The plane that crashed in the Amazon suffered similar mishap in 2021

The small plane that crashed in the Colombian Amazon this spring, killing three adults and leaving four young children to survive 40 days alone in the jungle, had been in another crash less than two years earlier, records show.

In July 2021, the six-seat, single-propeller Cessna 206, tail number HK 2803, was 10 minutes into a flight as an air ambulance for the indigenous community of Sonaña when the pilot warned passengers of a strong smell of burnt oil.

He was looking for a clearance to make an emergency landing when he lost control of the plane, Colombia’s Civil Aviation Authority concluded last year in a final report on the incident. HK 2803 went through the treetop and plowed nose first into the ground. Images from that crash are strikingly similar to what would be taken of the same plane after the May 2023 crash.

All three people aboard the July 2021 humanitarian flight — the pilot, a doctor and a patient, unnamed in the report — survived the crash. But the 41-year-old plane suffered “substantial” damage, according to the civil aviation authority. This is the second of three possible classifications on the scale of the International Civil Aviation Organization. The last one is “destroyed”.

It is common for even substantially damaged planes to be rebuilt and returned to service, aviation officials say. Small, well-maintained aircraft can be flown safely for decades, as long as they pass annual inspections. Global standards require them to be seaworthy.

HK 2803, which is owned and operated by Avianline Charters of Villavicencio, Colombia, was repaired with parts imported from the United States, according to Avianline owner Freddy Ladino. It started flying again this year as an air taxi.

Ladino said the plane, which can sell for more than $1 million new, had proven itself. “The plane had two months of flight and 130 hours,” he told The Washington Post in a WhatsApp message. “Therefore, any anomaly from the previous incident is ruled out.”

When the plane crashed again on May 1, the plight of the four indigenous children, aged between 11 months and 14 years, drew international attention. The brothers, who lost their mother in the crash, drew on ancient jungle knowledge to persevere on their own until they were rescued by Colombian forces and indigenous searchers on June 9.

But pilots who fly in the remote Amazon, where small planes are often the only means of medical supplies, transport and evacuation, said the crash carries another lesson: difficult routes in old planes that can flying several times a day make their profession unusually dangerous.

Thirty-one air taxis have crashed in Colombia since 2018, according to the country’s accident investigation directorate. Forty-four people died in these incidents. The pilots of the two HK 2803 crashes were competent to fly the aircraft, records show, and authorities had not previously identified or reported any signs of engine malfunction.

Former Avianline pilot José Miguel Calderón, a friend of the pilot who died in the May crash, described the challenges of flying in the region: “We fly every day, all day, up to six hours of flight daily”. Calderón said the pilot Hernán Murcia could have rejected the flight. But reducing flight hours means losing money.

In some cases, Calderón said, pilots can’t afford to say no. It wasn’t Murcia’s turn to fly the Cessna 206 on May 1. “He was such a good person,” said his wife, Olga Vizcaíno. “He got a last minute call to change his schedule and he said yes.”

Murcia took off at 6:42 a.m. from a makeshift airport in Araracuara, a small town in the Colombian Amazon, under clear skies. However, an hour into the flight, the engine failed. Murcia radioed Mayday to Colombia’s air traffic control system. He was looking for a field to land on. Or a river

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday 2803, Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” Murcia said, according to a preliminary crash report. “I’ve got the engine down. I’m going to find a field.”

But the engine soon regained power, according to the report, and Murcia decided to continue the journey. At 7:44 it said the problem was back. “I’m going to hit the water,” he radioed.

It is the last record of his voice. Magdalena Mucutuy Valencia, the 34-year-old mother of the children who survived, died in the accident; Herman Mendoza Hernández, 57-year-old indigenous leader; and Murcia, the 55-year-old pilot.

Two months later, his widow wants answers. “I feel like he was an aviation martyr,” Vizcaino said. “I’m sure he did his best, but he decided to sacrifice himself to save the children.” His last words to her: a request for her to hold her two daughters for him. His voice breaks. “He did a heroic thing,” she said. “That’s partly what the kids lived for.”

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