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Captain Refused to Acknowledge He Was Lost

On September 3, 1989, Varig Airlines Flight 254 was at Brazil's Maraba Airport preparing for takeoff. Under normal circumstances the hop to nearby Belém would only take 48 minutes. Captain Cézar Garcez consulted a computer-generated flight plan and read the number 0270 which corresponded to the magnetic heading from Maraba to Belém. But Garcez inadvertently dialed 270 into the Horizontal Situation Indicator. Minutes later, flight 254 took off and climbed to an altitude of 29,000 feet. Instead of heading northeast toward the Brazilian coastline and the city of Belém, the plane turned west and headed straight toward the Amazon forest.

Captain Garcez sensed something was wrong. At this point in the flight plan he expected to be able to have visual contact with the Belém airport. Frustrated, the captain executed a 180-degree turn, not recognizing the absurdity of his due west/due east course. Having been notified by the flight attendants that the passengers were wondering what was happening, Garcez lied. He announced there was a power failure at the Belém airport, and that he would circle the area waiting for the power to be restored.

Despite not knowing where he was, Captain Garcez informed the Varig flight coordinator on the ground he estimated the plane would be landing in Belém in five minutes. He then ordered the flight attendants to serve a fresh round of drinks to the bewildered passengers.

At 7:39 p.m., when the flight was 68 minutes overdue, the first officer identified the problem and started to explain to the captain his mistake. But the captain dismissed his explanation. Refusing to ask for help, he began counting the minutes until the plane would run out of fuel. All the while he searched the ground hoping to find an airport where he could land the plane.

About an hour later, out of fuel, Garcez made a remarkable crash-landing in total darkness in a dense tropical forest. The plane was 700 miles from the intended destination. Although all six of the crew survived, 13 of the 48 passengers were killed. Both Captain Garcez and the first officer had their commercial licenses revoked. They never flew again.

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