Back in the days before piety replaced curiosity as the driving impulse of the news business, the current situation in Brazil would have made for great reporting: A horrendous mid-air collision with 154 tragically dead and an obvious coverup to scapegoat two American pilots who were detained for two months without charge and escaped the clutches of the crazed Brazilian media during a high-speed chase to the airport, all accompanied by a tuba quintet of harrumphing Brazilian brass hats.
Ah, but those days are gone. Now we have stenography to inform us, accompanied by a whispered admonition, as if in the incensed fog of High Mass, to wait for the Authorities to speak before making a judgment based on one's own reasoning.
Where to begin anew?
Oh, I know. First let's hear from good old Wonderful Waldir Pires, the Brazilian defense minister responsible for the air traffic control system that basically collapsed in Brazil after controllers, afraid that the blame for the accident might shift where it belongs (to them), threw a prolonged workplace tantrum starting in early October.
Wonderful Waldir, you might remember, was the genuis responsible for the crackpot theory that the accident could only have been caused by the American pilots executing wild loop-d-loops in the business jet that collided with the Gol 737 airliner, killing all 154 people on the 737.
From O Estado de S. Paulo, Brazil's largest newspaper:
"Augusto Nardes, minister of the Union Accounts Court, said yesterday that he heard the minister of defense, Waldir Pires, affirming that [it] 'is necessary [to have] much faith, pray a little,' so the crisis in the air sector will be solved [by] the end of year."
Last Friday, the Brazilian police, in a remake of a Keystone Kops short subject, desperately slapped the two pilots with a bizarre charge -- basically, "failing to ensure the safety of Brazilian air space" -- on the day a court had ordered their release.
This came after a six-hour session at federal police headquarters during which the pilots refused to answer questions because they were informed at the onset that they would be formally accused no matter what they said. Once the pilots got their passports back late that afternoon, they were driven to the airport in Sao Paulo where a private jet waited. The drive to the airport was a high-speed chase, with Brazilian media in hot pursuit until they were foiled by a squad of mounted police at the gate where the private jet waited.
The private jet was a surprise to the pursuing media, who had assumed the pilots would leave Brazil on the early evening American Airlines nonstop to New York. In fact, a handful of Brazilian reporters had bought tickets on that flight, figuring they could corner the pilots on the nine hour trip home.
(There was some extra anxiety on the pilots' end, incidentally. Private jets can't take off after 6 p.m. in Sao Paulo, and as the police inquiry stretched into late afternoon there was some question about whether they'd get out to beat the deadline).
Then a gathering of about 200 relatives and friends to welcome the returning pilots back home at MacArthur Airport in Long Island last Saturday was portrayed in the Brazilian media as a "celebration party" that insulted the honor of Brazil and the memory of the 154 who died. The Brazilian media implied that the pilots -- detained for 70 days without charge or evidence of charge while the police frantically cobbled together their bizarre accusation during that final day's sesssion -- should have skulked home in disgrace, rather than into the welcome embrace of wives, children, parents, other relatives, friends.
You can't make this stuff up.
Meanwhile, certain elements of the media, abroad and even here, now have their steno pads out once more.
Never mind that every invesigation so far has shown a clear breakdown in air-traffic control on the ground leading to the crash. Never mind that it is not in dispute that air traffic control ordered the business jet to maintain 37,000 feet on a direct collision course with a 737 that was out of touch in a notorious radar and radio blind zone over the Amazon that authorities refused to concede even existed. And never mind that during the 70 days the pilots were detained, with all of the preliminary investigations long completed, no evidence was produced against them.
Memories are so short, with so much to keep track of! Every day, in so much of the media, the world is new, without context! No, today's story is that a malfunction of the transponder on the Legacy 600 business jet was the main cause of the crash.
Now, I guarantee you that the transponder on that airplane will be shown to have malfunctioned -- and that this will become known as one of the factors that FAILED TO PREVENT a horrible collision. But that mid-air collision had already been firmly set in motion by egregious human and systems errors in Brazil's air-traffic control system, which is now widely acknowledged as riddled with major faults.
How could such a thing happen? Well, pilots have been telling me for two months that they are amazed it doesn't happen more often. Not just in Brazil, but all over.
And how could a transponder fail without notice? Easy, given the blind faith engineers have placed in avionics technology, which many pilots claim is inadvertently creating a safety hazard in the air.
However, for the coverup to continue in Brazil, as it will, it must be accepted that 1. Air-traffic control was not the main culprit and 2. The American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, were grossly negligent or criminally responsible for turning off the transponder or failing to notice that it was not operarting correctly.
Why would any pilot in his right mind do that?
Oh, I forgot, to do "loop-d-loops" over the vast Amazon skies! Yes, we are back to the loop-d-loops, folks. From yesterday's O Estado de S. Paulo:
"Up to now there is not a plausible explanation about what led the equipment to stop working. ... That reinforces the suspicions that rose soon after the tragedy that the device would have been turned off by the American pilots, although inadvertently, for [the purpose of] not [following] procedures or to 'test' the jet, making maneuvers."
Yes, the Brazilians will probably throw a couple of hapless air-traffic controllers over the side as a token gesture. But it's pretty clear that as of now, the coverup continues and the systemic problems affecting Brazil's air-traffic control system are being swept under the rug. And, as I have suspected from day one when we made an emergency landing at a jungle air base, the fix is in.
Coming soon: Which Brazilian federal police official was once locked in the trunk of his car by four hookers?