Wednesday, November 22, 2006


You’d be surprised at some of the reaction I’ve been getting to my steady criticisms of Brazilian authorities for detaining those two American pilots involved in the horrendous Sept. 29 mid-air collision.

It can be summarized this way: "Payback for Guantanamo! Serves them right for being Americans."

This is a consistent theme among some nitwits in Brazil -- obviously a small, organized segment -- who could care less about the pilots or even the 154 other innocent people who died, and are only interested in invoking cheap irony (Payback!) in the service of anti-American hysteria. Much of that campaign appears orchestrated, as hundreds of hate e-mails I get from Brazil conclude with the same two sentences (only one of which I dispute): "You are such a shit of a journalist!" and "We have no Guantanamo in Brazil."

I need to add here that I also am getting a lot of sensible feedback from intelligent Brazilians who are appalled by how this airplane accident investigation has gone off the tracks, and how it has exposed very dangerous flaws in the Brazilian air-traffic system.

But I’ve been appalled to hear the same theme -- "Payback for Guantanamo!" -- from a few people in the U.S. who basically are saying smugly "The pilots got what the U.S. deserved."

This is the logic of death squads in Darfur and Iraq, not of civilized people. The U.S. government has been severely denounced, here and abroad, for the atrocities of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the Iraq war in general.

These two pilots are not instruments of American imperialism. They're a couple of straight-shooting family guys from Long Island who are being railroaded for political reasons.

In Brazil the issue is this:

Two American pilots involved in a fatal mid-air accident have been held for 53 days without charge and without a shred of evidence. They're confined to a hotel in Rio, and judges have twice denied their appeals to have their passports returned.

Meanwhile, the Air Force, which runs Brazilian Air Traffic Control and has its fingers in its honeypot of a budget, is investigating itself, in an inquiry that authorities say might take as long as a year to conclude. Authorities have said the American pilots, Joe Lepore, 42, and Jan Paladino, 34, will be detained in Brazil until that inquiry is finished.

And in what I regard as a deliberate tantrum being thrown as a warning to Brazilian authorities not to even consider blaming Air Traffic Control for its obvious derelictions in the Sept. 29 crash, controllers have been staging work slowdowns that are snarling air travel throughout Brazil. If you're planning a trip to Rio soon, my advice would be: Hold off for a while, unless you like sleeping in airports.

Yesterday, the Brazilian defense minister, Wonderful Waldir Pires, who until recently was publicly repeating the batty charge that the collision was caused by the American pilots doing "stunt maneuvers" in the Amazon skies to show off the newly purchased, Brazilian-made $25 million Legacy 600, seemed to have been struck by a fleeting moment of coherence. He actually conceded that an air traffic controller in Sao Jose dos Campos, where the Legacy took off from, instructed the Legacy to remain at 37,000 feet all the way to its destination in Manaus.

At the next air traffic control center in Brasilia, the American pilots tried 19 times to reach ATC by radio and were unable to do so. Thus, according to universally accepted international aviation protocols, they continued flying at 37,000 feet. At the same time, a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 was under orders from the air traffic control center in Manaus, its departure point, to maintain 37,000 feet -- which put the two planes on the fatal collision course.

Wonderful Waldir tried to explain this away, saying the American pilots should have followed a pre-flight written flight plan that had them dropping to 36,000 feet past Brasilia. But aviation protocols the world over say you fly at the last altitude you were assigned by ATC, and the last altitude the Legacy was assigned to by ACT order was 37,000 feet.

The Brazilian Senate has been conducting hearings into the current air traffic mess that sometimes venture into the uncomfortable area of the Sept. 29 crash. Yesterday, Brigadier Luiz Carlos Bueno, the Air Force commander, allowed as how a glitch had occurred at the Brasilia ATC center on Sept. 29 when two controllers – handing over duties during a shift change – made an incorrect assumption that the Legacy was at 36,000 feet, in line with the filed flight plan.

The controller on the new shift then passed that information along to Manaus ATC, said Brigadier Bueno. There was no voice contact with the Legacy, whose pilots, as I said, tried 19 times, unsuccessfully, to get through to ATC in Brasilia. Cockpit recordings and other data prove this, incidentally. Like the batty "stunt maneuvers in the sky" charge, this is no longer in dispute.

Now, there is some serious speculation that a cockpit electronic communications device called a transponder might have been malfunctioning on the Legacy and possibly even on the 737, though no one has yet offered evidence of this. But pilots and other experts – many of whom say the vast Amazon skies are notorious for dead radio and radar zones, not to mention idle ATC chatter in Portuguese -- have told me that a malfunctioning transponder itself would not have caused the crash. It simply would have made it more likely, once air traffic control began screwing big time up on the ground.

The newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo today quotes Brigadier Bueno as saying, “The controller believed that the plane was at 360 [36,000 feet]. It was a false piece of information but he did not believe that it was false.”

Please read that once more to get a flavor of this investigation.

The newspaper said it had learned that the 20-year-old controller in question was inexperienced and technically not cleared to work without supervision, and on duty only to plug holes in ATC staffing. "The first controller let the jet pass Brasilia without checking the foreseen change of altitude" as written in the flight plan, Folha said. "The second deduced that the data," referring just to the flight plan, "were correct or already checked," he said.

About a dozen flight controllers working at the ATC centers in Brasilia and Sao Jose during the time of the crash have been suspended. This is one of the reasons air traffic controllers all over Brazil are now tying up air travel in protest. But another, quite related reason for the protest is air traffic controllers have been complaining for years that they are overworked, badly paid and poorly supervised by a dysfunctional Air Force bureaucracy, and they're fighting back now.

The suspended controllers, in a legal fight with their bosses, "will seek to show that the Brazilian air control works precariously" and that controllers work "under precarious conditions," Folha said. Nearly all flight controllers in Brazil belong to the military. Besides long hours at ATC, they are also required to march in formation and do guard duty, like all good soldiers. Many also have second jobs. Several, for example, drive taxis to make ends meet.

Brigadier Bueno and Wonderful Waldir are in a bit of a fix here, as air travel in Brazil has been booming in recent years. They're in a jam especially now, as the heavy summer travel season approaches in the southern hemisphere, and the biggest country in South America is experiencing air-travel chaos.

Brigadier Bueno insists all is well, despite those disgruntled air traffic controllers and those thousands of people sleeping in airport terminals. "Passengers don’t need to worry," said Brigadier Bueno.

Meanwhile, aviation and travel organizations are finally making noise over the unwarranted detention of the American pilots, and the precedent it sets for criminalizing aviation accidents.

Incidentally, I've noticed that Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has remained very, very far away from this stink bomb. Shortly after the crash, Lucky Lula was handily re-elected in what had been a very hotly contested run-off election.

Here's a letter the National Business Aviation sent to Lucky Lula the other day:

November 20, 2006
Excelentíssimo Senhor
Luís Inácio Lula da Silva
Presidente da República Federativa do Brasil
Praça dos Três Poderes
Palácio do Planalto
3o andar 70.150-900
DF Brasil
Dear Mr. President:
This letter requests your immediate action to secure the return to the United States of two American pilots being detained in your country in conjunction with the tragic accident between a business aircraft and a Gol Airlines aircraft on September 29th.

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) supports a thorough, fair, accurate and transparent investigation into the accident. We expect nothing less.
It is our understanding that the pilots and their attorneys have fully cooperated with investigators from your government. Yet, despite their cooperation, the pilots are being held in contravention of internationally recognized practices and with no date certain for their release. This is an unacceptable situation that must not continue.

Based on the public reports of the accident, it is clear there was no intentional wrongdoing in this case. Preventing the pilots from returning to the United States is neither appropriate nor beneficial to the investigation.

NBAA urges your prompt intervention in this matter so that the pilots can be returned home in time for the holidays.

Thank you for your time and assistance with this critically important issue.

Mr. Ed Bolen
President & CEO
National Business Aviation Association

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