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December, 8, 2016

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Brazil soccer team honored as experts study possible fuel problem

MEDELLIN, Colombia -- Simultaneous tear-filled tributes were held at packed stadiums in Colombia and Brazil for the victims of this week's air tragedy that claimed 71 lives when a chartered plane crashed while ferrying a scrappy, small-town soccer team to the finals of a prestigious South American tournament.

The tributes took place Wednesday night as crash investigators aided by dramatic cockpit recordings were studying why the British-built jet apparently ran out of fuel before slamming into a muddy mountainside just a few miles from Medellin's international airport.

'Complete electrical failure'

In the sometimes chaotic exchange with the air traffic tower, the pilot jet requested permission to land because of "fuel problems" without making a formal distress call. A female controller explained another plane that had been diverted with mechanical problems of its own was already approaching the runway and had priority, instructing the pilot to wait seven minutes.

As the jetliner circled in a holding pattern, the pilot grew more desperate. "Complete electrical failure, without fuel," he said in the tense final moments before the plane set off on a four-minute death spiral.

By then the controller had gauged the seriousness of the situation and told the other plane to abandon its approach to make way for the charter jet. It was too late. Just before going silent, the pilot said he was flying at an altitude of 9,000 feet and made a final plea to land: "Vectors, senorita. Landing vectors."

The recording, obtained by Colombian media, appeared to confirm the accounts of a surviving flight attendant and a pilot flying nearby who overheard the frantic exchange. These, along with the lack of an explosion upon impact, pointed to a rare case of fuel burnout as a cause of the crash of the jetliner, a BAE 146 Avro RJ85 that experts said was at its maximum range on the flight from Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

"The airplane was being flight-planned right to its maximum. Right there it says that even if everything goes well they are not going to have a large amount of fuel when they arrive," said John Cox, a retired airline pilot and CEO of Florida-based Safety Operating Systems. "I don't understand how they could do the flight nonstop with the fuel requirements that the regulations stipulate."

British aviation experts will investigate the black box and flight data recorder. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch said Thursday that the key instruments offering clues to what happened to the plane will be brought to Britain in the coming days for study.

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