Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Brazil Crash: Key Charge Dropped Against U.S. Pilots

One of the charges against the two American pilots charged by Brazil in the Sept. 29, 2006 mid-air collision over the Amazon that killed 154 has been dropped, though others still stand.

Just before the expected release tomorrow of a lengthy Brazilian report on the accident, a judge in Mato Grosso state dismissed negligence charges against the pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, both of Long Island. They were pilots of the Legacy 600 business jet that managed to land safely after the collision at 37,000 feet. [I was one of the seven survivors on the Legacy.]

The charge that was dismissed was of negligence, an assertion that the American pilots were at fault in radio-communications failures during the roughly 50 minutes before the crash. International pilots have said consistently that Brazilan air space over the Amazon is plagued in spots by radio and radar blind zones. The Brazilian military authorities responsible for the nation's air space deny this.

The Brazilians still are charging the American pilots with criminal offenses. One charge is that they failed to follow a flight plan that listed their designated altitude at 36,000 feet in the air space where the crash occurred. But it is not in dispute that Brazilian air traffic control had ordered the Legacy to fly at 37,000 feet.

The other charge centers around the malfunctioning of the Legacy's transponder, a radar-beacon-like device that signals the plane's location and triggers an automatic anti-collision system. A working transponder would have been the last possible chance to avoid a collision that had been set in place for 50 minutes. It is not known what caused the transponder to malfunction. The pilots remain charged with inadvertently causing the transponder to go off-line.

Both pilots returned to the United States in December of 2006 after being held in Brazil for more than two months. They are being tried in absentia.

On Wednesday, a nearly 300-page report by the Brazilian Air Force -- which operates the country's air-traffic control system -- will be released. The report will concede the air-traffic control and communications errors, but will also blame the pilots for inadvertently turning the transponder off and for not being aware that it was off till after the collision. Brazilian air traffic control also failed to notice that the aircraft was not signaling for 50 minutes, when controllers mistakenly believed the plane was at 36,000 feet.

At the same time the Brazilian report is issued, the United States National Transportation Safety Board will issue its own findings.

The NTSB will find that the probable causes of the accident were the air-traffic control orders to the Legacy to fly at 37,000 feet past Brasilia, and the complex on-ground communications and technological errors that occurred in air traffic control as the two aircraft, the doomed plane a Brazilian 737 that crashed in the jungle, unknowingly bore down on each other.

The NTSB will state that the transponder malfunction was a "contributing cause."

You may bet on the fact that some elements of the Brazilian media will inaccurately assert -- as they have in fact been doing for days as the report is selectively leaked -- that the Brazilian Air Force report blames the American pilots almost exclusively for the disaster.

I'll post a link to the full Brazilian report as soon as I have a translation. I'll post the NTSB findings as soon as I get the text.


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