A civilian airliner crashed in Ecuador in 1976. It took 26 years to find the wreckage:
Aviation’s history books are full of mysteries, some of which are solved and others yet to be figured out. Sometimes, we hear of those cases where aircraft have disappeared and were only found many years later. Such is the case with SAETA Flight 232, which involved a 26-year search and frustrated stakeholders.
SAETA was a privately-owned Ecuadorian airline which competed on a handful of domestic and international routes with government-owned carriers Ecuatoriana and TAME. I flew SAETA from Miami to Quito and back during my summer 1990 stay in Ecuador. The airline's selling point was that all passengers "flew first class." It wasn't completely true - nobody got nice first-class seats, for example - but the service was attentive and the multi-course meals, which were served with real (i.e. not plastic) silverware and dishware, were definitely an upgrade from normal economy-class fare. SAETA actually underwent a significant expansion in the 1990s, at one point becoming Ecuador's dominant airline. It met its end as a result of Ecuador's financial crisis at the end of the decade.
On August 15, 1976, a Viscount operating as SAETA Flight 232 departed Quito at 08:06 hours bound for Cuenca. There were 55 passengers and four crew onboard the turboprop with a planned flight route over mountainous terrain. All seemed normal until air traffic control lost radio contact with the flight at 08:27 when the crew reported flying over the city of Ambato at 18,000 feet.
Ambato is located in the central Andean valley of Ecuador and sits beneath several tall mountains. It is the capital of the province of Tungurahua, at an elevation of 8,455 feet (2,577 meters) above sea level.
Realizing that the aircraft failed to arrive at Cuenca, emergency search operations began. One more plausible suspicion was that the plane had crashed somewhere in a nearby mountain range. So, a massive search was conducted by air and land throughout the Amazon and all along the flight-planned route. Despite an intensive search, the wreckage was not found for several years. Twenty-six long years to be precise.
It turned out that the wreckage had become embedded within a glacier over 17 thousand feet above sea level on the side of Chimborazo, which is Ecuador's highest mountain* and which is 20 miles southwest of Ambato.
In October 2002, Pablo Chíquiza and Flavio Armas, two members of the Nuevos Horizontes mountaineering club, helped mark the exact crash site after fellow mountaineer Miguel Cazar had previously come across it. The rest of the story involves accusations of government officials dragging their feet and overlooking the location during previous searches. Several parties pointed fingers at each other, while the families of those lost in the crash experienced a bittersweet moment of reliving the pain of a tragic loss while also receiving some closure after the discovery of their loved ones’ remains.
If anything, stories like SAETA 232's might give the loved ones of victims of other unsolved plane disappearances (Malaysian Airlines 370 easily comes to mind) some hope that, eventually, the mystery will be solved and they will at least experience closure.
This accident would be eerily similar to another SAETA crash involving a Vickers Viscount only a few years later.
Another SAETA Viscount crashed while flying between Quito and Cuenca. On April 23, 1979, an aircraft registered as HC-AVP crashed in the Pastaza Province, killing all 57 people onboard. The wreckage of this aircraft also took several years to locate. The flight was considered missing until 1984, when the debris was discovered.
Due at least in part to to its mountainous terrain, SAETA 232 is just one of several commercial aviation tragedies Ecuador has unfortunately experienced.
*In addition to being Ecuador's highest peak, Chimborazo's peak is also the furthest from the center of the earth. the Mount Everest is the world's tallest mountain as measured from mean sea level, but because the earth is not perfectly round (i.e. it is slightly fatter at its equator), there is more distance from the earth's center to Chimborazo than to Everest.