Avión sobrevolando montañas nevadas

Why the events of 'Society of the Snow' are unlikely to happen today

01 of February of 2024

On 21 December 1972, the news went around the world: they were alive. Some of the passengers of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed in the Andes in October, had survived the crash and two long months in the cold mountains. 52 years later, a Spanish film based on this accident could win the Oscar for International Feature Film. This story, which only seems believable because it really happened, continues to impress us now as much as it did on the first day.

‘Society of the Snow’ presents moral dilemmas, challenges and borderline situations. It is almost impossible to watch it without asking ourselves what we would have done in such a situation. Would we also survive? And secondly, how likely is it that something like this will happen again? Could such an accident happen again?

What is certain is that advances in the aviation industry make an accident like the one that took place in the Andes very unlikely today. Science and technology have improved forecasting and security systems. We’ll tell you what has changed in aviation since the 1970s to make accidents like the one in ‘The Society of Snow’ virtually impossible today.

Planes fly higher

‘The Society of the Snow’ begins with the enthusiasm of young rugby players who have managed to get a charter flight between Montevideo, Uruguay, and Santiago, Chile. ‘When else will you be able to travel to Chile so cheap?’ one of their companions, who remains undecided on the trip until the last moment, is asked.

Before boarding the plane (both in the film and in reality), travelers take a photo with the aircraft. It was a Fairchild FH-227D, a turboprop and jet engine aircraft. Today, in all likelihood, a turbofan-engine plane would have been used, which could fly higher and more easily avoid the fateful spot of the crash in the Andes.

Aircraft fly higher for a variety of reasons. One of them is that, as altitude increases, the atmosphere becomes thinner, the air puts up less resistance and travel becomes more efficient. Modern aircraft technology, with turbofan engines, allows them to have a higher specific impulse as there is less air.

This changes the situation experienced in 1972 for two reasons: on the one hand, the aircraft would be flying higher; on the other hand, the plane would have more capacity to rise in the event of any specific problem. Technology would have helped the pilots to react faster and better.

Another route would have been planned

The ability of aircrafts to fly higher would most likely mean that the route taken in 1972 would not be repeated today. But the changes would not end there. Actually, the entire route would be different due to a series of both operational and technological improvements.

When plotting an aircraft’s route, reference points known as waypoints are taken into account, by means of which pilots are placed in contact with air navigation services and are most often used to indicate a change in direction, speed, or altitude along the desired path. Today, the waypoint system is much more optimized and allows for much more fluid and constant communication with contact points. While this communication also existed in the 1970s, the technology was not as developed as it is today.

What makes this system more reliable and effective today? First, advances in navigation technologies. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and flight management systems make waypoints more accurate and efficient, enabling better route planning and more precise navigation.

Data also now play a larger role. Processing large amounts of data in real-time allows waypoints to be adjusted according to current weather and traffic conditions. And this is added to better knowledge and expertise in the sector generally today, with a greater understanding of air traffic patterns ensuring that more direct and safer routes are planned.

All this is essential when flying over complicated points, such as the Andes Mountains. In the film, one of the passengers explains to another that he should not worry about the plane trip. Drawing on a piece of paper, he explains that they will not cross in a straight line but take advantage of a gap created by a valley between the mountains. Today, the options for finding the most appropriate route would take into account many other factors. And they would also have the security offered by technology that would have been unthinkable five decades ago.

Meteorological radar is much more effective

Technological advances in the air navigation sector are closely linked to those in meteorology. Today, it is possible to predict beforehand the formation of storms or other adverse weather phenomena that may affect the quality of a flight.

And indeed, radars have been evolving for decades. The first systems were developed during World War II to detect aircraft, but it was soon realized that they would be really useful for detecting atmospheric phenomena. Almost a century later, many airlines have a new generation of weather radars that use advanced technology, such as automatic controls and intuitive functions, to facilitate the pilots’ tasks during flights.

On a relatively short flight, such as the one between Montevideo and Santiago de Chile, technology makes it possible to keep everything under control. This, together with other improvements in the aviation sector, allows us to hope that accidents like that which took place in the Andes will become something we will only see in the movies in the future.

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