Sunday, December 03, 2006


The weekly Brazilian magazine Epoca has a long interview with two air traffic controlers, both of whom requested anonymity, who were in the Brasila air traffic control center when the Legacy 600 business jet being monitored there collided with a Gol Airlines 737 over the Amazon Sept. 29. Several other Brazilian publications and the Globo television network also talked to controllers, all of whom told the same story: Brazil's notoriously faulty air traffic control system, with dead zones and chronic communications problems, caused this disaster.

(Some publications in Brazil were thick with condemnations of me starting two months ago when I began quoting international pilots who said that Brazilian air space, especially over the Amazon, is notoriously risky to navigate because of bad communications with air traffic control, noise and idle Portuguese chatter on radios, and blind radar spots.)

Epoca says the controllers "talk about failures in the equipment that, according to them, would have been decisive in the largest disaster of Brazilian aviation history."

The magazine quotes "Controller B," who was on duty when the Brasilia center lost track of the 737 bound southeast from Manaus at 37,000 feet in "the blind zone," while simultaneously believing an incorrect monitor reading that showed the Legacy bound northwest to Manaus at 36,000 feet -- 1,000 feet below its actual altitude (the altitutude it had been instructed by air traffic control to fly at from departure to destination).

Only after the damaged Legacy made an emergency landing at a jungle air base 30 minutes after the accident, reporting it had collided with something unknown, did the controllers put 2 and 2 together.

"One of the controllers in the Rio de Janeiro region started to cry [on the radio]," Controller B said. "Then the whole center [in Brasilia] was crying. A psychologist should have arrived by then, but nobody showed."

Controller A said, "There were people crying and asking to leave."

{MY NOTE: I would tell poor, grief-stricken Controllers A and B: Actually, you should have continued doing your jobs, with an airliner down and 154 dead in the jungle, rather than wailing in tears and waiting for a psychologist to comfort you.

{Furthermore, I would tell the whole bunch, Controllers A through Z: You and your anguished colleagues damn well should have stood up TWO MONTHS AGO and told the truth -- back when the cover-up and the scapegoating of the American pilots began. What's more, the lot of you, and especially your sad-sack superiors, up to and including Wonderful Waldir Pires, the Defense Minister, ought to have already done the minimum that decency demands and issued an apology to the families of the dead. But, oh, I forgot. That would require accepting responsibility.}

But I digress. Let's hear more via Epoca from Controller A, who was actually monitoring both flights at his station: "The Legacy flight was normal. We only thought about an accident ... when Legacy landed in Serra do Cachimbo [site of the Cachimbo Air Base] and got in contact saying that it made an emergency landing because it hit something. .. Do you know why we did not do anything [earlier, just before and after the Gol disappeared]? Because we visualized Legacy at 360 [36,000 feet] and not at 370."

The transponder on the Legacy, he said, was evidently not working at the time. [A transponder helps air traffic control identify a plane, but a transponder failure in and of itself would not cause air traffic control to put two planes on a mid-air collision course. It would only help ensure the inevitable once air traffic control had made enough fatal mistakes on the ground.]

Controller B said the Brasilia center tried unsuccessfully to contact the Legacy to warn it that its transponder wasn't working "because the aircraft was [about] to enter an area that the radar did not cover."

Controller B continued. "I even remember that one of the controllers asked, 'What is the Legacy level?' And another said, '360.'"

You might remember that Wonderful Waldir and his cronies have thundered over and over that there are no "blind spots" in Brazil's magnificent air control system. What an insult to the honor of modern, progressive Brazil, to speak of these "blind spots!" The Air Force, indeed, said it flew an airplane all around the area of the mid-air collision between Brasilia and Manaus and found no "blind spots," a commander bellowed.

Both controllers interviewed by Epoca begged to disagree (as have many of their colleagues and every airline pilot I have spoken to about flying over the Amazon). And both said the Brasila center lost radio contact as the Legacy passed through its sector in what would turn out to be a collision course with the 737.

Said Controller B, "On that day, the [radio] frequency of that area [the impact point] was without transmission and without reception." Controller B continued that under normal circumstances, "Communication is not clear. This is very dangerous."

In fact, the same day as the crash, added Controller A, two commercial TAM Airlines flights in the sector reported problems communicating with the air traffic control center. After finally getting through, "the first thing they said: 'Brasila, I tried for a half hour to talk to you on all frequencies and did not get in contact.'"

Such transmissions are routinely recoded, Controller A said, adding: "But nobody is going to release this information. They can even have erased it."

Said Controller B: "The blind zone exists. It is a very large area, greater than several states [of Brazil]. ... It is a big rectangle in the middle of the country."

This, he said, is a situation air traffic controllers face: "[He] who sees does not control and [he] who controls does not see."

Brasil, by the way, is about the size of the continental U.S.

Incidentally, in the translations I've seen, Brazilian journalists focus on the emotional aspect of the air controllers' story ("We were stricken!") and don't ask the tough questions, including, why did you remain silent all this time and, Brasila had initial radio contact with the Legacy when it entered its sector at 37,000 feet under orders from San Jose, its departing sector, with orders to maintain 370 all the way to Manaus. Knowing that its equipment was not trustworthy, why didn't Brasilia routinely verify the altitude with the Legacy pilots before it sent them into the blind zone?

Meanwhile, the newspaper O Globo and its television network partner reported that an unnamed controller from the Brasilia center (there is no way to tell if it might be one of the two controllers quoted in Epoca) said that Brazil's air traffic system remains manifestly unsafe. "The bomb is on again," he said. "It is going to explode. It already happened and it is going to happen again."

So there are in fact blind zones? "The area is blind, deaf and dumb," the controller said.

That controller, too, seems to be peering at the looking glass there in the Amazonian wonderland and seeing nothing more than his own aggrieved reflection. "I don't want anyone to go through this experience," he said, presumably referring not to the experience of dying in a horrible crash, or even the experience of being held hostage and falsely accused, but rather the experience of being an air traffic controller in the system that actually caused the crash.

Asked how he's been doing, the controller replies, "Very bad. I only think about what hurts me. ... It's just this injustice in life. You ask yourself why it was me who was chosen to be there at that moment; why it wasn't someone else? ... The emotional side is injured."

Perhaps the emotional side would feel better if it had not abetted the coverup for so long. Excuse me while I call Amnesty International to report the injustices suffered by this man wailing in the control center and waiting for psychological comfort while 154 others lay dead in the jungle.

Meanwhile, the coverup continues in Brazil, with air traffic controllers who ARE willing to speak having to do so like members of the witness protection program in the old mob days in the U.S.

The authorities scramble to cover their butts. The air traffic controllers continue work-to-rule protests to underscore both their concerns about unsafe working conditions and their fears that blame will be directed to them, and not to the broken system they try against the odds to keep working.

The two pilots, both from Long Island, remain under virtual house-arrest in a hotel in Rio. The U.S. State Department, as noted in yesterday's post, doesn't seem remotely interested in raising any commotion about the case.

And Joe Lepore, 42, and Jan Paladino, 34, have now been held hostage in Brazil for 65 days.


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