LA PAZ, Bolivia – Five people were killed when a light aircraft crashed in the department of Santa Cruz, the fourth aviation accident in Bolivia in recent months. Civil aviation is experiencing its most distressing period in the past decade. With a lack of adequate radars to control airspace, little can be done by the Directorate General of Civil Aeronautics (DGAC) about unauthorised flights at the hands of inexperienced pilots and drug traffickers.
The Cessna 172, piloted by a Russian national, took off on 11 May from El Trompillo airport in the city of Santa Cruz, reports La Razón. The aircraft took off outside of permitted takeoff hours for single-engine planes and crashed one hour into its flight. DGAC National Director General Luis Trigo acknowledged that the aircraft took off without authorisation from the control tower, according to El Deber. Witnesses of the accident believe that the pilot, with just 60 hours’ flight experience, started his descent towards the runway too early.
The bad streak began on 12 April, when another Cessna crashed in Concepción, killing its four passengers after taking off at night without authorisation. On 25 April the Special Antinarcotics Force (FELCN) reported an accident involving a drug plane which was then set on fire intentionally in Portachuelo (Santa Cruz), according to Los Tiempos. And on 12 May El Deber reported that the Brazilian government had confirmed the deaths of three Bolivians in an accident involving a plane loaded with drugs in Matto Grosso.
Civil aviation is essential for public transport in Bolivia, especially in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando, where the roads are not passable all year round. With more than 400 registered single-engine planes, the majority of flights are concentrated at the El Trompillo airport in Santa Cruz and Jorge Henrich airport in Trinidad, with a combined total of 225 takeoffs per day – three times the air traffic of the country’s three international airports.
Javier Puente, regional DGAC chief, acknowledged that air traffic control is meagre, which leaves safety in the hands of the pilots. However, they overload flights, carry out little maintenance and do not respect flight plans. Pilots declare just 100 flight hours per year when they have flown for more than 400. Puente said to El Deber, “Without radars there is nothing we can do.