LONDON (AP) — The plane type that crashed near Medellin, Colombia, is a short-haul aircraft that has been used to land in hard-to-access airports and is increasingly used in firefighting duties.
Variants of the British Aerospace 146, or BAE 146, and a related model known as the Avro RJ have a maximum range of only about 1,700 nautical miles (1,955 miles).
Because they can take a steep approach to landing, these planes are able to use very short runways. The plane type is credited with helping turn around the fortunes of the small London City Airport in the late 1980s.
The plane has four jet engines suspended from a wing affixed to the top of the plane. Capacity depends on the configuration of the plane, with some capable of carrying more than 100 passengers.
David Dorman, a spokesman for BAE, said the plane that crashed near Medellin was capable of carrying a maximum of 100 passengers but was configured with more spacious seating at an 85-seat layout.
The plane had declared an emergency and lost radar contact just before 10 p.m. Monday (0300 GMT) because of an electrical failure, aviation authorities said. The aircraft, which had departed from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was transporting the Chapecoense soccer team from southern Brazil for the first leg of a two-game cup final.
At last count, 76 are believed to have died in the crash with five survivors.
British Aerospace, which became BAE Systems in 1999 following the merger with Marconi Electronic Systems, introduced the BAE 146 in 1981. Production ended in 2003 for economic reasons. The plane that crashed in Medellin was built in the late 1990s, according to Dorman.
A little under 400 aircraft from the BAE 146 stable were built and around 220 remain in service. Major clients have included British Airways, which used the plane for its London City Airport routes, Swiss and Ireland’s CityJet.
Dorman said that the operator of the plane that crashed in Colombia, LaMia, originally took possession of four planes from Ireland’s CityJet to fly in and around Venezuela, but the company couldn’t get the necessary permits so two of the planes were taken to Bolivia and made available to charter.
BAE, through its plant in Prestwick, Scotland, remains responsible for checking airworthiness and engineering support.
Over the years, the model of plane has been configured for uses other than hauling passengers, including as tankers to put out forest fires. Around 30 of the original BAE 146s were built as freighters.
According to Dorman, 22 of the remaining fleet have been converted into firefighting roles, with more likely in coming years. Prominent operators include Canada’s Conair and Neptune Aviation Services.
“It’s a demonstration of the aircraft’s ability to fly in difficult terrain,” Dorman said.
Dorman says the aircraft has “a pretty good safety record …. no better no worse than anything else.”
It has been involved in several deadly episodes over the years, but Dorman says “none were attributed to fault of the aircraft.”
The most notable crash involving the plane was in December 1987, when a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco was hijacked by David Burke, a disgruntled ex-employee of USAir, which had recently bought Pacific. Burke is said to have shot the two pilots and three others. The plane subsequently crashed in Cayucos, California. All 43 people on board died, including Burke.
The last deadly crash involving the plane occurred in 2009, when a BAE 146 operated by Indonesia’s Aviastar Mandiri struck a hill while attempting to land in the town of Wamena in the eastern Papua province. All six onboard were killed.
Most recently, in April 2014, a BAE 146 carrying 97 people made an emergency landing shortly after takeoff from Perth Airport in western Australia after one of its engines caught fire. No one on that flight, operated by Cobham Aviation Services, was injured. Cobham uses the plan to fly mineworkers in Western Australia from Perth.
BAE says it has contacted the U.K. Aircraft Accident Investigation Board and LaMia and is offering support to both parties.
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