Thursday, December 11, 2008

Who You Gonna Call ...

Who you gonna call to investigate a horrible mid-air collision: an internationally respected professional aviation authority such as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board -- or a a group of people who owe their paychecks to the military authority responsible for operating the very air-space in which the accident occurred?

Some news reports today give abundant credence to the 266-page report issued yesterday by the Brazilian Air Force (which runs all air-traffic control in that country). The report, signed by two Air Force generals, naturally finds that the American pilots of a business jet were almost entirely responsible for the tragic mid-air collision over the Amazon that killed 154 on a 737 Brazilian airliner on Sept. 29, 2006.

(The New York Times story today puts the issue into proper context. Here's a link. Newsday also gets it right. The AP, of course, does not.)

The Brazilian report does concede, in a few of its 266 pages, that various, uh, issues with Brazilian air-traffic control may have, uh, been, uh, simultaneously ongoing, uh, concurrent with the occurrence of the, uh, incident.

Off to the races and down the rabbit-hole we go again.

I'll link to the Brazilian report today.

I'll also link to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board findings, also issued yesterday.

The NTSB came to a far different conclusion -- that the "probable causes" of the accident were systemic errors and specific mistakes in Brazilian air-traffic control, including the fact that the American business jet that collided with the 737 had been ordered to fly at 37,000 feet, on a collision course that went undetected on the ground at air traffic control, for about 50 minutes until the collision.

The NTSB finds that the air-traffic control mistakes were the "probable causes" of the disaster. The NTSB found that the non-functioning transponder and anti-collision system on the Legacy was a "contributing factor." Neither the Legacy pilots nor the air-traffic controllers (who were supposed to be monitoring the flight) realized that the Legacy transponder wasn't signaling for about 50 minutes before the collision.

No one has yet come up with anything but a guess to explain how the transponder went off-line, by the way. Was it pilot error? Somehow, with a slip of the foot or hand, did one of the American pilots accidentally turn off the unit? Was it faulty equipment? No one has been able to say.

The Brazilians have basically thrown everything including the kitchen sink into these charges against the American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, and ExcelAire, the Long Island air-charter company that had just bought the Legacy in Brazil and was ferrying it home when the disaster occurred.

There is another, uh, issue, incidentally. And it involves the Brazilians' strategic release of the voice recordings from the Legacy cockpit during the entire flight, most notably during the 50 minutes up to the collision and the 25 harrowing minutes afterward as the damaged Legacy was going down, before the pilots spotted a runway gashed into the deep jungle and fought the plane down safely.

Yesterday, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations released a statement denouncing the leaking of cockpit voice recordings. Such leaked recordings, the international pilots group said, "are being used by a media provider for public entertainment."

Now, the grandly named International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) has long been known for its own tradition of elephantine harrumphing, not to mention bureaucratic obfuscation. What in the world are they getting at?

Media accounts noting the IFALPA statement correctly surmised that it addressed what is, in fact, a disgraceful use of cockpit voice recordings -- to provide meretricious, cheap dramatic thrills for the paying audience (or readership, with Web site links to the horror) as a plane and its passengers go down in hellish horror.

Incidentally, my own first public comments on this horror came as I was consumed by a far-lesser horror, having been one of seven people on the Legacy who survived the disaster. At least I was alive.

After being held in custody and questioned endlessly day and night in Brazil following the accident, addled, deeply traumatized and emotionally and physically exhausted, I arrived back in the United States on a flight that came into Kennedy airport at dawn. I cleared Customs and saw my wife and our two-year-old grandson (whom she had been babysitting that weekend) waiting anxiously ahead.

But as I went to them, I was ambushed by a Brazilian TV crew based in New York and demanding to know how I felt about the 154 dead. The bodies were only then being pulled out of the jungle. I had had no access to news reports while in custody. I could not even begin to grasp the horror that had suddenly fallen into the lives of the families and loved ones of the dead.

Stunned and stammering, I tried to convey my profound sympathy with the TV lights in my face. And in days of numbing, seemingly endless TV, print and radio interviews afterward, I tried to do it again and again, but in Brazil the emotional howl against the Americans was overwhelming. It did not seem to matter that we who had lived mourned those who had died. Instead, we were falsely depicted in the Brazilian media maelstrom as being cold and uncaring, the perpetrators of an unspeakable crime.

But back to the matter of those cockpit recordings:

In a disaster, cockpit voice recordings pick up the screams of the dying passengers. Using them to exploit a horror is despicable -- but we all know what some media are capable of in the service of cheap dramatic narrative, the curse that will finally kill decent journalism in this country.

But the IFALPA statement, as weedling as it was in general tone, also illuminated a problem specific to this incident. Let me explain:

If you are a layperson unfamiliar with how an airplane is flown, and if you were to listen to the cockpit chatter on any flight, you would probably be surprised. It doesn't sound at all like those stentorian pronouncements the captain makes to the passengers in the cabin on that 767 in its final approach to Houston.

That's because flying a sophisticated airliner (and the Legacy is a modification of the Embraer 135/145 regional-jets familiar to most airline passengers) is nothing at all like driving a car down Interstate 95.

Unlike a driver, a pilot does not need to constantly have a hand on the equivalent of a steering wheel on an airplane flying at cruise altitude under auto-pilot. Pilots don't have to keep their eyes ahead every second, as you do on a highway. In a cockpit under normal conditions, pilots can gossip, joke, gripe, talk to a flight attendant, whatever -- and still be absolutely vigilant about the aircraft in flight.

In a journalistically disgraceful article in the January Vanity Fair magazine, William Langewiesche, himself a private pilot, spins a fantasia that purports to narrate the scene in the Legacy cockpit on Sept. 29, 2006.

To do so, he makes gross suppositions about the motives and thoughts of those of us who were on that airplane, based exclusively on his interpretation of the Legacy cockpit voice-recordings, including an audio copy that was slipped to him by the Brazilians -- who, of course, uh, had no ulterior motive. (Shockingly, Langewiesche did not speak with the pilots or, I can hereby attest, with me or any of the other four passengers on board, or any of their legal representatives, to construct his fantasia. But you'll hear more on that later -- here and elsewhere.)

The flight being utterly normal till it crashed, the voice recordings depict a routine cockpit environment at 37,000 feet in wide open skies. The plane was on auto-pilot. The pilots performed their standard duties. In the interludes, they chatted with each other.

At one point, they can be heard expressing confusion about how to turn on an in-flight entertainment system that shows the aircraft position, altitude, etc. on screens back in the cabin. At another point, one of them took his new digital camera out and they groused about the typically indecipherable instructions.

At another point, the captain, Joe Lepore, left the cockpit to use the bathroom and stayed away for 16 minutes. At various points, as is utterly typical on a business jet flight, some of the passengers came up to the open cockpit door and chatted briefly with the pilots.

At the pilots' invitation, I went forward and very briefly exchanged some pleasantries before returning to my seat by the left wing to continue working on my laptop.

(By the way, I was in the Navy for four years and I never called a ship a "she." Despite what Langewiesche interprets from a muddy voice recording, I doubt very much that I said "How's she flying?," as if I was some schnook trying clumsily to sound cool to the pilots. I haven't listened to the recordings, but most likely I said, "How's it flying?" But checking with me would have killed the joke. I was also in naval aviation, and I am not unfamiliar with airplane cockpits of all sorts. As I reported in the New York Times right after the crash, I read the Legacy's altitude off the altimeter, despite Langewiesche's clumsy ridicule. If he'd checked with me ... oh, never mind.)

I had been in Brazil on assignment from a trade magazine to spend two days touring Embraer's headquarters near Sao Paulo, including its factories. It was two days and nights of wonk-work, being marched through production facilities and interviewing engineers, designers and Embraer planners.

Among the many things the Vanity Fair article gets very wrong is that. I was not on assignment to write about riding on some business jet, which would have been a stupid assignment. When the plane crashed, of course, that changed. I would have told Langewiesche that he was wrong -- wrong about the scene on the flight, wrong about so many things but, of course, he never attempted to contact me. And yes, more on that lapse later, here and elsewhere.)

Anyway, my point is (and I think it was IFALPA's as well) that unscrupulous media can use any cockpit voice recording to suggest, to those unfamiliar with what really transpires in a cockpit on routine flights, that the pilots are goofing off. (By the way, if you read the Vanity Fair article, note how the far more relaxed and even raucous scene in the cockpit of the doomed Gol 737 is depicted without ominous portent.)

Is this merely a journalistic objection, a protest that an honest journalist does not, not ever, pipe a scene to create a false impression and build a phony narrative from guesses?

Well, there's more.

The Brazilian Air Force report on the crash just happens to, uh, make note of the very same observations about the scene in the Legacy cockpit, strictly as extrapolated from the voice recordings.

It notes, by way of trying to buttress its contention that the pilots were grievously at fault in myriad ways, that "the haste to depart and the pressure from the passengers hinder[ed] adequate knowledge of the flight plan."

{By the way, the alleged "pressure form the passengers" is in part a shot at me, a risible suggestion, also unwisely made in several instances by Langewiesche, that the presence of a reporter on board the airplane created "pressure" on the Legacy pilots and contributed to the crash. More on that later, here and elsewhere.)

The Brazilian Air Force report says -- in assertions directly disputed by the U.S. NTSB report that, of course, has no ax to grind -- that the Legacy pilots' preparation for the flight was "inadequate."

The cockpit interaction, says the Brazilian Air Force report asserting that the Americans caused the disaster, was characterized by "informality."

That's one of the reasons that cockpit voice recordings shouldn't be put in the hands of the unscrupulous who are determined to manipulate the uninformed.

But more on that later. Here and elsewhere.



Robey said...

Wow, I had the same reaction on your behalf when I read the article after it was linked to a blog I read. I couldn't figure out why a professional journalist would simply assign feelings and motives to people he could very easily interview. It was telling that a friend who, while reading the VF article, simply assumed both planes had crashed because there were no quotes from anyone on either plane. Thank you for setting the record straight.

Robey said...

Thank you for setting the record straight. Since I regularly read your column in the Times I was fairly certain you were alive and was surprised not to see you interviewed for this article. Especially after what you had already written in the Times. Hey, you're no shaman but I would think you could offer some first hand perspective. Apparently that would have been inconvenient for Langewiesche who had no trouble assigning feelings and motives to you and the pilots. It was telling that a friend of mine, a freelance journalist, while reading the VF article assumed both planes had crashed since there were no quotes from either planes' occupants. She was surprised to read that your plane had landed safely. Keep up the good work.

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