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.

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