21 February 2008
Atlantic Southeast Airlines Fl, Eastwind Airlines Flight 517, TANS Perú Flight 204, British European Airways F, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409
Santa Bárbara Airlines Flight 518 was an ATR 42–300 twin-turboprop aircraft, registration YV1449, operating as a scheduled domestic flight from Mérida, Venezuela to Caracas that crashed into the side of a mountain on 21 February 2008, shortly after takeoff. There were 43 passengers on board, with a crew consisting of two pilots and a flight attendant. The wreckage was discovered a day later with no survivors. It had the highest death toll of any aviation accident involving an ATR 42 until Trigana Air Service Flight 267 crashed in Papua, Indonesia, on 16 August 2015 with 54 deaths.
Mérida, a university and tourist town located high in the Andes mountains, is surrounded by higher terrain with night flights prohibited at the nearby Alberto Carnevalli Airport. On 21 February 2008, Flight 518 was the last scheduled flight out of the airport, departing at about 17:00 local time. On the flight deck was Captain Aldino Garanito Gomez (36), a senior pilot for the airline and flight instructor with more than 5,000 flight hours logged, and First Officer Denis Ferreira Quintal (29). Shortly after take-off, the ATR 42–300 twin-turboprop slammed into a sheer 13,000-foot (4,000 m) rock wall called "Indian Face" (Spanish: La Cara del Indio). No distress calls were received from the aircraft prior to impact.
Antonio Rivero, national director of civil defense, said rescuers had identified the site of the crash in the south-western state of Mérida. Unión Radio cited civil defense regional chief, Gerardo Rojas, as saying that rescue crews were racing to the poorly-accessible crash site in the Andes Mountains. Mountain villagers reported hearing a tremendous noise they thought could be from a crash soon after the disappearance and loss of contact with Flight 518. According to local police, the wreckage of the aircraft was located at Páramo de Mucuchíes, in the sector of Collao del Cóndor, Páramo Piedra Blanca, near the Laguna de la Perlada. The search operation was conducted from the regional hub city of Barinas in western Venezuela.
Air-rescue services said that the twin-turboprop ATR 42 crashed 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from the mountain city of Mérida after take-off. Searchers spotted the wreckage of the plane carrying 43 passengers and 3 crew members in the mountains of western Venezuela on Friday, 22 February. Fire-fighter Sgt. Jhonny Paz said officials believed there were no survivors and were sending a helicopter to the site of the accident after a refueling stop. "The impact was direct. The aircraft is practically pulverized," he told the Venezuelan television station Globovisión. At the national civil aeronautical institute, General Ramón Vinas confirmed that, "by the type of impact, we presume that there are no survivors".
As search-and-rescue activities were underway, local media published the passenger list of Sánta Barbara Airlines Flight 518. Most of the victims were Venezuelan; three Colombians and an American also died in the crash.
Among the passengers were an anti-Chávez political analyst, Italo Luongo, and Alexander Quintero, the pro-Chávez mayor of Mucuchíes, a small town in the state of Mérida, Quintero's 11-year-old son, and two relatives of federal under-minister for civic security Tarek El Alssami. Vivian Guarch, a 53-year-old United States citizen and executive for Stanford Financial Group Bank, died in the crash.
Family members and friends of the victims created a website with information related to the crash and its victims.
The Cockpit Voice Recorder (black box) was successfully recovered from the wreckage. Preliminary information released on 28 July 2008, indicates the crew departed Mérida with inoperative navigation equipment and subsequently became disoriented in the mountainous terrain surrounding the airport, crashing into the side of a mountain while trying to determine their location. Subsequent investigation concluded that the pilots took off without conducting the mandatory pre-flight procedures and used an unauthorised departure route.
A report by LagAd Aviation determined that the cause of the accident was the omission or improper use of the checklists and procedures critical to the operation of the flight, causing the Attitude and Heading Reference System (AHRS) to not be initialized prior to the take-off roll. The pilots wanted to meet the schedule after experiencing some delays. The time pressure was a factor that led the pilots to omit the use of the checklists and perform the pre-takeoff so fast that it was impossible to perform the necessary verification procedures to ensure safety. The second cause of the accident was the decision to take off when they had already become aware that the AHRS was inoperative, due to the overconfidence of the pilots. Less than 30 seconds were missing for the AHRS be synchronized. Flying without the AHRS meant that the pilots could not maintain the correct heading in limited visibility in clouds.
Cockpit voice recording
The following is an English translation of the CVR transcript (original in Spanish):