñez screamed as powerful G-forces flung unsecured objects into the ceiling. The violent maneuver knocked the ice off the pitot tubes, and the airspeed indications suddenly corrected to their real value of over 400 knots, triggering the loud CLACK CLACK CLACK of the overspeed warning. Both pilots grabbed their controls and fought to level the plane, but with severe damage to at least one wing, their efforts were futile.

Simulation of the loss of a slat and the beginning of flight 2553’s dramatic death spiral. (From the film “Fuerza Aérea Sociedad Anónima” by Enrique Piñeyro)

The final moments of flight 2553 are some of the scariest and most disturbing in the history of commercial aviation. As the DC-9 hurtled down through the pitch black night, Núñez continued to shout, “Dios mio,” while Captain Cécero let loose a myriad of curses and screams of terror. The plane spun around and around, corkscrewing and pirouetting as it fell, streaking across the sky like a falling star. But the pilots never stopped fighting to save the plane. Núñez pulled engine power back to idle and extended the speed brakes, while Cécero yelled, “Flaps down,” hoping that the increased drag would slow their descent.

Unfortunately, all their attempts to recover were useless. Hopelessly crippled, the DC-9 nearly broke the sound barrier as it accelerated toward the ground. “We’ve killed ourselves! We’ve killed ourselves!” Núñez screamed as the earth rose up to meet them.

Seconds later, Austral Líneas Aéreas flight 2553 slammed into the Uruguayan countryside in an inverted position at over 1,200 kilometers per hour. The enormous impact shattered the plane into millions of pieces and carved out a crater six meters deep and 31 meters wide. Heavy debris carried onward deep into the ground under its own momentum, while a huge explosion sent light wreckage flying hundreds of meters in every direction. All 74 occupants of the DC-9 were essentially vaporized in a fraction of a second.

Archival footage of the crash site of flight 2553. (From the film “Fuerza Aérea Sociedad Anónima” by Enrique Piñeyro)

The controller in Montevideo, Uruguay saw flight 2553 fall 8,000 feet in just 24 seconds near the beginning of the dive, while the Ezeiza controller tried repeatedly to contact the plane without success. When the plane dropped off radar, both controllers alerted emergency services, and Uruguay launched one of the largest search and rescue operations in its history. Eight minutes after launching the mission, police informed searchers that residents of a rural area east of the Uruguayan village of Nuevo Berlin had seen a “ball of fire falling from the sky.” Although this narrowed down the search area, it was not until 2:48 a.m. that searchers discovered a possible wing fragment near a highway, followed by the main crash site at 3:20. The plane had come down in an area of swamps and thickets between state route 20 and the Rio Negro, about 32 kilometers east of the town of Fray Bentos. It was immediately obvious that no one could have survived; in fact, rescuers couldn’t even find any bodies. With 74 people dead, it was the worst air disaster involving an Argentine airliner and the worst on the territory of Uruguay. As the news broke that morning, the two countries were united in grief — and in anger. Everyone wanted to know: how could this happen? It would fall to Uruguay’s National Civil Aviation and Aviation Infrastructure Directorate to find the answer.

Small pieces of wreckage lay scattered amid upturned clods of earth at the site of the crash. (La Capital)

Despite the incredible impact forces, investigators were able to recover both black boxes from the depths of the crater with their memory modules intact. There would be little else for them to work with, as most parts of the plane could not be located. Nor could the passengers — although small fragments of human remains were found, almost none of the victims were ever identified.

When investigators downloaded the information from the flight data recorder, the recorded airspeed values immediately struck them as odd. Although the plane had a nose down pitch and fairly high engine power, its airspeed continuously decreased throughout the later part of the cruise and the beginning of the descent. Then, shortly after the plane went out of control, the recorded airspeed jumped from 210 knots to 425 knots in just three seconds, which was physically impossible. The only conclusion to be drawn was that the airspeed data became false around the beginning of the descent from 35,000 feet, and then self-corrected during the dive. The cockpit voice recording confirmed that something was indeed wrong with the pilots’ airspeed indicators. This meant that there was a problem with the plane’s pitot tubes. Because the three airspeed indicators (captain, first officer, and standby) and the flight data recorder all draw their information from different pitot tubes which operate independently, the only real explanation for the simultaneous failure of all four sensors was a buildup of ice on the outside of the plane. Another pilot who had been in the area that night confirmed that ice was present at high altitudes. Furthermore, the sound of freezing rain could be heard hitting the plane after it entered the storm, and the pilots mentioned turning on the engine anti-ice system, suggesting that they knew they were in icing conditions. It therefore seemed likely that ice had blocked the pitot tubes and caused the indicated airspeed to decrease, even though the real airspeed was increasing.

Recovery teams gather the badly mangled wreckage of the DC-9. (Infobae)

When Captain Cécero realized his airspeed indicator had malfunctioned and ordered First Officer Núñez to stop descending, a series of fatal assumptions occurred. Núñez did not appreciate that all the airspeed indicators were malfunctioning, not just the captain’s, and he continued to believe that their speed was dangerously low. He feared that if they leveled off, their airspeed would decrease even more, leading to a stall. Critically, he had never received training on high altitude stalls; all the stalls he had practiced in the simulator were at or below 12,000 feet. Part of the procedure for recovery from a low-altitude stall was to extend the slats, which increase lift and lower the speed at which the plane will stall. Believing a stall to be imminent, Núñez reverted to his training and called for the slats to be extended. His tone of voice showed that he viewed this task with great urgency. The fact that the plane had strayed into Uruguay and couldn’t get descent clearance contributed to the situation by distracting Captain Cécero from the airspeed indicator malfunction. Had there been less on his plate, he might have taken a moment to see that the first officer’s indicator was showing the same false reading. Instead, he remained distracted by the conversation with the controller, and when the captain did not immediately respond to his copilot’s request to deploy the slats, Núñez simply extended them himself.

A soldier stands guard near the crater left by the impact of the DC-9. (Misiones Online)

Here investigators asked a tricky question: should Núñez have known that they were flying too fast to extend the slats? At an altitude of 30,000 feet, the structural limit for the slats is set at Mach 0.57, but even the false Mach number generated from the false airspeed reading was above this value. It was then that investigators discovered a critical gap in the aircraft’s instrumentation. The airspeed indicators installed on the DC-9 displayed both airspeed and Mach number with a single pointer, and the Mach number display rotated automatically so that the current Mach number would line up with the current airspeed (see diagram below). Because the Mach number is only relevant during cruise flight, where airspeed and altitude are high, this rotating inset display only extended down to the 250-knot mark; below this airspeed, Mach number was not displayed. However, at altitudes above 22,000 feet, it was possible for the airspeed to be less than 250 knots while the Mach number remained above 0.57. Thus, there was a regime of flight in which the structural limit for the slats was based off the Mach number and the Mach number was not displayed. Furthermore, because the slats are normally only used below 15,500 feet, where the structural limit is 250 knots, this value would have been more familiar to First Officer Núñez than Mach 0.57. In the heat of the moment, he looked at his airspeed indicator, saw a value less than 250 knots with no Mach number displayed, and assumed it was safe to extend the slats. In reality, both the false and real Mach numbers were above the safe slat extension limit, and the aerodynamic forces acting on the slats tore some of them clean off the plane. After that, recovery would have been either extremely difficult or impossible, depending on the level of damage. (The exact number of slats which came off in flight could not be determined, as none of the slats were ever found, save for one which stayed attached to the plane.)

Explaining the origins of the Mach indication gap at high altitudes and low airspeeds. (Accident Investigation Commission)

After discovering this gray area in the plane’s instrumentation, investigators asked the manufacturer of the indicators to explain how a pilot was supposed to know whether it was safe to extend the slats when airspeed is low and the Mach number is high. The manufacturer pointed out that slats are only supposed to be used at low altitudes, where the limitation is 250 knots. There are no procedures which call for their use at the altitudes where the indication gap occurs, and it was difficult to conceive of any reason why a pilot would want to extend them at that phase of flight. In fact, during normal flight, the structural limitation on the slats is nearly always exceeded at high altitudes, regardless of airspeed, because Mach number also increases with altitude. Therefore, the manufacturer did not think it was necessary for pilots to know the Mach number when traveling at low airspeeds that are only used at low altitudes where the Mach number is irrelevant.

A soldier recovers some small pieces of the DC-9 from the crater. (Misiones Online)

But the investigation was not done: several major questions remained, some of which had the potential to cast the entire sequence of events in a new light. Most importantly, the DC-9 was equipped with pitot tube heaters that are designed specifically to prevent ice from blocking the tubes — so why didn’t they work? A simultaneous mechanical failure of all four independent heating systems would be virtually impossible, so the most likely explanation was that the pilots forgot to turn them on. On large airliners, the pitot heaters are used essentially from gate to gate; however, they do need to be turned off after arrival so that ground personnel aren’t burned if they accidentally touch a pitot tube. Thus, a pilot must actively turn the heaters back on before departure. A reminder to do this is placed in the mandatory after-start checklist; however, the period prior to takeoff was not registered on the cockpit voice recorder, so why exactly the crew forgot this step is unknown.

An investigator digs through the ruptured soil of the crater in search of wreckage. (Clarín)

This was not the first time a plane crashed because the pilots forgot to turn on the pitot tube heaters. In 1974, a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 crashed near Stony Point, New York after the pilots lost control of the plane during a ferry flight without passengers. All three crewmembers were killed. It turned out that they had forgotten to turn on the pitot heaters before takeoff; the pitot tubes subsequently iced over, causing an excessively high airspeed reading. The pilots reduced thrust in attempt to slow down, causing the plane to stall and crash. As a result of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all airliners have an amber warning light that will inform the pilots if the pitot heaters are inoperative or have not been turned on. The Federal Aviation Administration turned this recommendation into law, mandating that the warning lights be installed on all US airliners by April 1983.

A memorial to the victims of the 1974 Northwest Airlines accident. (Alexandra Wren)

In 1987, the National Airworthiness Directorate (DNA), the branch of the Argentine Air Force responsible for regulating civil aviation, voted to adopt all of the FAA’s existing aircraft design requirements. This included the requirement for a warning light if the pitot heaters are not turned on, which previously had not been required in Argentina. The DNA gave Argentina’s airlines until 1992 to install the warning lights. However, Uruguayan investigators found that the DC-9 involved in the accident did not have the light installed — in 1997! It turned out that the DNA had granted an exemption to Austral Líneas Aéreas which allowed it to fly without the warning lights until March 1998. The basis for this extraordinary six year extension was extremely murky, and with only five and a half months to go until the new deadline, Austral still hadn’t brought its planes into compliance.

Uruguayan investigatоrs present one of flight 2553’s mangled flight recorders. (Clarín)

Investigators also found that the training provided to the crew was extremely basic. Austral did not offer training in Crew Resource Management (CRM), the set of fundamental communication techniques which help keep pilots on the same page, make it easier to work through problems, and encourage the voicing of concerns at all times. Had they received CRM training, Captain Cécero might have done a better job communicating with Núñez about the malfunction of his airspeed indicator, and Núñez might have explained to Cécero why he wanted to extend the slats before doing so. Had either of these conversations taken place, the crash might not have happened. The pilots had also received no training on how to respond to instrument malfunctions, which prolonged the time it took for Cécero to recognize the airspeed problem, and perhaps prevented Núñez from discovering it at all. And their stall training was so rudimentary that Núñez had no idea the procedures for stall recovery were different at high altitudes. It was clear that the pilots were totally unprepared for the situation they encountered over Uruguay that night.

Relatives of the victms gather at the crash site. (Unidiversidad)

The sequence of events had now been fleshed out from beginning to end. The pilots forgot to turn on the pitot heaters, and the light which could have warned them of their mistake wasn’t installed. When the plane flew into the storm, about which the pilots were not warned, the pitot tubes froze, causing indicated airspeed to drop. In response to this decrease, the pilots pitched down and descended, causing the plane’s real speed to increase. When the captain told the first officer that his airspeed indicator had actually jammed, and that he should level off, the first officer still feared that their speed was too low and they could stall. Consequently, he extended the slats while above their structural speed limit, causing one or more slats to depart the airplane. In their final report, Uruguayan investigators wrote that the cause of the accident was the extension of the slats at too high an airspeed, due to the false airspeed readings from the frozen pitot tubes. It didn’t directly blame anyone, but the extension granted to Austral by the DNA was listed as a contributing factor, along with the design of the airspeed/Mach indicators, the inadequate training at Austral, and the insufficient weather information provided to the crew. The report also listed a number of safety recommendations, including that pilots in Argentina receive training on pitot system failures, high altitude stalls, and CRM; that Argentine regulators ensure airworthiness upgrades (like the pitot heat warnings) are installed in a timely manner; that meteorological information be available whenever it is required; and that Boeing establish an altitude limit above which the slats cannot be extended, among other points.

Another view of the crater. (Misiones Online)

However, the investigation’s narrow mandate to determine the cause of the accident didn’t allow it to look into Argentina’s aviation industry as a whole. At the time, Argentina was one of only two countries in the world where all sections of the industry (regulation, accident investigation, pilot training, air traffic control, airport management, and so on) were run by the Air Force. The result was a complete lack of accountability at all levels of the system. A revolving door between the Air Force and jobs with the airlines generated deeply rooted conflicts of interest, which grew into an ugly culture where the very people assigned to maintain the safety of Argentina’s skies also had a personal stake in the financial success of its airlines. Some of the Air Force officials charged with investigating accidents were the very same ones who had made decisions which contributed to those accidents. Following the rules was frowned upon if it cost airlines money, and any airline employees who complained about safety could expect retaliation from their bosses’ friends in the regulatory agencies. At the top, everyone knew each other — they had all served in the Air Force together. With this context in mind, the extension that the DNA granted to Austral Líneas Aéreas that allowed it to fly for six more years without the pitot heat warning lights looked an awful lot like a “favor.”

The aftermath of the crash of LAPA flight 3142 in Buenos Aires on 31 August 1999. (Filo News)

Before the release of the report, before even the crash itself, a parallel sequence of events began at LAPA, another domestic airline in Argentina. Enrique Piñeyro, a LAPA pilot, actor, and film director, resigned from LAPA in 1996 due to concerns over safety. In a letter that was leaked to the public, he warned that it was “inevitable” that LAPA would have a major accident due to the way it conspired with the Air Force-run regulatory agencies to increase profits at the expense of safety. Two years after Austral crash, he was unfortunately proven right when LAPA flight 3142 overran the runway on takeoff in Buenos Aires, killing 63 of the 100 people on board as well as two on the ground. It turned out that the pilots had attempted to take off without the flaps extended and ignored an alarm informing them of their mistake. LAPA had been expanding rapidly and hired the pilots despite their poor performance in training.

A poster for Enrique Piñeyro’s “Fuerza Aérea Sociedad Anónima.” (Películos Argentinos)

In 2004, Enrique Piñeyro wrote, directed, and starred in a movie called Whisky Romeo Zulu, which dramatized his experience working for LAPA in the lead-up to the crash. Two years later, he followed it up with a groundbreaking documentary called Air Force, Incorporated (Spanish: Fuerza Aérea Sociedad Anónima), that broke down exactly how corruption in the Air Force had led to the crash of Austral Líneas Aéreas flight 2553, as well as several other accidents. His films made such a splash in Argentina that just two days after the release of Air Force, Incorporated, the Argentine government announced that it would overhaul the country’s entire aviation industry. The promise eventually bore fruit: in 2009, responsibility for Argentina’s aviation sector was formally removed from the control of the Air Force and handed over to a new set of independent civilian agencies. (Some portions, such as the airport authority, had been transferred already.) Today, although there remains work to be done, it seems as though the reforms have resulted in some progress: it has now been nine years since the last fatal crash involving an Argentinian airline.

Family members visit a memorial to the victims of the Austral disaster, erected at the site of the crash. (El País Uruguay)

Even after the changes to aviation safety in Argentina, the story was not quite over. The horrifying crash (commonly known in both Uruguay and Argentina as la tragedia de Fray Bentos) was not easily forgotten by the people of either country. In the interest of bringing justice to the families of the victims, in 2017 an Argentine court indicted 27 former Austral executives and Air Force officials on charges of “malicious corruption” related to the crash. The primary question was whether the culture of corruption which allowed the DC-9 to fly with inadequate equipment amounted to a criminal offense, and if so, who should be found guilty. In his statement explaining the indictments, Judge Jorge Ballesteros wrote, “[This was] an endemic, systematic failure, entrenched within the operation of a company that failed to comply with its main functions and allowed high-risk actions, such as air navigation, to develop in an uncontrolled manner.” But as of 2020, no decision has yet been handed down in the case. Twenty-three years after flight 2553 fell from the sky over Fray Bentos, it remains to be seen who will be found responsible for one of South America’s most haunting air disasters.

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Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (soon™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.