Early Evidence Points to Nightmare Scenario for Brazilian Soccer Team's Ill-Fated Flight

A total electrical outage would create a nightmare for pilots.

ByJeffrey Cook
November 29, 2016, 4:30 PM

— -- The trip to Medellin, Colombia, was supposed to be a joyous one for the members Chapecoense, a soccer club from the small city of Chapeco, Brazil, and they were in the middle of a fairy tale season.

Now their journey will go down in history as a tragedy.

Investigators will likely comb through the evidence for the next several months, hoping to discover why a charter flight crashed Monday night while carrying players, coaches, board members and journalists. The accident killed 71 people, officials said, revising the death toll from the initial figure of 75. Officials said six survived.

Details are scarce, and it will take a significant amount of time for officials to determine the exact causes of the crash. However, information available soon after the crash point toward the pilots facing the worst of circumstances.

The charter flight departed Bolivia on Monday just before 6:20 p.m. local time. A little over four hours later, the flight began what appears to be a holding pattern just south of the Medellin airport for about 13 minutes. According to flight data from FlightRadar24, the plane made three circles, descending from 21,000 feet to 15,550 feet for the last two minutes of available flight data.

The flight's destination, Maria Cordova International Airport outside Medellin, is a notoriously difficult airport for pilots. The runway is at 7,000 feet, surrounded by mountainous terrain. Frequent adverse weather conditions can make visibility difficult.

Approaching an airport at that elevation requires high approach speeds, creating an even greater challenge in poor conditions.

There were scattered thunderstorms in the area at the time of the crash, and turbulence could have been present, according to ABC News meteorologist Melissa Griffin.

The airport's official Twitter account confirmed the plane suffered an electrical failure before the crash.

While the consequences of an electrical failure can vary greatly, if the pilots lost navigational aids on approach to an airport like Medellin at night in poor visibility, that could spell serious trouble.

The limited evidence available at this time suggests some possible scenarios for the doomed flight. For insight into the incident, ABC News spoke with Col. Steve Ganyard — a former deputy assistant secretary of state, a retired fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps and an ABC News contributor.

The holding pattern seen on flight data could indicate the crew was attempting to troubleshoot the electrical failure. So late in the flight, however, the plane may have been low on fuel, forcing the crew to make a quick decision in poor weather surrounded by high terrain. Such a combination could have been perilous.

"An electrical failure under those conditions would challenge even the best pilots," Ganyard said. "And if there was a total electrical failure, the flight was doomed."

Under those conditions, a visual approach would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible. In such a case, a pilot would resort to the often used ILS, or instrument landing system.

ILS allows the pilots to use radio signals to navigate the plane safely to the runway, even through poor visibility.

A total electrical outage, although rare, would take this option away from the pilots.

Investigators will surely look very closely at the reported electrical outage and why such an event may have occurred.

Ganyard added that air safety in South America is relatively poor. "A Bolivian charter aircraft was not likely maintained or manned to U.S. standards," he said.

As the recovery mission is ongoing, fans and surviving team staff are remembering those who died.

In an early morning tweet on Tuesday, the team shared a video of the players celebrating a recent victory with a simple caption: “May this be the last image of our warriors. #ChapeStrength.”

ABC News contributor Col. Steve Ganyard contributed to this report. ABC News' Paul Blake also contributed.

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