Viasa 742: 53rd Anniversary of the Grano de Oro Disaster

Updated: Aug 14


Today is the 53rd anniversary of the terrible crash of Viasa’s flight 742, operated by Avensa, which happened as a brand new DC-9-32 registered as YV-C-AVD was attempting to take off at Maracaibo’s old airport, Grano de Oro, on Sunday, March 16, 1969, around noon.



Overview


Flight 742 was a scheduled service between Maiquetía airport near Caracas and Miami with a stop at Maracaibo. Although the flight was being operated by Avensa, the cabin crew was composed of Viasa employees.


During takeoff from Grano de Oro airport in Maracaibo, the aircraft struggled to climb and as a result, the left wing hit several obstacles, including a power-line post, just on the other side of the airport fence. There are eyewitness reports of a fire on the left engine just before the aircraft crashed, likely as a result of fuel ingestion from the ripped fuel tank on the left wing. The aircraft quickly rolled to the left and crashed violently on top of the densely populated La Trinidad neighborhood. In total 155 people lost their lives, 84 onboard the aircraft (including 10 crew members) and another 71 on the ground. At the time, it was the worst aviation accident in terms of the number of fatalities. Today it is number 74 on the infamous list.


What Happened?


The accepted cause of the crash is that the aircraft was too heavy for the atmospheric conditions, namely it was too hot and the runway too short for the aircraft to take off with its planned load. But the official report, if it exists, is not available to the public, so the chain of events that resulted in the accident is largely left to speculation.


The website aviation-safety.net states that aerodrome temperature sensors gave an erroneous reading, presumably colder than actual, which resulted in the erroneously optimistic load planning of the flight.


On the other hand, Viasa Captain Luis E. Cañas in his autobiography states that he was appointed by the airline to give a presentation to the congress about the accident. In his presentation, he stated that with the known temperature of 38 degrees Celsius the max takeoff weight was 72,000 pounds, but that the crew agreed to take on 90,000 pounds.


So according to Captain Cañas, the actual temperature was known, but there seems to have been overconfidence on the part of the crew that led to a negligent act. The truth probably will never be known.


Grano de Oro was Boxed In


Another factor was the fact that the city had grown around the airport, while its runways had expanded all the way to the fence, literally, to accommodate the rapidly growing performance needs of jet aircraft.


Runway 04L, which was the runway used by flight 742, did not have the required clear way beyond the runway end mandated precisely so that aircraft with marginal performance could still safely climb. While flight 742 was outside legal performance parameters, a slightly wider safety margin in terms of airport design could have made the difference.


Grano de Oro limitations were well known and the new Caujarito airport (today known as La Chinita International, MAR), much more apt for jet operations, was close to being finished 16km (9.9 miles) southwest of Grano de Oro. As a result of the crash, the construction of the new airport was accelerated and it was opened months later.


The gallery below shows three stages of Grano de Oro. (1) The first image is an early undated map, and it shows runways 04/22 (would become 04R/22L), 30/12, and 35/17. (2) The second image is a taxi diagram from 1960 that already shows the longer 04L/22R. 30/12 had been closed by then. (3) The third image is a taxi diagram from 1962 and shows all runways decommissioned except for 04L/22R.


Personal Anecdotes


I would be born in Maracaibo some 18 years after the crash of flight 742 and grew up overlooking Grano de Oro’s former facilities from the living room window of an 8th-floor apartment. On the weekends my father used to take me to watch the displays of remote-controlled airplanes by the GOCA (Grano de Oro Club de Aeromodelismo, or in English: Grano de Oro RC Club), which kept the skies over the old airport crowded for decades after its closure. For those who are interested, here is an article about the GOCA (in Spanish, but with several pictures).

The author with his father at one of the gatherings that the GOCA organized every weekend at the old Grano de Oro airport. Early 1990s

Years later I learned how to drive on Grano de Oro’s old runways and taxiways, as everyone else who has learned to drive in Maracaibo has done ever since the airport closed. After I had learned how to drive, while I was still living in Maracaibo, I would frequently return to the old airport and explore it to find the runway markings that were still present after almost 40 years.


The images below are Google Earth screenshots. The first image shows a general view of how Grano de Oro looked in 2001. The second image shows the surviving runway markings of runway 22R (the end of runway 04L, used by flight 742). It can be seen how the runway extended all the way to the fence that separated the airport from Ziruma avenue and the La Trinidad neighborhood, where the aircraft crashed.


My parents, like everyone else who was in Maracaibo at the time of the crash, have their own personal stories about that 1969 Sunday.


My dad’s story is particularly interesting. He tells me that shortly before noon he and a friend drove by the airport on Ziruma avenue, which is the road that separated it from the La Trinidad neighborhood. They literally passed by the same location where the aircraft was going to crash within the next hour, and they saw the orange tail of the airplane parked in front of the terminal. Some 20 minutes later, while at a snack bar, they heard a distant explosion, and looking in the direction of the airport they could see smoke rising. The rumors that a small aircraft had crashed quickly spread throughout the city, so he and his friend decided to go back to the airport surroundings to explore. When they arrived, they quickly learned that it was not a small plane that had crashed, but the Viasa flight to Miami. Remember that this was the deadliest aviation crash at the time; I am told that everything was complete chaos.


March 17, 1969 Newspaper Article

The Aircraft


YV-C-AVD was a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32. It had flown for the first time only three months before the crash on January 6, 1969. It was delivered to Avensa, although it came with Viasa colors from the factory, on February 27, 1969, only 18 days before the crash.



Finally what links this particular story to this site: A Scale Model of YV-C-AVD


Since after all this site is about exploring Venezuelan aviation history through the world of scale models, here is a 1:400 replica of YV-C-AVD.



The model was released by Aeroclassics in March of 2020 and it was beautifully reviewed by Richard Stretton in his article Maracaibo Mayhem published on modelairliner.com, so there is not much more to say about the model, with the exception of a particular error that I think is worth pointing out again.


The entire bottom half of the model, including the nose area, is bare metal. But in reality, the nose was wrapped around by a white band that came down from the top half of the fuselage, and it also had the characteristic black radome of those days.


In defense of Aeroclassics, it is not easy to accurately replicate aircraft of which not very many photos are available. In the case of YV-C-AVD, there are only two known photos, both of which were taken at the factory since the aircraft was brutally destroyed only 18 days after it was delivered.


Personally, when the model was released I did not realize the livery had an error because the only image that I had seen of the aircraft until then was the one from Werner Fischdick Collection available on aviation-safety.net, which he kindly gave me permission to share with you on this article, and unfortunately the nose of the airplane cannot be clearly seen on that picture. Now, when you take a closer look, you can see the white band extending downwards and wrapping the underside of the nose, but at first glance this can easily be mistaken with the sun reflecting on the bare metal.


It was only when I acquired a copy of the MAR/APR 2021 edition of Airways Magazine that I saw for the first time the other known picture of this aircraft: a nose shot also at the Long Beach factory taken by Terry Waddington and published on Roberto Leiro’s article “Viasa, Venezuela’s Clockwork Orange.” In Terry Waddington’s picture one can clearly see the black radome that the aircraft had.


In spite of all this, I do not blame Aeroclassics. On the contrary, I thank Aeroclassics for taking the initiative to produce these replicas of classic airliners that help us preserve aviation history. As I said, for all I could tell, the model looked accurate to me when it was released.


In memory of those who lost their lives in the crash of Viasa 742 in Maracaibo on March 16, 1969.


Jorge A. Zajia


Sources:


Aquel RC, Grano de Oro RC Club (Spanish)


Aviation-Safety.net Viasa 742


Cañas, L.E. (2020) Guiado por La Providencia (p.313)


Rzjets.net YV-C-AVD Reg. History


Stretton, R. (2020) Maracaibo Mayhem: VIASA Douglas DC-9-32 YV-C-AVD by Aeroclassics Model Airliner.

Wikipedia: List of Aircraft Accidents by the Total Number of Fatalities (accessed Mar 15, 2022)