Saturday, November 04, 2006


We have two parrots and when I get home from the airport one of the great joys in my life is to see my wife at the door with the parrots. Kisses all around. Petey, the rambunctuous blue-and-gold macaw, shrieks like a little girl and flaps his wings with great grace and beauty, the way his cousins in the rainforests of Brazil, where this kind of parrot is native to, do on those long swooping twilight mass flights over the Amazon.

Rosie, the younger and far more talkative African gray, gives up a little kiss, but she usually says this: "Joesharkey 97344823667." I know, it sounds like a prisoner's number. And sometimes she changes the numbers and either adds or subtracts some after the first "973," which is, in fact, our area code. But what she's really doing is greeting me by essentially repeating what she hears me say on the telephone when I'm leaving someone a message: Name and phone number. She calls me "Joesharkey," one word. When I'm gone, she asks my wife, "Where's Joesharkey," though when my wife is away, she asks me, "Where's Nancy?"

I'm not sure what I want you to make of that, except that I am trying to convey the joy of being alive and being home from a long trip to Tucson, and the irony that one of the joys in my life, besides a wife I adore, are two parrots, including the boisterous blue-and-gold macaw, Petey, who simply radiates the energy, happiness contentiousness, confoundedness and full-blown Amazonian essence of Brazil (even if his shrieking, flapping, squawking and unprovoked dancing do at times affirm that he is operating under the power of a bird brain).

O.K., back to the actual Brazil. And to my new favorite online magazine, the Gracie Allen of Brazilian journals,

As anyone following this story knows, it is now no longer in any serious dispute that the two American pilots of the business jet that collided with a 737 over the Amazon on Sept. 29 had been instructed by Brazilian air traffic control to maintain an altitude of 37,000 feet. The 737 that collided with the business jet, and on which 154 people plunged to horrible deaths, was also authorized to be at 37,000 feet --in the exact opposite direction.

During the more than two days I spent in Brazil with those two pilots after the mid-air collision, and consistently afterward, they insisted that they were flying at the altitude they had been ordered to maintain by air traffic control. For this, they were denounced as "flippant" and "impertinent" by a Brazilian defense minister who is among those in charge of the investigation.

Now, other factors besides misfeasant or malfeasant air-traffic control may have contributed to this disaster. There is lots of talk -- but no evidence that I've seen so far -- that the business jet's transponder communications device may have been faulty. If so, this might help account for why the plane was out of contact with air traffic control at the collision crash site roughly between Brasilia and Manaus. (On the other hand, incompetence or technological fault at Brasilia or Manaus air traffic control could also account for this). The transponder issue, if it is indeed an issue, would almost certainly be a mechanical fault. Civil litigation, it can be said without hesitation, would ensue. You don't want to be caught in the stampede of the lawyers to the courthouse door.

Yet the two American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, are still being held without charges by the Brazilian authorities. Yes, I know they are not technically under "arrest." They are holed up in a hotel in Rio, unable to leave their rooms because a Brazilian media mob quivering with anti-American hysteria would immediately be alerted by one of those paid informers who sit in the lobby with their cell phones ready.

Some Brazilian authorities have denounced me for insisting the pilots are being detained. Maybe they have a different word for it in Portuguese. Are they free to leave Brazil? Well, no. In English, the definition of that is "detained."

Newsday, the pilots' hometown paper, reports today that the pilots remain in "legal limbo" because three separate investigations are continuing into the crash, amid squabbling over "which one will take the lead."

"I think we're paralyzed," Theo Diaz, a Sao Paulo lawyer for the pilots, told the Long Island newspaper. "The Federal Police want evidence from the Air Force; the Air Force won't give it, and the judge says he doesn't know if he has jurisdiction."

Man, I hear that. After the collision, as soon as we made the emergency landing in the damaged Legacy 600 corporate jet at an obscure Air Force base in the Amazon, it became abundantly clear to me that various jurisdictions were battling for a piece of the action. That was reinforced late the next afternoon, when we were all flown from the air base hundreds of miles south to police headquarters in Mato Grosso, where we were questioned till after dawn. The assemblage of regional police and civil panjandrums that greeted us there was slightly reminiscent of that Marx Brothers movie set in Freedonia. And everybody wanted to get into the act.

Meanwhile, my new favorite online magazine, the combative, tenacious, energetic, highly democratic and occasionally batty is out today with a new story headlined: "Brazil Admits 'Imprecision' But Doesn't Exonerate U.S. Pilots from Blame."

The Brazilian Air Force confirmed that air traffic control authoritzed the Legacy to fly at 37,000 feet to Manaus, reports, adding "Brazilian authorities, however, don't call their mistake an error, but just an imprecision."

I had a look at the schematics the Brazilian Air Force has drawn up showing how (but not why) the crash occurred. The left wing of the 737 is shown clipping the left wing of the Legacy at its winglet. A good 10 feet of the 737 wing is then shorn off, and strikes the Legacy tail as the 737 flips and plummets to the jungle.

It's very precise. Had the 737 wing been pitched 10 inches lower, my parrots would be wondering today when the hell Joesharkey was coming home.

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