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

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