Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Brazil: Disorder in the Court II

There are something like five official investigations still underway in Brazil, even though the American pilots were indicted on May 25, and a judge last Friday ordered the criminal pre-trial proceedings to commence. You know, first we hang 'em, then we ask questions.

Later this week, I'll catch up on some of the latest shenanigans, and explore more fully the fact that the asinine "aerial stunt maneuvers" charge has arisen zombie-like from the Graveyard of Crazed Delusions.

Today, a top official of Embraer was heard from at one of the hearings, this one in congress. According to news accounts, he had some amazing things to say, as you'll see.

Embraer is the manufacturer of the brand new $24.7 million Legacy 600 business jet that was put into a horrific mid-air collision with a commercial Gol 737 after a series of technical and personnel breakdowns in Brazil's military-run and notoriously faulty air-traffic control system.

Till recently, Embraer has been conspicuously unheard from, perhaps because Embraer has not been named as a defendant in various civil lawsuits seeking many millions of dollars in damages from the two American pilots, their employer ExcelAire Service, and Honeywell Aerospace, which manufactured the Legacy's transponder unit.

Those of you (may the peace and blessings of God be upon you) who have carefully followed these long blogs on this subject over the last 8-plus months know that in April, ExcelAire filed with the Federal Police a very detailed report (here's the link again) that showed how air-traffic control breakdowns caused the accident and also raised very serious questions about the manufacture, installation and history of the transponder equipment in the new Legacy.

ExcelAire said it was not informed of previous trouble with the transponder equipment installed in the Legacy before taking delivery of it. The facts in that report have not been disputed. And to my knowledge, Embraer has not disputed, or even addressed, the assertions about the equipment installed in the Legacy 600 ExcelAire took delivery of on Sept. 29, hours before the crash. Here's a summary from the section in the ExcelAire report that covers the equipment:

Embraer had problems with the Legacy’s Radio Management Unit (RMU), Communication Unit (RCZ) and the Flight Management System (FMS) computer before Legacy was delivered to ExcelAire.

The RMU had failed in two other aircraft before being installed in N600XL.

The RCZ, which includes the transponder module, was rejected in another aircraft before being installed in N600XL.

The FMS failed twice during production flights due to defective connectors, which were encountered only two days before the accident.

The examination of selected avionics found installation errors and unexpected flaws, which required additional tests.

Now, remember, until the Keystone Kops recently opened a new circus with the indictment of the pilots and of four controllers, and the Three Stooges classic "Disorder in the Court" flashed to mind, two major points of agreement had been reached down here on earth, which includes in Brazil:

-- That a series of technological and human errors in Brazilian air traffic control had placed the two oncoming aircraft on a collision course at 37,000 feet, and that air traffic controllers at the center in whose space the crash occurred were aware of the lack of reception of a signal from the Legacy for 55 minutes before the collision, and had done nothing about it. The Legacy pilots, in turn, expressed no awareness of a transponder problem before the crash.

-- That the American pilots, whatever their share, if any, in the blame, did not deliberately turn off the transponder on the Legacy -- an act that would have been certifiably insane in air-space that was well known (and ultimately the Brazilian authorities finally admitted this, too) for having dangerous radio and radar blind spots and dead zones.

The Federal Police indictment, in fact, specifically acknowledges the blind zones, and charges the pilots with a crime that was "unintentional. It also charges three air-traffic controllers with unintentional crimes and a fourth -- the one who was at the screen supposedly monitoring the Legacy -- with an intentional crime.

Hate to keep walking you down Memory Lane, but you might recall that early on in this matter, knuckleheads like the Brazilian Defense Minister, Wonderful Waldir Pires, had spoken openly of their belief that the American pilots deliberately disabled the transponder. The reason for this wild act? To hide from air-traffic controllers the fact that they were doing aerial stunts over the Amazon -- loop d loops and the like -- to show off the new plane.

It has been intimated, furthermore, that one of the reasons for putting the beautiful new plane through these wild stunts over the mighty Amazon would have been to show it off to me, a working-stiff reporter, hitchhiking a ride on board, who often writes about business jets.

Now, as I have said, if the pilots -- whom I had only met two days earlier in San Jose dos Campos -- had been doing illegal stunt maneuvers or otherwise flying recklessly when we collided with an airliner that went down with 154 aboard, that would have been one hell of a story for me:

Business-Jet Pilots Flew Aerial Stunts,
And 154 Plunged to Death in Amazon

An Eyewitness Account

Yet I conspicuously failed to mention that in my actual front-page story on the crash, and in a subsequent 4,000-word magazine article -- in two of the most influential newspapers in the world. ... What could explain even the dimmest reporter overlooking that shocking fact? ... Oh, I forgot: I had to have been in on the fix. I thought that lunatic charge had been belly-laughed off Planet Earth six months ago, but the game of Whac-a-Mole never ends in official Brazil. Months after it was pounded down into its hole, that maniacal critter has popped up again from another hole.

More on this later this week. But it has recently been reported again in Brazil that the seven of us who survived the crash conspired to concoct a cover story. The proof of that is that in interrogations by the Air Force at the jungle air base where we spent 24 hours, and during a subsequent all-night series of interrogations at a Federal Police headquarters in Cuiaba, we all told exactly the same story about what happened!

Apparently, it seems we began concocting our story immediately after our plane fell out of the sky and skidded, tires and brakes shrieking and smoking, to a crash-landing on an obscure jungle military air strip, with a broken-off wing, a busted tail stabilizer, and a disabled hydraulics system.

Now, it's well established that air-traffic control had long since lost track of us, and the Cachimbo air base's sleepy control tower only lumbered to life as we were falling out of the sky onto them. So one might think that the Brazilian air force would have (quite reasonably) considered this a somewhat alarming and rude intrusion, and responded accordingly. (Which they actually did, immediately surrounding the plane with armed military personnel).

But, according to a recent story in one dark corner of the Brazilian media -- you know, that place where the people who don't take their meds have to sit -- we seven brazen Americans refused to get off the plane for 50 minutes, despite being surrounded by very put-out troops with guns. For 50 minutes, we supposedly sat there inventing our cover story, while awaiting an American jet from Brasilia that would deliver a U.S. consul to the scene to protect us. Only then, supposedly, did we get off the plane.

If this were true, I would concede without hesitation that the Brazilian air force would have had very good reason to shoot the lot of us, Consul included.

Employing the logic favored by the Brazilian authorities, then, I would argue that the fact that they did not shoot us for defying them for 50 minutes in an airplane that had just crashed on their base is proof that the story is, of course, a lie.

Actually, as you can well imagine, the minute that plane stopped as we held our breath wondering if it was going to blow up, we rushed off the plane onto that fetid jungle base and practically embraced the astonished troops, who looked at us like we were outer space aliens.

I mean, they knew even less than we did. And all we knew was that we'd been in a collision with something, obviously, but we didn't know what it was until about three hours after our emergency landing.

And we didn't see a U.S. consulate representative until well over 24 hours later, when we were transferred to the police headquarters in Cuiaba. And a fat lot of good he did.

From today, as translated by our Sao Paulo bureau chief, Richard Pedicini, a report on Embraer's long-awaited entrance into the ... uh .. deliberations. (The "CPI" refers to one of two congressional investigative committees looking into the crash, along with other agencies): click here

Embraer indirectly accused Legacy pilots

In deposition to the House Aviation Blackout CPI, the president of Embraer, Frederico Fleury Curado, indirectly blamed the Legacy pilots, Joe Lepore and Jean Paul Paladino, for the accident which killed 154 passengers of the Gol Boeing 1907 in September of last year.

Curado affirmed that, in accordance with the top civil aviation regulatory body in the United States, certainly the transponder of the Embraer-made jet was turned off at the moment of the accident, but there was no failure of the equipment.

Questioned by the CPI's report referee, congressman Marco Maia (PT-RS), about the possibility of the pilots having bumped into some button and turned off the transponder by accident, Frederico Curado said that this is improbable.

"The possibility exists, but I would say that it's improbably because to turn it off it's necessary to push two buttons, which is not something that can happen by chance", he explained.

He added, further, that the Embraer functionary [My note: there actually were two Embraer employees on the flight as a routine matter. One was going to return to Sao Jose after our planned one-night stopover at the Amazon River port city of Manaus. The other lives in southern Florida, where we were to have made entry into the U.S. for refueling and for Customs, and continued on to Long Island where ExcelAire is based) who was present on the flight could not have instructed the pilots to turn off the equipment to "test" the plane because "he doesn't have knowledge or experience to do that". Thus, the only remaining possibility would be that Lepore and Paladino voluntarily turned off the transponder.

And here's another report:

"Congressman contests information from president of Embraer

Congressman Vic Pires Franco (DEM-ParĂ¡) refuted information given by the president of Embraer, Frederico Fleury Curado, that the two employees of the company present on the Legacy at the moment of the collision were exercising only commercial functions. The congressman presented an informally obtained copy of the transcription of the dialogs registered on the Legacy's black box that demonstrated that the Embraer employee called Henry Yanble (sic), who lives in the United States, had active participation in the piloting of the jet, including, suggesting the turning off of equipment which the congressman inferred to be the transponder.

(My note: What he "inferred" to be the transponder? In fact, the cockpit voice recorder transcript clearly shows the pilots were casually discussing -- during a routine section of the flight -- some confusion about how to turn on a cabin in-flight entertainment device called "Airshow," which shows a video image of the airplane's position, route and estimated time of arrival to the folks in the cabin. Airshow, as I have said, has about as much to do with the flying of an airplane as the in-flight magazine.)


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