Major Brazilian news media are reporting tonight that the Federal Police in Brazil have said the two American pilots detained for 60 days after a mid-air collision that killed 154 people over the Amazon Sept. 29 will be released as early as next week after one more round of questioning.
The news comes after an earlier report that Brazilian Air Force officials had hurried to Phoenix this week to examine the transponder of the Legacy 600 business jet that survived the crash -- evidently in a desperate last-minute lunge to try to find incriminating evidence that the pilots had deliberately turned off the device to avoid detection by air traffic control. No one but the top brass in Air Force and their boss the Defense Minister, I should add here, gives any credence to that assertion.
The Federal Police and the Air Force are conducting independent parallel investigations into the crash, but it's believed the Federal Police will have the final say on if and when the pilots' passports will be returned so they can leave Brazil. The Air Force is responsible for running Brazil's air-traffic control system, which has been hobbled in recent weeks by air-traffic controllers protesting unsafe conditions and poor pay.
Here's my reading of the current situation:
Recently, as international attention has focused on the continuing detention of the American pilots without charges, the Air Force and the Brazilian defense minister, Waldir Pires, have been thrown on the defensive.
For almost two months, I have been referring to Mr. Pires as Wonderful Waldir, chiefly to ridicule him for his batty insistence that the crash could only have been caused by the American pilots deliberately turning off the plane's transponder so they could do illegal stunt maneuvers and aerial tricks to show off the brand new $25 million jet over the Amazon skies.
Slowly, outrage about the pilots' indefinite detention has built in the United States. But the outrage has also built in Brazil, where it has become more than apparent that the chief cause of the crash lay within the air-traffic control system, and that Wonderful Waldir's intransigence on the matter was becoming an international embarassment to a country working hard to project a modern, first-world image.
The "aerial maneuvers" charge was always a way to deflect blame from the air traffic control system. Long after anybody with a brain the size of a turnip had dismissed the "loop-d-loop" allegations as nonsense, the Brazilian Air Force was under pressure to keep them alive. Thus the trip to Phoenix, where Honeywell Aeronautics, the manufacturer of the transponder, had brought the transponder and other technical equipment from the Legacy cockpit to be examined.
The Air Force trip to Phoenix was led by Colonel Rufino Ferreira, the president of the Brazilan Air Force panel conducting the secret investigation in an air-control system run by, uh, the Brazilian Air Force.
Myself, I'm glad to hear they got to Arizona without incident, as Brazilian air traffic controllers have been tying up that nation's air traffic since last month to protest what they call unsafe working conditions. The Air Force brass must have prudently taken no chances and flown private.
However, the Federal Police said they'll question the American pilots again next week and "after that they will be free to return to the United States," even if it is determined they might likely be indicted later, according to the national newspaper O Globo.
Also, O Globo says tonight, the Federal Police are "convinced" that there were "decisive" air-traffic control "failures in the Sao Jose dos Campos tower, from where the Legacy took off, and in Brasilia, which should have had the jet descend to 36,000 feet and did not."
And the Federal Police now also publicly state there were no loop-d-loops: "Technical examinations have demonstrated that the Legacy's flight was linear, without abrupt maneuvers or risky tests," Globo quotes the Federal Police Chief Renato Sayao as saying.
Brazzil.com adds: "Sayao now is turning his attention to the Brazilian controllers."
If the controlers accelerate their protests in response, it will not be a good time to be flying in Brazil.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which has been conducting one of the independent investigations and has arrived at its major conclusions, categorically stated recently that all of the evidence shows there were no aerial maneuvers or stunt flying by the Legacy, which was level at 37,000 feet at time of impact.
But Wonderful Waldir -- to whom the Air Force and air traffic control report -- has steadfastly maintained that only mendacity on the part of the American pilots could have caused the accident. Brazilian air traffic control could in no way have been a cause, he has insisted.
But now the question is, who you gonna believe: the N.T.S.B. and the Brazilian Federal Police, or Wonderful Waldir & Co. trying to cover their butts while holding onto that honeypot of an air-control budget? What did these guys expect to find in Phoenix, after all of the independent experts have already made full reports? Maybe some yellow-cake uranium or a cache of aluminum tubes will turn up.
Now, at the risk of repeating myself (again), let me review the evidence that is currently not in dispute by anyone who isn't clinically delusional.
--One, the Legacy was flying at 37,000, on what would turn out to be be a collision course with the 737, under direct orders from flight control.
--Two, the Legacy tried unsuccessfully 19 times before the crash to raise air-traffic control near Brasilia.
--Three, in a colossal screw-up, overworked and undersupervised air traffic controllers at the Brasilia air traffic control center determined -- using equipment generally believed to be faulty -- that the Legacy was at 36,000 feet when it was actually at 37,000. The crash occurred in their sector.
--Four, Brazilian air traffic control radar and communications in the region where the crash occurred are notoriously unreliable.
--Five, I was ON the damn Legacy! If they'd have been doing loop-d-loops when we collided with a 737, I would have had one hell of a front-page story, wouldn't I?
On Sunday night, the Globo network's highly rated weekly show "Fantastico" presented irrefutable evidence of blind spots and dead zones in air traffic control in that region, just as pilots and other experts have been saying for two months.
"Fantastico" also dragged out still another frightened air traffic controller who said the Amazon has "thousands of square miles" that radar can't cover with accuracy. As colleagues have in the past, he said that flight controllers, nearly all of whom are in the military, are badly supervised, work long hours at lousy pay, and have to deal with old equipment for which there often is no money for repairs.
Wonderful Waldir, of course, had a retort. "Defense Minister Waldir Pires says that these blind spots or black holes are just inventions by those trying to discredit Brazil or his work," Brazzil.com reported earlier today.
By the way, New York Rep. Peter King, the Congressman who represents parts of Long Island, where the pilots are from and where the Legacy's owner, ExcelAire Service, is based, is now openly referring to the pilots as "hostages." He says he is working for their release and hoping to get the State Department to work with him a little more tenaciously.
The pilots Joe Lepore, 42, and Jan Paladino, 34, have now been held hostage for 60 days. Let's hope the Federal Police are good to their word.