Tuesday, October 31, 2006

SICK CALL (Cont'd)

As noted here yesterday, 10 Brazilian air traffic controllers who were scheduled to testify this week in a seemingly interminable secret investigation being conducted by military and police authorities into the Sept. 29 mid-air collision over the Amazon that killed 154 people have all essentially called in sick.

Today, the Associated Press adds some more detail. The 10 air traffic controllers say they are all under psychiatric treatment until Nov. 13, according to the Brazilian Air Force. (Please don't ask me to speculate on how anyone can set a specific date for an apparent group cure.)

Originally it was reported that the 10 controllers were based in Brasilia, the very odd capital of Brazil. Now it is reported that some were from Brasilia and others from Manaus, the Amazon river city. Both planes, a Boeing 787 and a Legacy 600 corporate jet, collided at 37,000 feet going in opposite directions on the route between those two cities. The Legacy pilots have insisted they lost contact with air traffic control after receiving instructions to mantain flying at 37,000 feet.

The group illness has caused some new problems for Brazil's air traffic control, which Brazil steadfastly has insisted (despite clear evidence to the contrary) played no role in the collision. According to the Associated Press the group absence caused delays today of up to seven hours in flights from Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Brasilia.

Meanwhile, while the Brazilian air traffic controllers recover, the two American pilots remain detained in Brazil.

Oh, I forgot again. The Brazilian authorities insist the pilots are not being detained. They're just not free to go.

Monday, October 30, 2006

BRAZIL: Sick Call


It has now been a month and a day since the mid-air collision 37,000 feet over the Amazon between a 737 airliner and a Legacy 600 business jet. Inexplicably, the Legacy, which six others and I were aboard, landed damaged, but without injury to those aboard, at an obscure jungle base, while 154 people on the 737 plunged to horrible deaths.

From Day One, military authorities in Brazil have been trying to blame the two American pilots on the Legacy for the crash, even going so far as to suggest that they deliberately turned off equipment that allows air traffic control to keep track of planes so they could do "trick maneuvers" in in the skies.

But day by day, week by week, it has become increasingly clear that -- as I have suggested from Day One -- Brazilian air traffic control, which has a bad reputation among pilots plying the endlesss skies over the Amazon rainforest, played a major part in, if not THE major part in, this disaster. Many pilots have come forward to say they are still wary of flying that airspace despite $1.4 billion in spending by Brazil to try to fix the problems, including dead zones where communication is lost from air to ground.

But the Brazilian military -- which is responsible both for operating air-traffic control and for investigating aviation accidents -- has steadfastly maintained that pilot error -- or pilot malfeasance -- was the cause. The two American pilots of the Legacy -- Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino -- remain detained in a hotel in Brazil.

This week, as the secret investigation drags on, a group of Brazilian air traffic controllers based in Brasilia -- where the American pilots said they lost contact with air-traffic control -- were scheduled to testify before Brazilian air force officials and federal police.

Uh-oh, it turns out there's something going around in Brazil.

According to Bloombderg News this afternoon, all 10 of them sent statements to the federal police saying they were too ill to testify.

Yup, they called in sick.

More tomorrow on other matters, from my hideaway in Tucson.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


I'm holed up again in glorious Tucson, where the view is nothing but saguaro-studded desert and the mountains beyond, and where the most recent topic of real concern in my neighborhood out by the Rincons is that migratory bats, drawn by the insect and vegetation burst following the heavy rains of August, have been raiding the hummingbird feeders. Just before daybreak one morning I found a small pile of bat wings under the empty hummingbird feeder, and spotted a big hawk perched 10 feet away on a mesquite branch. The desert does recycle efficiently. And the hummingbirds are back.

So the dreadful events in Brazil that began Sept. 29 seem far away in space and time, though my wife and I did arrive here last week on a connection through Houston. The connecting flight to Tucson was on a 50-seat Embraer 145 regional jet, which is essentially the same airframe as the Embraer Legacy 600 corporate jet that I was on when it collided with a commercial 737 airfliner 37,000 feet over the Amazon jungle on Sept. 29. The irony is that I was in seat 24A of the regional jet, right over the left wing. That is exactly the position I was in on the Legacy 600 during the collision, in which the Legacy's winglet was ripped off along with some parts of the tail. The Legacy wing was starting to deteriorate as we were losing altitude after the collision, and let's just say I kept my eye peeled on that RJ wing flying to Tucson. But let's also say that the Embraer 145 and the Legacy 600 share an airframe that, in my book, is damned good and reliable, because I am here to tell the tale.

On Sept. 29, as everyone knows, 154 people on the 737 went to horrible deaths while the Legacy, badly damaged, its wing deteriorating, managed a last-minute emergency landing at an obscure jungle air base, and the seven people aboard inexplicably walked away uninjured.

I'd consign this all to a book I am writing about my seven years as a business travel columnist, but the continuing news story has basically fallen from the radar screens of the American media (if you will excuse the allusion to radar). The two pilots of the Legacy 600 -- both men from Long Island -- are still being detained and are facing possible criminal charges in the Wonderland of Brazil, where a crazy element of the news media insists on blaming them for the disaster without a shred of credible evidence, in stories based on leaks from the very military authorities who 1. are responsible for maintaining Brazil's notoriously faulty air traffic control system and 2. are themselves conducting the secret investigation into the crash, as a presidential runoff election looms.

So I am compelled to bring this story up to date, because those two pilots -- Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino -- have now been detained in Brazil, without charges, for over three weeks now.

There is, by the way, growing concern among international pilots about the potential, especially in third-world countries seething with anti-western (and especially anti-American) resentment, for criminally charging pilots for accidents or safety violations that might really be the fault of the country involved, or a mechanical malfunction over which a pilot has no control.

Now back to Brazil, where for weeks the authorities have insisted that the collision could have been caused only by pilot error, and where some authorities have even claimed that the crash was caused by the Legacy pilots turning off the plane's transponder so they could execute "trick maneuvers" with the brand new $24.7 million Legacy 600 in the endless sky over the endless jungle.

Hey, as I keep having to repeat, I was ON that plane, calmly working on a laptop when the collision occurred, and we were flying as straight and steady as an airliner bound from New York to Los Angeles.

Several key points, ignored so far by the American media, have emerged since these idiotic charges were widely publicized during the campaign in Brazil to villify the Legacy pilots.

One, as I have stated from Day One, pilots in general do not trust Brazilian air traffic control over the Amazon, and especially over the vast wilderness between Brasilia and Manaus.

One of Brazil's claims to fame in recent years is that it has become essentially the Celtic Tiger of South America, and one of the tentpoles of that assertion is a $1.4 billion renovation of air and ground systems that supposedly provides seamless radar surveillance of the entire country (Brazil is bigger in area than the continental U.S.), including the Amazon rain forest, which is itself about a third the size of the continental U.S. That new system was created under a contract with the defense contractor Raytheon.

Now, from the October 23 edition of Air Safety Week:

"Many local pilots have now said that radio black-spots still exist, some of which last for minutes at a time."

Air Safety Week goes on to say that "a number of commercial pilots, both American and Brazilian, say the air-traffic control system over the remote Amazon river basin remains riddled with communication gaps."

It continues, "Elnio Borges, 53, a pilot who has flown jets for Brazil's Varig Airlines since 1980, says: 'The guys who fly these routes expect to lose contact between Brasilia and northwest Brazil. It's amazing that they are now claiming that thse spots are not there.'"

From the get-go, the American pilots have maintained that they were flying at the altitude they had been instructed by air traffic control in Brasilia to maintain, 37,000 feet, but that they lost radio contact with air traffic control 10 minutes before the collision.

And this, from Brazil's Veja magazine of October 23: "...according to pilots and controllers who know the skies of the Amazon, the communication in the area situated between Brasilia and Manaus presents relatively frequent failures" of air traffic control.

Here in Tucson, the sun is shining and the sky is blue. I'm going out now to go clear some brush, which is the only thing I appear to have in common with President Bush, the self-styled cowboy who unaccountably can't ride a horse.

Yesterday, my wife and I had a long walking tour of the Pima Air and Space Museum here. If you get to Tucson, I highly recommend it. There are hangers of exhibits featuring artifacts from the entire history of aviation, but most of all there are 75 desert acres filled with about 200 mothballed airplanes that represent the entire modern eras of aviation: fighters and transports and cargo planes, reconnaisance planes and a haunting row of B-52s. There even is the last propeller-driven Air Force One -- a Douglas VC-118, which is a military version of the DC-6) that was used by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as a backup to access smaller airports incable of handling the main Air Force One. You can walk through it and see how modestly a President traveled in those days.

And in that sea of aircraft, you can sense the combined weight of human skill and consummate bravery it took to fly these planes of every size and purpose. You can see the immense skill and caution it took to build and maintain them, on the ground and in the skies. You can feel the proud brotherhood and sisterhood of aviation.

I was overwhelmed by the humanity of aviation in all of that hardware in the desert, and in a flash, my mind was back over the Amazon, watching those two men from Long Island handle themselves with courage and wrestle that plane down safely against all odds. And three hours later, when we learned that we had collided with a 737, I saw the anguish that consumed them over those 154 deaths in the jungle.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


After a slow start out of the gate, the Long Island newspaper Newsday is now providing tenacious coverage of the investigation into the Sept. 29 mid-air collision of two jets over the Amazon rainforest. The 154 people aboard a 737 died when the plane plunged into dense jungle after colliding at 37,000 feet with a business jet. The damaged Legacy 600 business jet, its wing deteriorating, managed a harrowing landing at an onscure jungle air strip. The seven people on that jet -- me among them -- do not understand to this day how we walked away uninjured if shaken, while 154 people in a plane three times bigger than the Legacy died.

From day one, while being detained for two days of questioning, first at a military air base in the jungle and later, during an all-nighter at police headquarters in Mato Grosso, I was quietly told by several investigators that faulty air traffic control -- a longstanding problem over the isolated part of the Amazon where the collision occurred -- was likely to have been partially, if not entirely, responsible for the crash.

Today, Newsday (www.newsday.com -- click on "Long Island News") cites a report in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo in which the miltary official who runs Brazil's airports finally concedes that air traffic controllers contributed to the accident. "It is obvious that it [the control tower] could have changed the plane direction" to avoid the mid-air collision, he said. He added, "But what happened was not all that simple."

Well, maybe not. But I have had enough experience with Brazilian authorities recently to be able to say that some of them I've encountered appear to have a disconcerting habit of changing their stories.

My money is still on the proposition that air traffic control -- which supposedly was fixed in a huge contract the Brazilians had with a U.S. defense contractor -- is the culprit. American pilots have been e-mailing me for over a week saying they do not trust the reliability of air traffic control in that vast part of the Amazon, roughly between Brasilia and Manaus. When they fly in that airspace, they say, they do so warily.

The pilots of the Legacy -- and remember, I was on the plane and spent several more days with them while being detained for questioning -- never wavered in their assertion that 1. They had been flying at their assigned altitude and 2. They were unable to maintain contact with air traffic control before and after the collision.

From Newsday: "The Brazilian official in charge of the probe said he will make immediate recommendations for changes in the way air traffic is handled in his country."

Another top Brazilian official involved in the investigation said "there is always something that can be improved."

Yes, how true, how true.

Meanwhile, Newsday reported, a weekly magazine in Brazil said it has been told that there was a shift change in the control tower in Brasilia around the time of the impact.

In an accompanying story, Newsday quoted the head of the Brazil air traffic controllers union as saying that stress and fatigue are common among underpaid and overworked controllers, who often work two jobs to make ends meet.

Remember, now: Two weeks ago, when I made some off-hand comment in an interview on CNN about the poor reputation of Brazilian air traffic control, a furor erupted among some political elements in Brazil who were firmly fixed to the position that the two American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, were killers who had deliberately ignored air-traffic control instructions to descend to 36,000 feet (or ASCEND to 38,000 feet -- the Brazilian hot-heads never quite got their theories straight) to avoid the approaching 737.

Some irresponsible and despicable elements of the Brasilian media also reported wildly that the American pilots had turned off equipment that allows radar to track a plane so they could do "trick maneuvers" in the sky with the brand-new Legacy 600 jet they were delivering to its owner, a jet charter company called ExcelAire, in Long Island. Hey, I was there! I was quietly working on a laptop at the moment of impact. But my insistence that we were flying straight and narrow and utterly without incident till impact was cited as evidence of a conspiracy to cook up a story to shift blame from the pilots.

Because I was the only witness who was free to talk about what I saw and heard -- and because I did so, freely -- I became a figure in that paranoid anti-American circus. One day in a more distant future, I will share with you some of the more crazed of the more than 1,000 hate mails (including a couple of barely veiled death threats) that I received from Brazil for simply reporting what I saw aboard that airlane.

Oddly, the authorities in Brazil -- where a very emotionally contested presidential election is stalled with a runoff approaching -- still haven't backed away from their assertion that the pilots still share responsibility. In fact, they have now added the two pilots of the 737 (at least one of whom was an American) to the list of presumed culprits.

In short, the new story the Brazilian authorities now are putting out seems to be: Everybody is responsible (uh, well, yeah, including air traffic control, okay.).

Meanwhile, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino remain detained in Brazil and perhaps facing crimninal charges. Oh, I forgot. The Brazilian authorities say they aren't being detained. So are they free to go? Well, no.

Excuse me while I find a dictionary and see how they define "detained" in Portuguese.

Friday, October 13, 2006


October 13

This blog went down for a day because of my concerns about not helping to fan the political hysteria in Brazil over the cause of the Sept. 29 mid-air collision between a 737 airliner and a corporate jet over the Amazon, which killed all 154 on the 737. Now, finally, hard questions are being asked in Brazil that I have posed since day-one regarding air-traffic control over the Amazon. (I was on the corporate jet that made an emergency landing in the jungle, with all seven on board uninjured. We didn't know what hit us for three hours, and to this day none of us know how we could have survived).

In bringing this blog back up, I've had problems with the typography. Please excuse that until I have a chance to fix it.

Today's news is that Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, finally has acknowledged the statements of one Elnio Borges. Mr. Borges is a pilot for Brazil's Varig Airlines who flies regularly over the Amazon. Mr. Borges disputes the assertions of Brazilian military and police -- who are conducting the secret investigation into the mid-air collision while two American pilots, both from Long Island, are being detained -- that long-standing problems with air traffic control in some sections of the vast Amazon region had been fixed in a $125 million initiative much heralded by the Brazilian regime now involved in a very fiercely fought presidential election runoff.

"The guys who fly expect to lose contact on routes betwen Brasilia and northwest Brazil," Newsday quoted Mr. Borges as saying. That is exactly the route on which the mid-air collision occurred. Brazilian authorities have made wild accusations, for example, denouncing the corporate jet pilots for turning off the plane's transponder so ground traffic control could not pick it up -- allowing the pilots to fool around in the sky hot-dogging and doing trick maneuvers.

That's an assertion that defines the word asinine. Fooling around in the sky? Don't forget, I was on the plane. We flew straight and without the slightest incident until the collision occurred at 3.59 p.m. local time. At the time of the impact, I was working quietly on my laptop.

As I have said again and again, we did not know what hit us. I was sitting at the left wing where impact occurred. I heard a loud bang and felt the jolt. One pilot and one passenger reported seeing what they both called a darting shadow. Our plane did not rock or roll after impact. It remained stable, though it was slowly losing altitude and speed after the crash.

Brazilian authorities have come up with every theory possible to blame the American pilots.

Yet pilots who fly those same skies have been telling me that they do not believe the Brazilian government has adequately fixed its air traffic control. I was with the American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, both during the flight and during detention and questioning for two days and nights after -- at a military base in the jungle and at police headquarters hundreds of miles south of the crash site.

All I know about airplanes is how to sit in one. I do not know how this crash happened.

But the pilots' story never wavered. They said they were not able to raise air traffic control -- not before we were hit nor afterward, even as they sought desperately to put the jet down with a damaged wing and tail, and with only perhaps 15 minutes or so of flying time left before we crashed.

Stay tuned.



Brazil IV -- Flippant

The latest is that Brazil's defense minister, Waldir Pires, said it was "flippant" of the Legacy 600 captain, Joe Lepore, to maintain that he was flying at 37,000 feet with authorization, and that he heard no orders from Brazilian air traffic control either to decend to 36,000 feet or ascend to 38,000 feet.

How dare Joe Lepore contradict the Minister's theory!

Flippant! Have you heard a word like that since Sister Mary Joseph uttered it in the 6th grade?

This is indicative of the kind of rhetoric coming from Brazil military, police and political authorities -- at least as reported in some Brazilian media -- as they scramble to get their stories straight amidst growing suspicion that Brazilian air traffic control was part of, if not entirely, the cause of the mid-air collision at 37,000 feet on Sept. 29. In that collision, 154 people on a Brazilian 737 died horribly, while seven people on a Legacy 600 -- me among them -- were physically uninjured after a harrowing landing in the jungle in a damaged aircraft.

Anti-Americanism coupled with unstable Brazilian politics are driving this story.

In some Brazilian media, I was referred to as being "impertinent" because in an interview in CNN last week I evidently alluded to the poor reputation of Brazilian air traffic control over some parts of the Amazon, despite vaunted attempts by the current regime to fix it.

U.S. pilots who ply the Amazon skies have e-mailed me to support this contention, by the way. And also, by the way, the Brazilian accounts of my comments about the reputation of Brazilian air traffic control on CNN all have been rendered as paraphrases, without exact quotes.


But hang on a minute. Impertinent as I may appear, there is an unfortunate problem. I was actually there.

I was there when Joe and Jan physically wrestled that damaged aircraft to the ground in a jungle after 30 awful minutes when we all thought we were going to die. I saw every moment of their grief and anguish once we landed and learned, 3 hours later, that a Brazilian 737 airliner had gone down in the jungle after a mid-air collision at 37,000 feet.

In two days of detention, when we speculated in anguish about what possibly could have accounted for this horrible accident, I couldn't even get Mr. Lepore and his co-pilot, Jan Paladino, to call me "Joe," rather than "Mr. Sharkey."

"Flippant" just ain't in these guys' natures. What I saw was two straight arrows, two decent family guys from Long Island who were bewildered and grief-stricken for the strangers who died in that instant of contact while we, inexplicably, lived.

Today, I wrote in a newsaper column what I thought was a fairly innocuous report about how dumb I was for traveling internationally without an internationally enabled cell phone that would have helped me communicate.

I was promptly accused in some of the Brazilian media of being contemptuous of Brazil's cell phone service.

This is crazy land. At police headquarters the night after the crash, I asked if I was being detained. No, I was told. Then could I leave? I asked. No, I was told. In my dictionary, that is the definition of "detained." Since then Brazilian authorities have denied that the two pilots are being detained, though their passports have been confiscated. Can they leave Brazil? No.

Many of the e mails I have received from from Brazil routinely address me as "Assassin." Some attach grisly pictures of the bodies as they were found in the jungle. None of those hate e-mails, which I would guess number close to 1,000, even considers the idea that perhaps the pilots' testimony about not able to maintain contact with air traffic control might have some validity.

I grieve for the dead. We all grieve for the dead.

But two decent American men remain in the rabbit hole, and we need to pay attention.

posted by Joe Sharkey | 8:11 PM

BRAZIL III: Black Holes

This from NPR today on the continuing questioning of two American pilots who flew the Legacy 600 business jet that survived a mid-air crash with a 737 over the Amazon Sept. 29, while all aboard the 737 died tragically and horribly.

"...Brazilian aviation authorities are annoyed by the pilots' representations [that they were unable to maintain contact with air trafrfic control). The director general of the Brazilian Airspace Control Center, Lt. Gen. Paulo Roberto Vilharinho, is quoted as saying that radio coverage over the jungle is complete. 'There are no black holes.'"

"But a 36 year veteran pilot with the Brazilian airline Varig says there are faults within the country's vast network of radars and aviation communications. Elnio Borges disputes Brazilian authorities' claim that Brazil has no 'blind spots' -- areas unreachable by radar communication.

"Despite a $121 million upgrade on the infrastructure, Borges says, 'Everybody that flies in that region knows that they should expect to be out of two-way communication for at least some time during their flights.'"

Incidentally, several veteran American pilots who fly over the Amazon have e-mailed me with essentially the same information.

This is playing out with huge elements of anti-Americanism in a wildly emotional political environment in Brazil, where many elements of the news media are condemning the pilots. The vitriol (you should see my e mail inbox) is stunning.

The investigation is continuing, and our pilots remain in Brazil.
posted by Joe Sharkey | 12:43 PM


I've been always ready to make this bet since the afternoon Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino saved our butts by putting down a damaged aircraft in that obscure Amazon air base near Cachimbo (as they considered ditching before the once-secret base turned up visually).

It's going to work out that Joe and Jan did nothing wrong.

But that's not how the Brazilian police authorities in Mato Grosso evidently want it to work out. The air base where we made our emergency landing was in the state of Para. Mato Grosso is the state just south. The collision seems to have occurred just south of the border with Para, and Mato Grosso police authorities were eager to claim jurisdiction once the Brazilian military had finished questioning us.

And by the way, all of us on that plane were working stiffs, not corporate fatcats on a lark. Despite outrageous tales being spread by certain elements of the news media in Brazil -- where a presidential election is mired in unstable politics -- we flew across the Amazon straight and narrow. To say these two pilots turned off a transponder so we could do "trick maneuvers" without being detected is to precisely define the word "lie." I was there. I was working on a laptop at the time of impact on the wing just beside me. That plane was flying as straight and steady as a Continental jetliner between New York and L.A.

All of us on that flight have said over and over and over again, including during two grueling days of detention and questioning when it became increasingly clear to me that the police authorities were looking for a scapegoat, that were were on a calm, routine flight when the impact occurred. We did not know what hit us (and would not know for three more hours).

With a damaged and deteriorating left wing and a damaged tail, Joe and Jan -- expecting to have to ditch -- managed through sheer luck to find an airstrip in the wilderness and then physically wrestle that plane onto an unknown runway.

As I said, not until three hours later did we learn that a 737 with 154 aboard had gone down at the site of the impact.

We were treated well, though questioned repeatedly, at the military base. In police custody in Mato Grosso, Brazilian police authorities had raced to claim criminal jurisdiction after we had been confined and questioned at the air base for a night and a day.

When we left the air base on a military jet and landed several hours later (during a violent lightening storm, by the way) at Cuiaba, the police headquarters in Mato Grosso, were were questioned all night until 5.30 a.m. By now, U.S. diplomatic representatives were on the scene. To them, I objected to being detained without charge and without the ability to make a phone call. It never occurred to me to demand legal representation, but it should have. I did manage to befriend a secretary who allowed me limited use of her computer to grind out a fast e mail message to my wife and to some colleagues.

Now that I am home, the theme of the hate mail (some with the words "You Must Pay for Crimes" and "Die Assassin" and far worse in the message field), has consistently been that we are lying and that I, as the only witness who is able to talk openly and to write about this, am abetting a coverup.

Yes, 154 people died in that tragic split-second when that 737 (perhaps with a heroic pilot himself trying but unable to save the lives of those aboard both airplanes) hit us 37,000 feet about the Amazon. Our anguish about the horrible deaths of those strangers is profound. Our astonishment that some freak oversight of fate allowed us to walk away alive will follow us to our own graves.

Those of us who survived have been accused -- in the Brazil media, quoting police sources -- of coordinating our stories. This is insulting nonsense. Part of the absurd reasoning for those accusations in Brazil is that our testimony (each of us were questioned separately and intensely) was remarkably similar. This is a chapter out of Kafka! Of course we all told the same story. That's because we all told the exact truth. It is insanity -- if not felonious mendacity -- to define consistency in truth as conspiracy to lie.

Joe and Jan should not still be detained in Brazil 10 days after the accident, while anti-Americanism fans the flames.

Joe and Jan are not shadowy international figures, able to slip into obscurity. They are two guys with families from Long Island. If the Brazilian authorities need them in the future, there are legal procedures in place to return them to Brazil.

I have not been in contact with either Joe or Jan since last Sunday, when I left San Jose for the airport in Sao Paulo. All of us had an emotional farewell.

I had never met them before the night prior to our fateful flight on the new Legacy 600 from Sao Jose, but I know them well enough, after the time we spent in this ordeal, to say this:

I stand up for them. Period.

posted by Joe Sharkey | 6:23 PM


As most of you know, I was a passenger in a Legacy 600 business jet that was involved in a mid-air collision with a 737-800 airliner over the Amazon rain forest on Sept. 29. Through some inexplicable stroke of fate, the seven of us in the smaller jet survived while the 154 people in the 737 died. We who survived did not know that a 737 had hit us until 3 hours after we made our emergency landing at a remote Amazon airfield. Our plane had been flying routinely on a steady course at the time we were hit.

The grief and anguish that we who lived felt for those who died was and is profound and invincible.

I and the six honorable men who survived with me will always grieve for the dead and their loved ones and friends. But right now I also am deeply concerned about the fate of the two pilots of the Legacy -- Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino. Joe and Jan are two stand-up guys, veteran pilots who saved my life and the lives of all who were with me, and who were stricken with profound sorrow when they learned that a 737 had hit us without warning, and with such a tragic loss of life.

Joe and Jan remain detained in Brazil while an investigation continues into the cause of this horrible accident. Speculation and wild rumors are rife. But I was there. I implore those who are so quick to blame the Legacy pilots to let the investigation continue and wait until the facts have been determined in an honest, transparent and INDEPENDENTLY MONITORED inquiry before rushing to judgment in a politically intense environment.

-- Joe Sharkey
posted by Joe Sharkey | 1:41 PM

TSA: Never Mind

This just in ... Never Mind Dept.
PLAN B! The T.S.A. said today that many of the liquids and gels that had been prohibited from carry-on bags for six weeks may now be brought on a plane, if they are all packed in a see-through plastic zip-top quart-sized bag.

At its press coference, the T.S.A. could have said, "Listen, folks, we've carefully looked at the ban on liquids and gels under our ongoing process of sensible risk-management evaluation, and we've decided it is now o.k. to return to the status quo ante."

But noooo. Under Plan B, your lip gel is no longer suspect, so long as it can be seen.

Several quick points here:

1. Won't the need to rumnmage in your carry-on for the plastic zip-top bag create more confusion at the checkpoint?

2. For you day-traders out there, there is no stock play, at least on the major manufacturer of zip-top bags, SC Johnson, which is a privately held company that makes Ziploc bags, as well as Pledge and Fantastik and other consumer products.

3. For weeks, as frequent travelers know, a good number of T.S.A. screeners have been in quiet revolt against the new rules anyway. I've seen them use their heads to, for example, allow a mother with a baby to bring on an infant bottle of apple juice -- forbidden under the rules. A few screeners are humps, but most of them have been using their own discretion for weeks. In general, the ban was falling apart anyway.

Incidentally, I loved the Associated Press advance story on this, which said that the bans were "instituted after a plot to bomb jets flying into the United States was foiled." The same story early this morning also said that "British police broke up a terrorist plot to assemble and detonate bombs using liquid explosives on airliners crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Britain to the United States."

I am still waiting for someone to tell me something specific about this foiled "plot" that the news media credulously have assigned to the historical record. Was it real? Was it imminent? If so, why have we seen no evidence besides a cache of nutty jihadist videotapes that just as easily could have been made for YouTube. And come to think of it, we haven't even seen the videotapes; we've just heard tell of them.

I'm flying out of Kennedy tomorrow on an all-night trip on which toothpaste and deodorant will be welcome. I have to dash to the Pathmark for a Ziploc quart bag before there's a run on the shelves.
More later ...
posted by Joe Sharkey | 10:00 AM | 1 comments
Back from the Desert...
It seems like only a few days ago I was out in the desert in Tucson, worried about nothing more than the growth of pest-like grasses that sprouted up during an unusually rainy August.

"I got some knee-high buffel-grass growing around the base of a 25-foot saguaro. What do you have that will kill the buffel-grass and won't hurt the saguaro?" I was asking the man behind the counter of the Do It Yourself Pest and Weed Control store, who promptly fetched a jug of stuff to do the job. (That isn’t a conversation I could have ever imagined myself having a few years ago, by the way).

Buffel-grass is a pest, a blight on the Sonoran desert, introduced in southern Arizona a century ago by cattle people who thought that a desert was a good place for profitable grazing. Things didn’t work out all that well for the cattlemen, but their damned buffel grass spread over the decades through the native environment of cacti, mesquite, creosote and palo verde. Buffel grass thrives with moisture, but when it dries out, as it inevitably does in a desert, it creates a wildfire hazard.

So I killed it real good. Killed it and dug it all up and saluted my stately saguaros, of which there are two dozen, full-grown. And a few days later, my desert respite over, I headed home.

Now I'm back in grey, drizzly New York, and I wish buffel grass was all I had to worry about. Let me review some of the news, which seems heavily weighted to idiocies and felonious atrocities, that I have had to catch up on.

First, the aftermath of the great plot last month that created hysteria in London, a city that once faced the Nazi Blitz with aplomb. According to British cops, a gang of Islamic terrorists had hatched a plan to blow up transatlantic airplanes using explosives concocted of liquids or gels. Details were, and remain, very sketchy.

Initially, there was talk of a foiled plot to blow up 10 airliners in a spectacular display of horror over the cities of North America, but that quickly faded out due to the fact that no one seemed to be able to produce any evidence of this.

Still, the news media continued hyperventilating along with the cops, and for a few days airline passengers flying out of Heathrow weren't allowed carry-on bags. They couldn't even carry a book on board, lest it had been hollowed out to conceal something dangerous. Never mind that the most cursory visual inspection could quickly determine whether that tweedy gent had hollowed out his copy of "Great Expectations" to artfully conceal a bottle of NyQuil inside.

Yet despite legions of British police tromping through woods in yellow slickers looking for evidence, and various British government officials harrumphing about what a close call it all was, the details of the alleged plot remain … well, let's be kind and say they remain hard to find. Evidently, the plot, such as it was, was not imminent. Perhaps, it was just talk and jihadist videos, augmented by excitable British authorities looking at the polls.

But the talk was persuasive, evidently. Because six weeks later, the farce is still playing at the world's airports, long after anyone has put much faith in the basic narrative. From the get-go, American authorities reacted in lock-step to the mania in England. Gels and liquids of all kinds were absolutely banned from carry-on bags. Nothing that was not solid was allowed!

That lasted about a week, until the disabled Americans lobby was heard from. O.K., gels and liquids of all kinds were banned -- with the exception of gel-filled wheelchair cushions and gel-bras. Gel-bras are, of course, prosthetic devices used by women who have had mastectomies.

But it turns out that gel-filled bras are also worn by millions of women as fashion accessories – the new falsies, if you will excuse the 1950s-era word for it. Egad! someone at the T.S.A. undoubtedly said. How can we distinguish between the prosthetics and the fashion accessories? "We recognize it's a sensitive issue," a T.S.A. spokesman admitted.

Remember a couple of years ago, when female travelers in the United States created a huge and justified outcry about being patted-down intimately at airport checkpoints, evidently because two female terrorists in Russia had been arrested for planning to blow up airplanes with gel explosives concealed in their clothing? The U.S. pat-down party ended soon after the outcry. And so gel-bras – conceivably filled with enough gel to blow up a Wal-Mart -- are now permitted. And so is a personal supply of K.Y. jelly, for some reason that neither I nor anyone I have broached the subject with can even guess at.

Still, toothpastes, lip gels, bottled water and almost all other liquids are still banned, as of this writing. Now, I am not trying to make a point about the danger of gel-filled bras here, as I consider the entire liquids-gels ban absurd. This is a view with which every security expert I know agrees.

But the hyperventilation continues. Not long ago, I was floored by a lead editorial (that's the one on top) in the New York Times that actually called for a ban on all carry-on bags. The mind boggles!

Meanwhile, may I draw your consideration to an assortment of news events of note that have occurred in the time since my last post, for no reason other than to help us all come to a consensus on how to define absurdity (because I think the word is with us at some force for a while). Also, you can't make this stuff up:

-- Dancin' pants: In Los Angeles last week, according to numerous press reports, a man was charged with smuggling from Thailand two baby leopards, a number of exotic bulbs and several pygmy monkeys. After Customs officials at Los Angeles International Airport found the kitten-sized leopards and the bulbs in his carry-on, the man was asked if he was carrying any other contraband. "Yeah, I got monkeys in my underwear," he replied. Yep. He had concealed two live pygmy monkeys in his shorts.

-- Lost in translation: At a security checkpoint at O'Hare airport in Chicago in mid-August, a female security screener removed a rubber device from an Iraqi man's backpack and asked him what it was. The man was traveling with his mother and evidently was too embarrassed to fully describe the object, a penis pump. He simply quietly replied "It's a pump." But his accent apparently made the word "pump" – think of it – sound like "bomb." The poor schnook was arrested and charged with a felony and is awaiting trial. But my guess is the screener was a hump, no matter now you pronounce it.

-- Speaking of penises (last time, I promise): Two weeks ago, the editors of the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina saw fit to run ON THE FRONT PAGE a warning to readers that a photo of a fresco published in an inside section that day contained "nudity" that might be offensive. The fresco? Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam," from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The appendage the editors were so primly worried about belongs to Adam, in one of the most famous artistic scenes ever created. Later (while inadvertently demonstrating why some newspapers are being laughed out of existence), Ted Vaden, the News and Observer's public editor, actually defended the asinine page-one warning. "Oh well. With a family newspaper, caution is prudence (not prudish)," he wrote.

-- Nuclear physics and your average terrorist: A top terrorist suspect secretly interrogated by the CI.A. readily identified a photo of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen being held on terrorism-related crimes, including the suspicion that he was involved in a plot to create a so-called radioactive dirty bomb. According to the New York Times, however, the suspect told his questioners that Padilla "was ignorant on the subject of nuclear physics and believed he could separate plutonium from nuclear material by rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material."

-- The bum's rush: An Indian man who works as an eco-scavenger recycling material from dumps in Delhi was planning to fly in business class on Alitalia a few weeks ago to attend a waste-disposal conference in Brazil. The ticket had been purchased for him by a grateful local recycling group. But the airline told him he couldn't board the plane, and had security remove him from the airport, because "he did not look like a businessman," according to the newspaper Asian Age. Alitalia said it's investigating.

-- Some good news (I guess): A pilot on an Air Canada Jazz CJR-100 left the cockpit to visit the lavatory 30 minutes before landing in Winnipeg. Per regulations, the cockpit door was locked after he left – but when he was finished he couldn’t get back in because the door had jammed. After lots of banging and attempts to force the cockpit door open, the pilot marooned outside and the first officer in the cockpit finally managed to take the hinges off the door -- a process that took time and, let’s remember, cooperation from the flight attendant and the passengers. Now if the PILOT can’t get through the reenforced cockpit door under these favorable circumstances, I’d say that pretty well indicates that the next time a maniac terrorist tries to pull that stunt, a la 9/11, it isn’t going to work out so well, and the passengers will have ample time to, let's say, react appropriately.

-- INCIDENTALLY (and with thanks to Joe Brancatelli, channeling the late and great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon for the use of the formula: "Nobody asked me, but …")
-- Why do they pat down PILOTS at security checkpoints? In fact, pilots say they feel they get the secondary inspection more often than the average passenger. One captain told me he tried to reason with the screener but was informed: “We can’t let you take on anything that could let you take over the plane.” … Does the fact that Jennifer Aniston ends up blissfully in the sack with Jack Black at the end of the movie “Friends with Money” mean that the world really, truly is coming to an end? … When did we first start routinely referring to popular singers as “artists” -- and why? … And speaking of music, has anyone else noticed the striking resemblance between mariachi music and polkas? How in the world did that happen? … Is there some way to get flight attendants to cease using the phrase “At this time?” to begin an announcement? … Who thinks these things up? Bumper sticker seen recently on a car driven by an attractive blond woman in Tucson: “I STILL MISS MY EX – BUT MY AIM IS GETTING BETTER.” … R.I.P.: A California man, George Johnson, died recently, aged 112. If he had any secret to longevity it wasn’t his diet. “He had terrible bad habits. He had a diet largely of sausages and waffles,” a physician who knew him said, according to the A.P. … THAT explains it: Hitler and Stalin were possessed by the devil, the Vatican's chief exorcist said recently. CHIEF Exorcist?? You mean they have a staff?

At this time, we shall end it a day. Cell phones and other electronic devices may be used.
posted by Joe Sharkey | 2:41 PM | 4 comments
But First This...
"You can go, Joseph," said the rent-a-cop at the security counter where they inspect your papers at the airport in Fort Myers. He briskly handed back my boarding pass.

"Listen," I told him, "my name is Mr. Sharkey. You shouldn't call people you don't know by their first names, o.k.?"

I bristle at bad manners, but I especially get my back up when some functionary -- the clerk at the DMV, the 19-year-old gum-chomping cashier at the drug store prescription counter – calls me "Joseph." I admit there is some psychological baggage at work here, as I attended eight years of Catholic grade school and "Joseph" was what an angry nun often shrieked right before she whacked me upside the head for some sin, whether ecclesiastical or procedural.

Whatever. The rent-a-cop just laughed as I collected my papers and headed to the security checkpoint.

At the checkpoint, I was busted, by an actual T.S.A. employee, for a corkscrew in my carry-on bag.

"This isn't going on the plane with you," the man said. He said it politely, I was gratified to note.

"But corkscrews are allowed, according to the T.S.A. list," I said.
He flipped out the little inch-and-a-half dull blade on the side of the corkscrew.

"Not with a blade, they're not," he said.

"Under the rules I can carry on sharp scissors with four-inch blades."


"A scissors is two sharp blades, and this is one little dull one you couldn't open a pack of gum with."


The screener was not a hump.

"What could I tell you?" he said with a shrug. "I don't make the rules."

Into the confiscation bin went my $3.98 corkscrew, newly purchased from Walgreens. Somewhere, somebody has already gotten rich buying corkscrew futures.

That was two weeks before the recent fiasco in London involving the alleged terrorist plot to -- what was it, now? I seem to have missed the actual details, as has the news media. Blow up 10 airliners in a spectacular pyrotechnical display of hellfire over "major urban areas," as I read somewhere? All I know is that Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and JFK were an unholy mess well after other airports in the U.S. and Europe had recovered. My friend Mike Boyd, the airline consultant, sometimes refers to airport scenes as resembling "the fall of Saigon," and that's what this looked like.

Let's stipulate that this plot was real, and not just a reaction, perhaps stimulated by an overzealous undercover operative, to a bunch of religious wing-nuts e-mailing each other in a delusional frenzy about those 72 virgins in paradise. (And by the way, has anyone ever closely examined the prospect of suddenly acquiring the intimate and demanding companionship of 72 – count 'em – 72 virgins, in paradise or anywhere else? Has it occurred to any of these mutton-brains how many doors would be slamming, dishes smashed and tears shed every single day in this heavenly house of horror?) Furthermore, does no one have any consideration for the poor virgins, who made it to paradise and now have to put up with these morons?

But I digress. As you know, the authorities banned all carry-on bags on flights from the U.K. A man headed from Heathrow to Chicago told me they wouldn't even let him bring on a book.

"They said it could be hollowed out to conceal a weapon," he said. "I told them to flip through it, but they said the rules were the rules."
As I write this, the madness seems to have subsided a bit. But wait a minute, yesterday came the latest news, and I take that back.

Some hyperventilating former third-runner-up prom queen on the television suddenly was braying about a transatlantic flight being diverted, under escort by fighter jets, to Boston. After a while, it became apparent that – damn, some stories are too good to check out – the authorities have already made assurances that this was not a terrorist incident, but rather a somewhat impressive reaction to an on-board "incident" involving a distraught 59-year-old passenger who proclaimed herself "claustrophobic" and created a big scary scene, as the claustrophobic mentally disturbed are wont to do when confined in a tight space under duress.

Comes the morning paper today and I am further informed that among the woman's transgressions included the fact that she "pulled her pants down" -- and evidently refused to pull them back up, as she was then restrained by flight crew and passengers, cuffed and confined to one of those rear-cabin seats where those without frequent-flier elite status are typically stowed. Then, the woman was evidently upgraded to first class, or at least to the first-class gallley, there to be better observed by the frightened crew, as the pilot radioed in his alarm.

With fighter jets on each wing, the plane landed without further incident to a waiting entourage of armed authorities. "We just landed and were told welcome to Boston," one passenger told the New York Times.

What can be done, with nuts pulling their pants down in the aisle next to 27-D while other nuts evidently conspire to blow up planes with ersatz tubes of Pepsodent and Vagisil? Don’t worry! The T.S.A. – that's the agency that has spent about $15 billion on checkpoint security, while the checkpoints still operate with inconveniently uneven and unmatched tables and bins that resemble a hastily organized garage sale – has a new plan: Behavioral Profiling.

It is regarded by the authorities, I am again informed by the Times, as "a valuable addition to their security tool chest."

O.K., perhaps it's early in the game, and I am not yet as well informed as a travel columnist ought to be. But I have to tell you, I do not like the looks of "Behavioral Profiling," if only because (perhaps as another consequence of those years under stern supervision in Catholic school) I myself can appear to be lying even when I am telling the absolute truth – if, for example, I believe that my skeptical interrogator has the power to begin proceedings that could send me to Guantanamo or, to again evoke the nuns, to hell.

I can see it now.

"Did you have a good time seeing the sights in Tucson, Joseph? What sights did you see?"

Resisting the urge to protest the 'Joseph,' I might reply, a la Ralph Kramden, "Hamanahamanahamana," -- as the only sights I will be seeing in Tucson are the endless desert and mountains, from the vantage point of the pool in the back of our hideaway house out in flat-out Sonoran desert by the National Park. For the next two weeks, I will be out there, alone, working and doing lazy laps.

"I was holed up in the desert working on a project," I might reply truthfully, trying to sound truthful.

You can see where this could lead.

Incidentally, I read in the Times that the authorities will ensure that screeners trained to spot villains by their facial expressions, gait or other signs of guilt will have the "necessary behavioral analysis skills."

Now, I think most TSA screeners are decent working people just trying to do a difficult job under awful stress, but I have encountered a number of them who I suspect got the job only after failing to pass the exam for the post office.

The Times account helpfully was accompanied by six thumbnail photos of a prototype face expressing various degrees of deception to be on the lookout for. I swear to you, I could not tell whether the face was male or female, but I do know that my face routinely registers every one of these signs, which were labeled in the paper as: "Fear, Disgust, Anger, Determination/Anger, Sadness (Eyebrows drawn up) and Sadness (Lip corners down).

Again, to quote Ralph Kramden, "Hamanahamanahamana."

See you in September.
posted by Joe Sharkey | 12:31 PM | 50 comments