Waldir Pires, Brazil's dazzling dissembler of a defense minister, the man chiefly responsible (abetted by hysterical elements of the Brazilian media) for villifying two American pilots for the Sept. 29 mid-air collision, might have some explaining to do next week. Let's see him fandango his way around the latest developments.
Most recent is a report from Sao Paulo today in which Brazil's biggest newspaper says the black box recorder from the private jet shows clearly that the American pilots were instructed by air traffic control to maintain an altitude of 37,000 feet (as the pilots have insisted all along).
That would seem to knock from their high horses the virulently anti-American elements who have brayed that the American pilots of the corporate jet that landed safely in the jungle, while the 154 on the commercial 737 died, were criminally culpable for the collision because they ignored air-traffic control orders. Some have even accused the corporate pilots of deliberately turning off air-to-ground communications equipment so they could play at "trick maneuvers" in the Amazon skies.
The pilots have insisted from Day One that they were under orders from air traffic control to maintain altitude at 37,000 feet, and that they lost contact with air traffic control after passing Brasilia. Shortly after the secret investigation began weeks ago, and before much evidence had been gathered, Minister Pires called the American pilots "frivolous" and "irresponsible" for insisting they were told to be at 37,000 feet.
Brazil air traffic control, the authorities harrumphed, could not have been responsible for putting the corporate jet on a collision course with the 737 because it is the world's finest, having recently been the subject of a $1.4 billion renovation. To question air traffic control was to insult the honor of Brazil, they said.
Those who did question the quality of Brazilian air traffic control -- and they would include dozens of international pilots I've heard from and several who stood up publicly in Brazil and said air traffic control has communications dead zones and other serious problems -- were called "frivolous" and "flippant" by the military authorities responsible for both running the system AND investigating accidents.
But according to the A.P. today, "The flight recorder transcript from the executive jet involved in Brazil's worst air disaster shows that the jet's American pilots were told by Brazilian air traffic control to fly at the same altitude as a Boeing 737 before the planes collided over the Amazon rain forest, the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper reported Thursday."
The pilots were instructed to maintain that altitude -- which put the Legacy 600 business jet directly on a path with the approaching 737 -- all the way to their destination in Manaus, that report says.
This comes a few days after 10 Brazilian air controllers who work at airports in Brasilia and Manaus, the two points between which the collision occurred, were finally asked to testify this week before the secret military tribunal investigating the crash. But the controllers en masse informed the authorities that they could not come in for testimony because they all are under psychiatric care until mid-November. Yup, as I said before, they called in sick.
Yesterday, I mentioned an online Brazilian magazine, Brazzil.com. Reading it, I get a much better sense of what Brazil is like -- full of emotion and energy, bursting with opinion yet constantly working on its national self-esteem. The comments following the stories are flippant, frivolous and often uproarious, including the anti-American ones. But they're not all anti-American. "Now Brazil you must look at your third-world air traffic control system" one fellow posted today under the story about the American pilots receiving authorization to maintain 37,000 feet altitude. "In fact, it was not the professional American pilots who killed your citizens, but your lazy, incompetent and probably drunk controllers ..." That's a little harsh, I would say, but it does give me an sense of another Brazil than the one I see in the hate mail piled up in my inbox.
Another poster: "For the true knuckle-dragging Che Guevara-t-shirt-wearing Brazilian-imperialist-Yank-hater, put down your rope and back away from the tree. It looks like there will be no lynching this time around and you'll need anoither issue to kick-start your revolution."
That more than makes up for the "Die Assassin Pig" e-mails, including one I got today warning me that "it will be dangerous for you if you visit Brazil again."
You know what? I was in detention most of the time I spent in Brazil. I think I'd probably love the place if I didn't have to spend nights in a police station.
Meanwhile, back to the collision, there is a key point that I do not undertand, and am not taking a tendentious attitude toward. I keep reading stories, including the one today in Folha de Sao Paulo, that declare that the transponder on the Legacy was not working as it passed through Brasilia's air space.
Is this so? I keep reading it, but so far I have not seen one account that points to evidence that the Legacy transponder, a key piece of equipment that helps link electronic communications between air and ground, was not operating. "Inoperable transponder" just keeps getting repeated, without attribution for the information. If that information is out there (from a reliable source, not from some delusional Internet know-nothing) I sure would like to know about it.
The American pilots remain in detention in Rio, where they have been held without charge since shortly after the collision. Where, by the way, is the American embassy in all of this?.
My guess is the humiliated authorities will try to untangle this Amazonian knot with a proclamation that will say something like this: "We can't say for sure what occurred. Everybody is a little bit responsible, including air traffic control, the four pilots [two now dead, of course, and unable to defend themselves with "flippant" statements] and a broken transponder -- so let's just seal the books, move on and fix what needs to be fixed and forget about it."
Nuh-uh. I want answers. I was on that Legacy.