Sunday, November 26, 2006


I think I have said this here before, but it bears repeating: The only thing I know about airplanes is how to sit in one. And the only authority I bring to the discussion over what happened on Sept. 29 at 37,000 feet over the Amazon is based on two things:

1. I was a witness, and am so far the only one of the seven survivors who's been free to talk and write publicly about this event, which came to dominate this little travel blog that I started writing, just for fun, in August.

2. From day one, I sensed that the fix was in to scapegoat the two American pilots. And then the Defense Minister of Brazil and other authorities began seriously making wild charges, such as the now utterly discredited allegation (which went unchallenged in the media for about a month) that the American pilots caused the horrendous crash because they were doing "stunt maneuvers" in the sky to show off the new Legacy 600 jet. So I decided to get tough here about what I saw going on there, even though I knew it would guarantee the continuation of my very much unwanted role as a punching bag for a small contingent of anti-American hysterics in Brazil.

Now I sense we might be reaching the end game, though the pilots are still being held and, it's clear, the authorities are seriously worried that releasing the pilots will further rile up the very angry Brazilian air traffic controllers, who have been creating massive air-traffic delays in a month-long protest over poor and unsafe working conditions that began in the aftermath of the Sept. 29 disaster.

But developments in Brazil are moving fast. No longer does it create a virtual international incident to suggest that, as many pilots have told me, the Brazilian air-traffic control system is broken and badly in need of repair. The official in charge of all air traffic control centers and his No. 2 man were both fired last week by Brazil's president, and there's speculation in the media that the Defense Minister, President Lula's good friend "Wonderful" Waldir Pires, himself will be out soon.

Anyone who knows anything about aviation accidents figures that disasters like this are usually caused by a series of events, some human and some technological, some small and some not so small. But it's now also clear that the core problem on Sept. 29 was a series of air-traffic-control mistakes that put both planes on a direct collision course.

If you're plowing through these very long posts regularly, that says you're awfully interested in what happened. If you want to read what a lot of the real experts -- pilots and other aviation professionals -- are saying, let me suggest a smart forum called Professional Pilots Rumour Network. (Click "Rumours and News"). Normally, I'd be hesitant to publicize this site because I'd be afraid of siccing the crazies on them. But the crazies (ever alert are they) are already in there posting their batty anti-American comments along with the serious aviation professionals. Luckily the forum is well-supervised and most of its particpants were raised well by their parents. It makes for very interesting reading, especially if you're looking for discourse on the technical aspects of the accident. I read it just to learn more from the experts, whether factually or in informed speculation. I wouldn't think of posting anything on it myself.

O.K. Now here are a few news updates from and about this situation in Brazil. (Also, if you're planning to travel to Brazil, air-traffic perils aren't the only thing you need to be concerned about. See two items just off the police blotter at the end of this post.)

--IFATCA, the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations, has issued a strong statement deriding authorities' assertions that Brazilian air-traffic-control is a world-class operation.

"IFATCA believes that operators in the air (the pilots) and on the ground (the controllers) fell victim to unacceptable systems traps brought on by 'non-error-tolerant' and 'bad system design' of air traffic control and flight equipment in use. We are confident that our statements concerning this equipment are accurate, and said equipment is responsible for starting the fatal chain of events of Sept. 29, 2006..." the statement says in part.

Decrying the ongoing "counterproductive blame game," the group called for the pilots' release. "IFATCA urges the Brazilian authorities to release immediately the two U.S. pilots held in Brazil," it said, adding "Incarceration without justification will do little to foster an environment of mutual trust and respect that is needed to carry out a successful investigation."

The full statement can be found at

[And yes, I will soon learn how to make a live link on this blog. Sorry.]

-- Brazilians are bracing for further air-travel delays as the controllers continue their protests and as the holiday and summer travel seasons approach. (The start of summer coincides with the year-end holidays in the southern hemisphere). "The turbulence is going to get worse," Rodrigo Rangel writes in the weekly Isto E. The controllers protest "is placing Brazil and its average annual traffic of 83 million passengers on the list of the most dangerous places in the world for landings, takeoffs and transit in the air, according to international organizations of aeronautical control."

Isto E mentioned a couple of recent so-called "near misses," including a very embarrassing one on Nov. 13 when a TAM commercial flight was suddenly ordered to take evasive action to avoid colliding with "Wonderful" Waldir Pires' Air Force Lear jet near Brasilia.

The Isto E report goes on to note that Brazil currently has 2,600 air traffic controllers. Fifteen years ago, it had 3,200 -- and air traffic has doubled since then.

The Isto E story quotes by name an official of the air traffic controllers association, a sergeant who spoke of the "system's collapse with the saturation of our air space, our control capacity and our human resources."

-- The weekly Epoca reports:
"Pilots and flight controllers report that the transmission frequencies are 'of lousy qualilty' between Brasilia and Manaus. 'Starting at a milestone known as Teres (approximately 480 kilometers north of Brasilia) there is a real blackout,' said the pilot of a large airline company. 'It only ends when the plane approaches Manaus.'"
Epoca adds: "This is precisely the area above the region of Serra do Cachimbo where the collision between the Gol Boeing and the Legacy Jet took place."

--From Veja, Brazil's largest magazine, November 25: ... "The route between Brasilia and Manaus has so-called "dead areas," in which radio voice communications are inoperative for up to 15 minutes. In other words, the pilots and flight controllers do not get in contact. The radars have blind zones -- Brazil spent $1.4 billion on the Vigilance System of Amazonia [my note, this is partly a system, built by Raytheon, for detecting airborne drug traffic] but there are still blind zones in the Amazon region in which the radar does not manage to detect the planes in the sky. The accident with Gol Boeing occurred in one of these blind zones. Parts of radar that cover other regions have more than 20 years of use and do not receive adequate maintenance. ..."

--And if you think air-traffic control chaos is the only thing to worry about if you're traveling in Brazil, consider these items just off the police blotter:

--Sunday, November 26 -- A group of 18 British tourists were robbed of all their hand luggage just minutes after leaving the airport while still in the bus that was taking them to their hotel in Copacabana Saturday night. They were on their way to the hotel when their bus was cut off by a vehicle with four men inside. After cutting in front of the bus, three men who identified themselves as policemen ordered the bus driver to open the door. The driver told police that one of the robbers was carrying a grenade while the others had a gun. Once inside the bus their first action was to hit one of the tourists with the gun butt. They then proceeded to take all the hand luggage the tourists were carrying. (My note: This is the third time this year that an airport-hotel shuttle carrying tourists has been robbed in a similar manner).


--RIO DE JANEIRO, November 24 (Xinhua) -- Brazilian police on Friday found the body of a kidnapped Italian entrepreneur Vicenzo Nazzaro on the floor of an apartment in downtown Blumenau, in the southern state of Santa Catarina. ... The 55-year-old Nazzaro, who owned 42 properties in Santa Catarina, was kidnapped along with his sister-in-law on Thursday evening after arriving at the airport in the state's capital of Florianopolis. Two men, who identified themselves as federal agents, pretended to have orders to arrest the entrepreneur and the woman, and took them to the apartment in Blumenau. They demanded $200,000 from Nazzaro. The sister-in-law was sent to another town to get the money but did not return in time to prevent the visiting entrepreneur from being murdered.


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