Decimal Point Disaster: Varig 254
As mentioned in an earlier blog post (Super Advanced: Cruzeiro & VARIG 737-200s), Varig received ten Boeing 737-241 ‘Super Advanced’ aircraft from October 1974 to June 1975, with PP-VMK (C/N 21006) delivered on March 5th, 1975. She had served an uneventful career by September 1989, transporting passengers throughout South America with 33,373 hours on the airframe. This all changed on September 3, 1989. Varig 254 was a regularly scheduled ‘milk-run’ flight from São Paulo to Belém with stopovers at Uberaba, Uberlândia, Goiânia, Brasilia, Imperatriz and Marabá. It was operated by two crews, which were switched at Brasilia.
Before the last leg of the flight (Marabá to Belém), Captain Cézar Garcez incorrectly read the flight plan’s “0270” by inputting heading 270 into his Horizontal Situation Indicator. The correct heading was 27.0 degrees, a change which was made while Captain Garcez was on vacation. First Officer Nilson de Souza Zille copied him, against procedure, and also inputted heading 270 into his Horizontal Situation Indicator. Even then, most would realize that heading 270 faces west and 27.0 faces northeast, and Belém is northeast of Marabá! On top of that, the entire flight was headed north!
Varig 254 departed Marabá at 5:25 PM and aligned with heading 270 to Belém at FL290 (29,000 feet) until the performance management system indicated that they were approaching Belém. During the flight there were also reports that the crew was listening to the Brazil vs Chile World Cup qualifying match, which would have distracted them from correcting their course.
Captain Garcez attempted to contact Belém tower but was unable, for they were obviously far off course and out of range. Varig Flight 266 relayed his request to Belém. A little while later Captain Garcez was able to request descent to FL200, which was granted. They were not able to recognize any Belém landmarks around their location, but Belém Tower granted them clearance to land for they were the only aircraft in the airspace and Belém had no radar.
The performance management system indicated negative distances to the destination, so Varig 254 initiated a 180 - degree turn and descended to 4,000 feet at 200 knots. Again, they attempted to locate landmarks, but this time they misidentified the south-north Xingu River as west-east Amazon River. They followed it for 30 minutes but then realized their current location, nowhere near Belém. They wanted to land at Santarém, but did not have enough fuel. As a result Varig 254 continued along the Xingu.
Around 8:00 PM, Varig 254 reported that they were heading back to Marabá and received a bearing from the Carajás beacon. In actuality, they were heading towards Goiânia and receiving from Barra do Garças for the Carajás locator had already shut down a half an hour ago. They then decided to land at Carajás, but by 8:30 they had passed by Serra do Cachimbo Air Force Base, which was within range.
The crew realized they would have to land in the jungle. They descended to 8,000 feet at 150 knots and informed Belem. Engine One was lost at 8:57 PM due to fuel exhaustion, followed by Engine 2 at 8:59 PM. The aircraft was still controllable to an extent that they were able to lower the flaps to 10, but they inevitably crashed into the jungle at 9:06 PM.
During the landing, the wings were sheared off, followed by seats detaching from the floor and the interior ceiling collapsing. A total of 13 passengers were killed and 34 passengers and crew were injured.
Authorities attempted to locate the aircraft but were unable to for the aircraft was over six hundred miles off course. As a result, a group of survivors set out for aid two days later. What they found was the Curunaré farm but they were later transported to Serrão da Prata farm where a radio operator contacted Franca Airport. A few hours later a Brazilian Air Force EMB-110 delivered food to the survivors near the crash site. All survivors were rescued and airlifted to Brasilia Base Hospital via Cachimbo. However, the airframe, PP-VMK, is still at the crash site.
Thanks to Otavio Santos for fact checking
Aviation Safety Network - PP-VMK
Accident Information - Varig Boeing 737 PP-VMK Airfleets.net
20/3/2016 12:34:54 pm
What a great and historical diorama. Congratulations!
21/3/2016 03:22:53 am
Thanks for the help Otavio.
22/3/2016 05:23:42 am
As I noted in the DAC discussion, thank you very much for that detailed history. This crash is has similarity to the Air New Zealand 901 crash on Nov. 28, 1979. That aircraft's directional inputs were changed--though much more slightly--the day before departure, and the crew apparently was not informed.
22/3/2016 06:02:02 am
Hi Jim, Thanks. ANZ901 sounds like a very interesting diorama but the wreckage looks more dispersed and the individual pieces are smaller. Nevertheless, it is a very intriguing accident.
22/3/2016 06:22:09 am
As a foreigner living in NZ you quickly come to realise that the Erebus disaster is one of New Zealand's defining historical moments and quite a touchy subject also. Just last month or so there was a TV movie/documentary about the salvage operation whilst there have been several books - one by the late Paul Holmes. The whole thing is an emotional subject for the country.
9/10/2019 09:23:31 pm
Thanks! In 2017 I added the diorama into an even larger case (not a racecar fan) so it's an even bigger setup. Always on the lookout for more unique dioramas (e.g. boneyards). Sometimes, it's better to think outside the box, respectfully.
6/6/2021 12:21:47 pm
Is the aircraft still in the jungle as of today?
6/6/2021 03:44:39 pm
I suppose the flight 254 remains are still there.
27/8/2022 01:45:25 pm
Thankss for the post
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I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: