Sunday, May 20, 2007

Brazil: What's Left to Dispute?

Left: The damaged Legacy after landing at the remote Cachimbo air base in the Amazon.

Right: Pilots Joe Lepore (l) and Jan Paladino (r).

If you've been following the intricacies of the aftermath of the Brazil crash on this blog since early October, you already know that the disaster was caused by an astonishing breakdown in Brazilian air traffic control, with failures of technical systems and major human errors on the ground. Brazilian air traffic control is run by the Brazilian military, which has a clear interest in protecting turf (and budget) and deflecting blame from itself.

Not just the military, but other Brazilian police and political authorities, abetted by some of the media in Brazil, have been steadfast in their attempts to scapegoat the two American pilots of the Legacy 600 business jet that was in a collision with a commercial Gol 737 at 37,000 feet over the Amazon on Sept. 29. The 737 crashed, killing all 154 on board; the damaged business jet managed an emergency landing, and the two pilots and five passengers were not physically injured.

Newsday, the hometown paper of the two American pilots and of ExcelAire, the Long Island charter company that had just purchased the airplane in Brazil hours before the crash, prints an update today that summarizes the story accurately for a change, except for a bizarre quote from a lawyer for the relatives of the victims who asserts the tapes show the pilots were not properly trained in flying the Legacy. No investigator has ever made that assertion.

As far as I can fathom, the esteemed attorney is referring to a small amount of confusion the pilots expressed about how to operate "Airshow," which is nothing more than an in-flight video entertainment system that shows movies and projects a real-time map of current location and airspeed for the enjoyment of passengers in the cabin. Airshow has nothing at all to do with the operation of the aircraft and it's flat-out insane to suggest that a few comments about the Airshow controls meant the pilots were not properly trained.

Incidentally, if you want to see the quality of discourse coming from Brazilian interests in this story -- and understand the reason I reluctantly turned off the comments feature of this blog back in October -- check out the "Comments" section under the Newsday story.

As I reported here some time ago, Brazilian authorities and their stooges in the Brazilian media have consistently taken out of context and distorted comments made by the pilots both before and after the collision, as captured by the cockpit voice recorder.

Here is a link to the full transcript from the cockpit voice recorder. Judge for yourself, but keep in mind that the recordings are not always clear and the words "on" and "off" can easily be misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted.

What remains in dispute, now that we know the American pilots did nothing wrong? Well, the Legacy's transponder -- which triggers the anti-collision alert that would have been the very last possible fail-safe chance to avoid the collision -- was not signaling for 55 minutes before the collision (as was well known by air traffic control on the ground, which was duty-bound to notify the Legacy of the transponder problem and did not).

More than a dozen pilots I've spoken to since the crash have told me the transponder and its TCAS anti-collision warning system are, variously, a non-issue, a "red herring," or at best the last possible slim chance to possibly prevent a collision when air traffic control has already set two planes traveling toward each other at the exact same altitude, at a closing speed of about 1,100 miles an hour, and utterly unaware of each other's existence due to radio and other failures on the ground.

Incidentally, largely overlooked so far in this situation is the role of modern technology, which put both oncoming planes exactly in the middle of the airway. Before GPS and all of that, pilots have told me, they could depend on some "slop" -- that is, a tendency for a plane to be 100 feet or more off center or off altitude -- to lessen the certainty of a head-on collision between two planes coming toward each other at the same altitude in the same airway. Now, they're automatically dead-on.

I'll catch up tomorrow on the latest from our Sao Paulo bureau. There will be a lot more huffing and puffing in the Brazilian media, the Air Force and from representatives of victims families who are determined to litigate these claims in the U.S. and maintain the fiction that the American pilots were to blame. But basically, this story has almost been told. But stand by, because there are a lot of political and financial interests at stake.


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