Viasa 742: 53rd Anniversary of the Grano de Oro Disaster
Updated: Aug 14, 2022
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.