Thursday, March 13, 2008

Brazil Update: Pilots Can Testify in U.S.

For those of you who may still be following the Brazil-crash story, a news break: A Brazilian federal judge today reversed himself and ruled that the two American pilots charged in the Sept. 29, 2006, mid-air collision over the Amazon can give their testimony in the U.S., according to Joel Weiss, one of the attorneys involved in the complex and anguishing case.

I have let my separate Brazil blog lapse in recent months. I'm planning on getting it back up to date soon.

Just as background, Brazilian authorities insisted for over a year that the two pilots of the Legacy 600 private jet that collided at 37,000 feet with a Brazilian 737 (killing all 154 on the 737) be required to return to Brazil for the trial, which is ongoing.

Famously, Brazilian authorities had rushed to "criminalize" the accident and scapegoat the Americans during the emotional uproar following the collision. I was one of the surviving passengers.

As I have reported since practically day one, the disaster was put in place by Brazilian air traffic controllers who had placed both aircraft at the same altitude on the same path, in an area over the Amazon notorious for poor radio and radar communications. Also contributing was the apparent failure of an avionics device that was linked to the anti-collision alarm on the private jet.

Seven of us on the private jet, including the two pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, somehow walked away alive after an emergency landing in the Amazon. The four other passengers and I were detained and interrogated for several days, but the two pilots were held in Brazil for two months until a judge ordered their release in December 2006.

The day of their release, the Brazilian authorities cobbled together criminal charges of failing to ensure the safety of Brazil's troubled skies. The charges carry prison terms upon conviction.

However, there is no extradition treaty between the U.S. and Brazil on those charges -- and the two pilots understandably were hesitant to return to Brazil, where the clamor for their conviction had been strong even as it became abundantly clear that air-traffic control failures caused the disaster.

It hasn't yet been determined how the judge's questions will be posed to Joe and Jan, who have already been interrogated repeatedly. The Brazilian judge can travel to the U.S. for the proceeding -- but it's more likely the questions will be posed in writing, at a time period that's still several months away. In the U.S.

At the time of the crash, Joe and Jan were employed by ExcelAire, the Long Island jet charter company that had just purchased the new $27 million Legacy jet on the day it crashed. Joe still is; Jan took a new job with a commercial airline. Both pilots were and are deeply concerned about the ramifications of any conviction in Brazil, as they would then technically become fugitives, subject to arrest in many other countries.

Aviation authorities and pilots groups around the world condemned the Brazilian rush to criminalize and politicize the accident. My sense is that emotions have cooled and perhaps the Brazilian justice system will dispose of this tragic matter with reason and with a sense of duty to the cause of aviation safety everywhere, which depends on honest investigations of accidents.

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1 comment:

Cassandra_Moderna said...

Yeah, they may act with reason and drop the charges, but not from a sense of duty. In the area of concern, this would hardly be a consideration -- they are more likely concerned with repairing their image abroad, mostly for commercial reasons.
btw, in today's Globo newspaper, it was reported that the level of air traffic at the São Paulo airport where the horrific TAM accident occurred has gone back up to what it was before the accident, thus, as per usual, going right back to the original mess.