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.

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