Friday, May 11, 2007

Brazil: Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition, Not Even the Keystone Kops

Remember that classic Monty Python sketch, "The Spanish Inquisition?" My favorite part is when one of the befuddled inquisitor-cardinals keeps forgetting what their chief lines of attack are:

"NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!
Our chief weapon is surprise ... surprise and fear ... fear and surprise...Our two weapons are fear and surprise ...and ruthless efficiency ...
Our THREE weapons are fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency...
And an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope ...
Our four ... no ...
AMONGST our weapons, ... Amongst our weaponry ...Are such elements as fear, surprise ...
I'll come in again."

Well, now lookit the Federal Police in Brazil, who were ridiculed here yesterday for their asinine statements laying the blame for the tragic Sept. 29 mid-air collision solely on the two American pilots of the business jet, whose transponder was not signaling.

The Federal Police 800-page report recommended criminal prosecution of and assigned blame to the pilots, and the pilots only -- even though it is abundantly clear that a series of critical human errors and systems failures on the ground, at air traffic control, set the collision in place between two aircraft flying head-on into each other at 37,000 feet.

The report dutifully makes note of this astonishing chain of events, since the air-traffic control screw-ups leading to this crash are no longer in dispute even in Brazil. But the Federal Police did not investigate air traffic control; in their report, they merely noted what's already known. Oddly enough, the Federal Police see only two culprits: The American pilots.

'Air traffic control error is none of our concern,' the Keystone Kops effectively said. 'It is strictly a matter for the military' (which runs air traffic control).

Or is it? Now the Keystone Kops ... I mean the Federal Police seem to be on the public-relations defensive after taking heat for this indefensible stance. It is, as I said earlier, a crock to contend that the Federal Police cannot investigate and charge military air traffic controllers.

The International Federation of Airlines Pilots Associations reacted to the Federal Police inquiry with utter astonishment in a statement yesterday that called the Federal Police investigation "fundamentally flawed." It said, "the decision by the Policia Federal to exclude the military from their investigation is a staggering oversight."

The worldwide pilots' group says it is "outraged" by the police report. So the Federal Police have now gone into a defensive crouch (till this, too, blows over as the clamor for the pilots' heads continues. Watch the lawyers and representatives for the victims' relatives, desperate to keep blame solely on the Americans, take center stage next).

And get the logic reported in the story below. A police official now says (though not in the report), "The pilots' mission is to fly without collision and that of the controllers is to avoid collision, but both sides failed and, therefore, are to blame in equal proportions."

Hey, Sherlock! Whatever happened to all that "forensic" detail? And when your 'case' is attacked, you respond with that loony non-sequitur?

Furthermore, all of this talk of "blame" contradicts a basic principle of worldwide aviation safety:

It is a fundamental mistake for political or police authorities to rush to criminalize an accident before competent, independent aviation investigators have concluded their inquiries.

What you get a rush to assign criminal blame is precisely what you got in Brazil: The air traffic controllers lawyered-up (and even shrinked-up, after they claimed en masse last year to be suffering from certified psychological trauma and thus unable to testify to military investigators) while the military harrumphed and blew blasts of hot air about the pilots possibly doing criminal aerial maneuvers over the Amazon.

Are the skies of Brazil any safer now than they were on Sept. 29? Of course not. They are arguably less so, now that the controllers have gone to ground, while occasionally engaging in disruptive tactics to show they won't accept any blame.

And none of the problems that were exposed by this awful disaster -- bad radar coverage, dark radio zones, faulty equipment at ATC centers, untrained, poorly paid and badly supervised controllers who even have to take time out from their work day to march around in military drills -- has been addressed.

And Wonderful Waldir Pires -- he of the "illegal aerial maneuvers and stunts" delusion -- is still the Defense Minister.

Anyway, here, with translation from our Sao Paulo bureau chief Richard Pedicini, you can see the Federal police spinning -- "the Defense ministry is dragging its heels!" -- as fed to O Estado today (and dutifully transcribed in a few brief accounts in the U.S. media). Note the usual dodgy lack of attribution for certain ... adjustments ... in the narrative, making it unclear what's in the report and what's being spun in a second-day ploy to tamp down the derision.


Federal Police denies having shielded controllers
According to police, inquiry finds
at least three operators had responsibility comparable to pilots
Vannildo Mendes, BRASILIA

The Federal Police inquiry into the collision between the Legacy and the Gol Boeing, in which 154 people died, attributes to the Cindacta-1 (Brasilia) air traffic controllers the same degree of guilt for the accident as is conferred on the American pilots Joe Lepore and Jan Paul Paladino. Of the ten who were on duty in Brasilia on September 29, at least three had a larger share of responsibility and should be accused of crimes, without intent. They can receive from 2 to 5 years of prison, the same penalty foreseen for the pilots, in the event they are convicted. The others may be held responsible to a lesser degree.

But the controllers will have to be tried by the military courts. As it does not have the power to investigate members of the military, the Federal Police can only accuse the Legacy pilots. Policemen who participated in the investigation have thought it strange that up to now the Air Force has not opened a criminal investigation to determine the controllers' degree of responsibility.

Military prosecutor Giovanni Rattacaso, even though he has not been called on either by the Air Force or any other institution, sees elements to indict the operators on duty on the day of the accident for
doubly aggravated homicide (failure to observe rules of craft or profession and multiple victims). Rattacaso understands that, although the main cause of the accident was the involuntary turning off of the transponder by the pilots, as shown in the inquiry, the controllers also had the duty to take measures to avoid the collision.

The final report on the accident was delivered Wednesday by inspector Renato Sayão to the federal court in Sinop, in Mato Grosso, where the inquiry was begun.The Federal Police investigation points to a series of errors by the controllers, from the takeoff from the base at São José dos Campos with the United States as destination. The flight authorization included incomplete instructions, inducing the pilots to believe that they could fly at 37,000 feet in the entire route, when they should have descended to 36,000 feet in Brasilia and climbed to 38,000 feet 400 kilometers ahead, as foreseen by the original flight plan.

When the Legacy flew over Brasilia, a controller had the opportunity to verify that the jet was at 37,000 feet, but did not check the correct altitude not did he give clear instructions to descend to 36,000 feet. He had deduced, negligently, that the pilots would descend on their own. Another controller perceived the loss of data on the secondary radar - which gives the plane's precise altitude - but did not advise the pilots.

This controller passed to the colleague who relieved him at shift change the information that the Legacy was flying at 36,000 feet and following the flight plan. The operator who took over the work, for his part, believed the information without checking it and only a half hour later, on seeing that the jet's altitude was incorrect, tried to take measures. But he acted imprudently on trying to make contact with the jet. He did not succeed and attempted no alternative measures. "The pilots' mission is to fly without colliding and that of the controllers is to avoid collision, but both sides failed and, therefore, are to blame in equal proportions", said a policeman.

The International Federation of Airline Pilots (IFALPA) yesterday harshly criticized the inquiry's conclusion that asked for the pilots to be accused. IFALPA called the "exclusion of the military from the investigation" an "unbelievable omission."

"It's vital that an independent technical investigation (...) be completed before any civil or criminal proceedings be pursued", the entity affirmed. "To anticipate the results of a technical investigation with a legal investigation that may not be technically competent is counterproductive for the improvement of aviation safety."


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