Nazca Lines of Peru → Tips for choosing a safe flight

Whether you believe they're astronomical diagrams, alien runways or just giant geographical graffiti, there's no denying Peru's Nazca Lines are an impressive and humbling sight.

The ancient designs have inspired hundreds of theories ranging from mundane to bizarre, earned a place in the UNESCO World Heritage List and drawn masses of visitors to the region each year.

Over 1000 massive geoglyphs and nearly 50 biomorphs depicting plants, animals and humans are spread over 325 square kilometres. With razor straight lines stretching over 12 kilometres it is obvious the ancient artworks were made to be seen from the air (whether that means the moon, the stars or the people who live on them, is up to you).

In fact the lines were only rediscovered when the first commercial planes began passing overhead, so the resulting boom in charter flights seems only natural.

However a high number of accidents and tragedies indicate safety standards have not kept up with demand. Flight companies use planes that are almost as old as the Lines themselves and have a history of cutting corners on maintenance and preparation. Sadly, the Peruvian government is inconsistent at best when it comes to enforcing controls on the industry.

(Image: AP - Four British tourists were killed in this tragedy)

Your life on the lines

On February 25, 2010 a Cessna carrying young tourists from Chile and Peru slammed into the stony desert floor, killing all seven people on board. The owner of the company that operated the flight, Nazca Airlines, claimed the pilot had suffered a heart attack at the controls. The pilot's doctor quickly denied this, saying he had been in good health; a brave move in a town controlled by wealthy tour operators. Investigations soon showed the same plane had been involved in an emergency landing on the Pan American Highway in November 2008.

Just six months before that, in April 2008, Nazca Airlines had changed its name from Aero Ica following a crash that killed five French tourists.

That time the company claimed a woman on board had panicked during the flight and grabbed the controls. However the pilot, who survived the crash, made no mention of this in his official report. When investigators searched the crash site they found no fuel had been spilled, despite the tanks being ripped open. Basically the plane crashed because it had run dry.

Following the February 2010 tragedy, the Peruvian government finally decided to enforce its zero tolerance policy, grounding all planes. After inspections, just seven of 48 planes were cleared to return to work.

Of the 14 companies that operated flights over Nazca, four passed muster. These were Aero Diana with one aircraft, Aero Paracas with two, Alas Peruanas with two and Travel Air with two.

Despite the government crackdown there was another emergency landing within a month on March 29.

In June 2010 the newest and most expensive plane making flights over the Nazca Lines was hijacked and disappeared into the jungle.

Then, tragically, on October 2, 2010 another plane crashed while attempting an emergency landing, killing four British tourists and their two pilots.

You'd think two horrific crashes within eight months would be enough to scare the industry into shape, or at least scare off the tourists. However, nothing seems to have changed. On April 20, 2011 a plane carrying eight tourists was forced to make an emergency landing shortly after takeoff.

You can see that if you choose to take a flight over Nazca, you are literally putting your life on the Lines.

The fuel gauge is on the right just next to the wobbly needle pointer thing

Obviously not everyone involved in flying planes over the Nazca Lines is acting irresponsibly. It is unlikely you'd be able to convince a pilot to knowingly risk their life by getting into an obviously faulty plane.

However, the workload on pilots is immense. They fly long hours and are often without a co-pilot, meaning they are simultaneously responsible for navigation, commentary and controls.

Limits on the number of planes allowed over the Lines also mean that companies are often forced to compromise safety standards in order to improve profit margins.

A 2008 survey showed 90 per cent of the planes at Nazca's Maria Reiche aerodrome were over 35 years old. While many of the older aircraft were permanently grounded in the 2010 government operation, there are still plenty of tired planes buzzing above Nazca. Old doesn't necessarily mean unsafe of course, but long service is rarely a bonus in aviation.

The sustained, steep curves the pilots use to show off the lines are tough on old fuel tanks. Centrifugal forces pull fuel away from intake lines, which can cause stalls. Cost-cutting measures mean planes are often flying on half-filled tanks or tanks filled with inferior fuel, which only makes matters worse.

There are even stories of pilots intentionally and illegally shutting off their engines and attempting to glide home in an effort to save fuel.

The bottom line is that out-dated equipment, competitive pressures and insufficient oversight make flying over Nazca a dangerous endeavour for tourists and pilots alike.

How do I pick a safe airline?

If you really want to see the designs from up high there are a few considerations to take on board. As the Lines tend to overwhelm the other attractions in and around Nazca, most people only budget a very short amount of time in the area.

This, along with a huge number of tourists competing for each seat, leaves little room for you to be discerning about which company you use.

If you don't want to miss out and feel more comfortable pre-booking your flight, make sure to ask for the registration number of the plane you'll be going up in. You can plug this into any number of websites, like the Aviation Safety Network, to find out if the aircraft has a rough history.

Similarly, if you want do a little first hand investigation and book when you arrive, try to avoid handing over your money until you see the plane you'll be flying in.

Unpredictable weather, technical problems and high demand for a small number of working planes mean booking schedules are often thrown out the window. There seems to be little fidelity in the booking system as well, with some travellers reporting turning up early in the morning to snag a seat, while others who pre-booked say there were forced to wait for up to two days to finally get in the air.

Airsickness

One final consideration is that, in order to give both sides of the plane a fair look at the Lines, pilots will be performing a lot of steep banking, rolling the plane from side to side. Lots of patrons experience severe airsickness so make sure to take preventative measures or medication beforehand. If you're taking a risk on one of these flights you really don't want to spend the whole time peering into a plastic bag.

Can I see the lines from the ground?

If you do decide to give the flights the flick, don't assume you should skip over the Nazca Valley entirely. You can still see a handful of the designs from El Mirador, a viewing platform next to the Pan American Highway.

The Aquaducts of Cantayoc are a powerful testament to the ingenuity of the Nazca as the Lines themselves. These spiral wells and irrigation channels brought life to the desert but are also thought to have been the focus of violent clashes and human sacrifices.

The Cementerio de Chauchilla is an eerie necropolis where perfectly preserved mummies rest above and below the desert sand. The site is protected but Peruvian grave robbers still manage to make a living fossicking through relics and remains and selling them on the black market.

If you've had enough of culture the towering dunes of Huacachina are great for high energy sandboarding and dune buggying while the oasis resort nestled beneath them offers plenty of places to relax.

6 Comments

  • tracy said

    J would like to thank you for informative websites like these.... the plane crash picture you have on the site is the crash that took my sister away from me....people need to be much more aware of the cuts used to get planes in the air before the no fly time and the risks associated with that... especially because the government out there washes their hands of any involvement

  • PhilSylvester said

    Tracy,
    I'm so sorry for you. Thank you for your support of what we're trying to do. Do you want me to remove that photograph?
    Phil from the safety hub

  • Paul Jones said

    Nice article, very informative and a bit worrying really. I first flew the lines without any real consideration to the thought of safety, but now working in the Peru travel industry, I feel it is an important factor that everyone flying the lines should serious consider. On average over the last 9 years more than 1 1/2 people per year have dies flying the lines!

  • Natee said

    Dear Sir,
    I just had a fly over Nazca line last month(April 19,2015) and good luck that I and my 13 friends can see Nazca's lines and everythings as we expected to see , it's a very good time but one of my friend saw an aircraft who sleepy during his working , it's very dangerous and you should have him rest if he has to work for too many flight per day or stop to work if it was because his personality like that. I choose the flight company only by the cost, fortunately that it's work 555. But your country choose correct the problems and let the tourist know the truth and recheck and re certificate the aircraft every 6 months to 1 year. Another point that I would like to advise is that no need to swing the flight up and down to let all the tourists see the same Nazca's Line at the same timer. You may let the right side see first then turn back and let the other side see it all after. This option will reduce the airsickness people and reduce the accident during try to have them see the same Nazca'sLine at the same time. Thank you.

  • Christopher said

    I was on one of these flights recently (September 2015) and would have to say it was the scariest flight I have ever been on. Shortly after takeoff all flights for the day were cancelled due to the weather turning bad, after experiencing extreme turbulence and attempting to land we were diverted to ICA. We had a poor girl in the back vomiting everywhere and the Co-Pilot was extremely stressed out, trying to call people for advise on the situation. From what I could tell the plane did not have GPS and the pilots just used the compass to point us in the right direction, we flew along the the highway (looking to land on it) and also the plane had some kind of terrain mapping and they were pointing and suggesting to land into the desert. Even landing in ICA was touch and go with the plane going almost vertical on our approach due to strong winds. I have never feared for my life as much as I did on that flight, I kissed my ass goodbye, If I had my chance again I would have never taken that flight. Pilots freaking out in spanish and not telling us anything. This is one story I wish I never had to tell.

  • Sheila said

    My family just flew over the lines. We were ignorant of the danger, but we were in a very tiny plane and we were all sick and more than ready to return to the airport. We had a small child with us and had not read anything negative about taking him with us. We can see now that we were remiss in not doing some investigating. We should not assume that because they offer tours that it is safe. Thankfully, our plane had no problems and we had no after effects from the flight, but truthfully, we are glad we got to see the lines, but would never go again. It was not just the feeling of vomiting, but of coming close to passing out. We were all miserable and near the end of the tour, we could not even bear to look out the windows.

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