The survivors of the Andes flight disaster are rescued after 73 days, having reportedly survived by cannibalism.
was a chartered flight that crashed on a glacier at an elevation of 3,570 metres in the remote Andes. Among the 45 people on board, 28 survived the initial crash. Facing starvation and death, the survivors reluctantly resorted to cannibalism. After 72 days on the glacier, 16 people were rescued.
The flight carrying 19 members of a rugby team, family, supporters, and friends originated in Montevideo, Uruguay and was headed for Santiago, Chile. While crossing the Andes, the inexperienced co-pilot who was in command mistakenly believed they had reached Curicó, Chile, despite instrument readings indicating otherwise. He turned north and began to descend towards what he thought was Pudahuel Airport. Instead, the aircraft struck the mountain, shearing off both wings and the rear of the fuselage. The forward part of the fuselage careened down a steep slope like a toboggan and came to rest on a glacier. Three crew members and more than a quarter of the passengers died in the crash, and several others quickly succumbed to cold and injuries.
On the tenth day after the crash, the survivors learned from a transistor radio that the search had been called off. Faced with starvation and death, those still alive agreed that should they die, the others might consume their bodies in order to live. With no choice, the survivors ate the bodies of their dead friends. Seventeen days after the crash, 27 remained alive when an avalanche filled the rear of the broken fuselage they were using as shelter, killing eight more survivors. The survivors had little food and no source of heat in the harsh conditions. They decided that a few of the strongest people would hike out to seek rescue. Passengers Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, lacking mountaineering gear of any kind, climbed from the glacier at 3,570 metres to the 4,670 metres peak blocking their way west. Over 10 days they trekked about 38 miles seeking help. The first person they saw was Chilean arriero Sergio Catalán, who gave them food and then rode for ten hours to alert authorities. The story of the passengers’ survival after 72 days drew international attention. The remaining 16 survivors were rescued on 23 December 1972, more than two months after the crash.
The survivors were concerned about what the public and family members of the dead might think about their acts of eating the dead. There was an initial public backlash, but after they explained the pact the survivors made to sacrifice their flesh if they died to help the others survive, the outcry diminished and the families were more understanding. The incident was later known as the Andes flight disaster and, in the Hispanic world, as El Milagro de los Andes.
Members of the amateur Old Christians Club rugby union team from Montevideo, Uruguay, were scheduled to play a match against the Old Boys Club, an English rugby team in Santiago, Chile. Club president Daniel Juan chartered an Uruguayan Air Force twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D to fly the team over the Andes to Santiago. The aircraft carried 40 passengers and 5 crew members. Colonel Julio César Ferradas was an experienced Air Force pilot who had a total of 5,117 flying hours. He was accompanied by co-pilot Lieutenant-Colonel Dante Héctor Lagurara. There were 10 extra seats and the team members invited a few friends and family members to accompany them. When someone cancelled at the last minute, Graziela Mariana bought the seat so she could attend her oldest daughter’s wedding.
The aircraft departed Carrasco International Airport on 12 October 1972, but a storm front over the Andes forced them to stop overnight in Mendoza, Argentina. Although there is a direct route from Mendoza to Santiago 200 kilometres to the west, the high mountains require flight levels of 25,000 to 26,000 feet, very close to the FH-227D’s maximum operational ceiling of 28,000 feet. Given that the FH-227 aircraft was fully loaded, this route would have required the pilot to very carefully calculate fuel consumption and to avoid the mountains. Instead, it was customary for this type of aircraft to fly a longer 600 kilometres, 90-minute U-shaped route from Mendoza south to Malargüe using the A7 airway. From there aircraft flew west via the G-17 airway, crossing Planchón Pass, to the Chilean town of Curicó, and from there north to Santiago.
The weather on 13 October also affected the flight. On that morning, conditions over the Andes had not improved but changes were expected by the early afternoon. The pilot waited and took off at 2:18 PM on Friday 13 October from Mendoza. He flew south from Mendoza towards Malargüe at flight level 180. Lagurara radioed the Malargüe airport with their position and told them they would reach 2,515 metres high Planchón Pass at 3:21 PM. The pass is the hand-off point for air traffic control from one side of the Andes to the other. At the pass, controllers in Mendoza transfer flight tracking to Pudahuel air traffic control in Santiago, Chile. Once across the mountains in Chile, south of Curicó, aircraft turn north and initiate descent into Pudahuel Airport in Santiago.
Cause of the crash
Pilot Ferradas had flown across the Andes 29 times. On this flight he was training co-pilot Lagurara, who was pilot in command. As they flew through the Andes, clouds obscured the mountains. The aircraft FAU 571 was only four years old and had only 792 airframe hours. The aircraft was regarded by some pilots as underpowered, and had been nicknamed by them as the “lead-sled.”
Given the cloud cover, the pilots were flying under instrument meteorological conditions at an altitude of 18,000 feet, and could not visually confirm their location. While some reports state the pilot incorrectly estimated his position using dead reckoning, the pilot was relying on radio navigation. The aircraft’s VOR/DME instrument displayed to the pilot a digital reading of the distance to the next radio beacon in Curicó. At Planchón Pass, the aircraft still had to travel 60–70 kilometres to reach Curicó. Inexplicably, at 3:21 PM, shortly after transiting the pass, Lagurara contacted Santiago and notified air controllers that he expected to reach Curicó a minute later. The flight time from the pass to Curicó is normally eleven minutes, but only three minutes later the pilot told Santiago that they were passing Curicó and turning north. He requested permission from air traffic control to descend. The controller in Santiago, unaware the flight was still over the Andes, authorized him to descend to 11,500 feet. Later analysis of their flight path found the pilot had not only turned too early, but turned on a heading of 014 degrees, when he should have turned to 030 degrees.
As the aircraft descended, severe turbulence tossed the aircraft up and down. Nando Parrado recalled hitting a downdraft causing the plane to drop several hundred feet and out of the clouds. The rugby players joked about the turbulence at first, until some passengers saw that the aircraft was very close to the mountain. “That was probably the moment when the pilots saw the black ridge rising dead ahead.”
Roberto Canessa later said he thought the pilot turned north too soon, and began the descent to Santiago, Chile while the aircraft was still high in the Andes. Then, “he began to climb, until the plane was nearly vertical and it began to stall and shake.” The aircraft ground collision alarm sounded, alarming all of the passengers.
The pilot applied maximum power in an attempt to gain altitude. Witness accounts and evidence at the scene indicated the plane struck the mountain either two or three times. The pilot was able to bring the aircraft nose over the ridge but at 3:34 pm, the lower part of the tail cone may have clipped the ridge at 4,200 metres. The next collision severed the right wing. Some evidence indicates it was thrown back with such force that it tore off the vertical stabilizer and the tail cone. When the tail cone was detached, it took with it the rear portion of the fuselage, including two rows of seats in the rear section of the passenger cabin, the galley, baggage hold, vertical stabilizer, and horizontal stabilizers, leaving a gaping hole in the rear of the fuselage. Three passengers, the navigator, and the steward were lost with the tail section.
The aircraft continued forward for a few more seconds when the left wing struck an outcropping at 4,400 meters, tearing off the wing. One of the propellers sliced through the fuselage as the wing it was attached to was severed. Two passengers were sucked out of the rear of the open fuselage. The front portion of the fuselage flew straight through the air before sliding down the steep slope at 350 kilometres per hour like a high speed toboggan for about 725 metres before colliding with a snow bank. The impact against the snow bank crushed the cockpit and the two pilots inside, killing Ferradas.
The official investigation concluded that the crash was caused by controlled flight into terrain due to pilot error.