Monday, December 04, 2006


No, not THAT fix! Surely you don't expect the harrumphing third-world martinets marching around in Brazil to actually FIX their broken air-traffic control system! Don't be silly! This would require the uncomfortable prospect of the Brazilian authorities actually accepting responsibility, not to mention the perhaps equally unsettling prospect of spending money that could more tidily fit in other pockets.

No, I mean the fix that I suspected was in starting shortly after those of us who survived in the Legacy 600 business jet made an emergency landing at a jungle air base on Sept. 29, after the mid-air collision with a 737, in which all 154 people on the 737 died.

Now that the pesky facts have accumulated and it's clear this crash was caused by a series of air-traffic control mistakes of catastrophic proportions, the Federal Police in Amazonian Wonderland appear to be considering laying primary blame on ... yes, you guessed it: the American pilots -- even though they were flying at 37,000 feet under air-traffic control instructions, which by all international aviation protocols take precedence over a previously filed flight plan. Why am I flashing on "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" and imagining a bandito spitting out: "We don't need no protocols! I don't have to show you any stinkin' protocols!"

[LATER NOTE: DO please keep in mind, as someone who knows Brazil well just warned me after I first posted this about an hour ago, that the following may be excessively alarmist, and that Brazilian media are very easily manipuilated. (Surprise!) So the following Folha account -- conspicuously lacking in definitive sourcing for what purports to be a news story -- might well reflect some wily massaging by lawyers for the air traffic controllers who have been spinning like a top trying to deflect blame from their anguished, grieving boys and girls.]

The following is being reported today in Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil's largest newspaper. The slightly wobbly translation is via The rude annotations, marked MY NOTE, are by me:

Folha de São Paulo – December 4th

Headline: Federal police must blame pilots, radars and controllers

Sub headline: Inquiry must conclude that a sum of factors caused the collision between Gol Boeing and Legacy

According to the police, flight plan should have been followed and Legacy wrong altitude realized by the operators; "blind area" would be other cause.

The Federal Police inquiry about the collision between Gol plane and the little jet, on September 29, lead to blame several involved in the accident, including flight controllers and Legacy crew, besides stressing the existing failures in the Aeronautics radar systems.

The marshal responsible for the case, Renato Sayão, considers that there was not a simply failure neither a unique guilty, but a series of "causal vectors" that led to the collision between both planes. [MY NOTE: To those of us on the up side of the rabbit hole, "causal vectors" translates as something like the the military term "cluster-f---."]

The Legacy pilots should have followed the flight plan or insisted in contacting the control center of Brasília, when overflying the city, to change altitude.

After leaving São José dos Campos, Legacy followed at 37 thousand feet until colliding with Boeing in Mato Grosso, disrespecting the flight plan that foresaw a descent at 36 thousand feet after Brasília and ascent to 38 thousand feet little before the collision. The jet pilots allege that they received authorization to fly at 37 thousand until Manaus. [MY NOTE: This is more than a case of the pilots "alleging" something. It's clearly on the record that the controller in Sao Jose told them to maintain 37,000 feet all the way to Manaus, and that controllers in Brasila failed to contradict that order despite repeated attempts by the Legacy pilots to get confirmation. Back to Folha:]

According to depositions seized by the Federal Police, one of the flight controllers did not realize that the system automatically corrected automatically the virtual flight plan of Legacy when it passed by Brasília, showing foreseen altitudes and not the real.

The Legacy transponder, a tragic coincidence, was inoperative at that moment and the data about its altitude was taken from the system. [MY NOTE: Notice the passive voice here: "the data ... was taken from the system." A more honest read would be: "The inexperienced flight controller monitoring the Legacy, without the required supervision, was misreading the data from a monitor that shows only the flight plan, and totally overlooked the reality monitor, which showed the Legacy at 37,000 for at least seven minutes before the computer system went, as is its wont, heywire. Folha again:]

One of the controllers that was on duty in Brasília on the day of the accident, affirmed that he did not request Legacy to change its altitude because he thought the little jet was at 36 thousand feet, as foreseen in the flight plan, and "because there was not other traffic [plane] in the proximities". Gol Boeing, however, flew in opposite direction. [MY NOTE: Oh, that would then mean that there was, in fact, "other traffic in the proximities." And I would define "proximities" as a course that caused the two planes to achieve the ultimate "proximity:" a mid-air collision. But back to Folha's account:]

A third factor is that the Aeronautics radars system present failures in the region between Mato Grosso and Manaus, where there are "blind areas."

In short, according to the Federal Police, the accident would not have occurred if:

1 - Legacy crew had respected the flight plan or insisted in contacting Brasília's Center;
2 - The flight controllers had detected that Legacy flew at a different altitude than the foreseen in the flight plan. Thus, without even managing to get in touch with the little jet, could have warned Gol Boeing so that it could have diverted of the route;
3 - If there were not "blind areas" between radars, the flight controllers could have detected that the little jet was not flying at the foreseen altitude.

[MY NOTE: Yes, the Keystone Kops appear to be arguing, air traffic control screwed up royally, and yes, there are indeedy "blind areas." [For nearly two months, the Brazilian authorities have been squealing that even to suggest the existence of a radar blind zone was to insult the honor of Brazil. But lookit who gets the number-one position in the blame list, at least as Folha has been told:]

The pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, who have now been held hostage in Brazil for 66 days.



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