Monday, September 29, 2008
Brazil Crash, 2 Years Later
Above: pilots Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino on their return to the U.S. in December 2006.
Two years ago today, I was quietly working on my laptop on a Legacy 600 business jet flying routinely at 37,000 feet over the Amazon in Brazil when hell broke loose.
With a horrific crash that I still feel in my bones today, the business jet collided in mid-air with a Boeing 737 operated by Brazil's Gol airlines. The 737, its left wing shorn off, went down in the jungle, killing all 154 on board. The Legacy, its left wing severely damaged and its horizontal stabilizer chewed up, flew on somehow, losing speed and altitude until its two pilots, through a stroke of breathtaking luck, found an airstrip in the jungle and wrestled the plane down.
Through skill and courage, those pilots saved my life and the lives of the four other passengers on the brand-new, $27 million, 13-seat private jet, which was on the first leg of a delivery flight from its Brazilian manufacturer, Embraer, near Sao Paulo. (The pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, pointed out, as pilots will, that they also saved their own lives.)
When the crash occurred, no one on board knew what had happened. Both planes were flying on a collision course at 500 miles an hour each. At such closing speeds, you just don't see it coming.
Three hours after our landing, while in custody at the obscure military base in the jungle, word came that a 737 had gone down.
For Joe and Jan, the world collapsed.
After what seemed like endless interrogations, the other passengers and I were released two days later, but the pilots were kept in Brazil for over two months. After a judge finally ordered their release, Brazilian military and police authorities hastily cobbled together criminal charges alleging that the pilots had been negligent.
It very quickly became clear to me, shortly after the landing in the jungle, that a coverup and a scapegoating was under way. The accident occurred two days before a heated presidential election in Brazil, with a subsequent lengthy runoff period where Anti-American hysteria was palpable in the rush to criminalize the accident and blame the U.S. pilots.
It also quickly became clear to me that Brazil's air traffic control system was notoriously unreliable, an assertion made to me by more than a dozen international pilots and since fully confirmed by the evidence. The system, strangely operated by the Brazilian Air Force, depended on unreliable equipment and poorly trained controllers. There also are well-known radio and radar blind spots over the Amazon.
Both planes were flying where they'd been told to fly by air traffic control. A separate element was the malfunctioning on the Legacy of a piece of equipment called the transponder, which triggers the anti-collision warning that would have been the last chance to avoid the hideous accident.
For 18 months, I wrote extensively and too passionately about all of this on the now inactive Brazil portion of this blog. I have no desire to revisit that commotion now or re-fight those awful battles.
But I do need to provide an update, because people keep asking me: What ever happened to those two pilots? The story, real all the time to those of us who lived it, quickly disappeared from the U.S. media radar screen.
Joe still works for Excelaire, the Long Island charter company that owned the Legacy. Jan left the company to work for an airline.
Both pilots are still on trial, in absentia, in Brazil. If they are convicted of the charge of negligent homicide, they will become international criminals. If they are convicted, the United States will not extradite them to Brazil because we don't have a treaty covering that. But they will need to be careful, for the rest of their lives, about where they travel.
The Brazilians are about to release their long-in-progress report on the crash, and it is expected that the pilots will be squarely blamed, although it is also expected that a small group of Brazilian air traffic controllers will also be blamed and some concessions will be made about faults in the Brazilian air-traffic system.
Once the Brazilian report is officially released, perhaps as early as this week, the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States, which has been conducting its own parallel investigation, will be able to release its report. The N.T.S.B. report is expected to be far more fair and accurate.
I'll make note of it and post both reports here when they are available.
Two years ago, with adrenaline pumping in the initial surge of survival, the seven of us who survived pledged that we would meet every year on the anniversary.
We never kept that promise because, as time passed, there has been no closure (I cringe to write that awful word) -- and there is, of course, no joy, because so many died while luck favored us, for no good reason at all. There is survival for the lucky ones -- for me, for Joe and Jan, for David Rimmer, Ralph Michielli, Henry Yandle and Daniel Bachmann, for the Amazon 7.