Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Brazil Report on '06 Mid-Air Amazon Disaster Disputed by World Air-Traffic Controllers Group

The professional group representing the world's air traffic controllers is taking issue today with the widely publicized, and deeply flawed, report by the Brazilian Air Force that lays most of the blame for the 2006 mid-air collision over the Amazon with the American pilots flying the business jet that landed safely.

The International Federation of Air Traffic Control Associations (IFATCA), in a statement to be released today, expresses "disappointment" with the lengthy Brazilian report, compiled by an aviation investigations panel called CENIPA, which operates under the aegis of the Brazilian Air Force -- which runs that country's long-troubled commercial air-traffic control system.

As have others, IFATCA wonders why the CENIPA, the Brazilan panel, devoted so much time and effort in its 266 pages to "events in the cockpit of the Legacy private jet" that collided with a Brazilian Gol Airlines 737 at 37,000 feet on Sept. 29, 2006, killing all 154 on the civilian airliner. (The two pilots and five passengers on the badly damaged Legacy private jet, of whom I was one, managed to land at a jungle air strip 25 minutes after the collision.)

IFATCA expresses its "disappointment that the well-evidenced failures and safety problems of the Brazilian air-traffic control system, including its contribution to the fatal chain of events of the accident," have not received the required attention and detailed scrutiny" from CENIPA.

From day one, I have said here that Brazilian air-traffic control, especially over the Amazon, is notorious for communications and radar failures. Merely stating what every international pilot who flies over the Amazon knows has made me publicly reviled in Brazil, where from day one the authorities unwisely "criminalized" the accident and unscrupulously campaigned to blame the two American pilots, who are currently on criminal trial in absentia in Brazil under a charge of unintentional homicide that can lead to three-year prison sentences on conviction.

Notably, while the Brazilian military and federal police continue their criminal approach (which included charges against four low-ranking military air traffic controllers), there has been no significant effort in Brazil to address the obvious systemic problems of the air-traffic control system, or even to acknowledge them.

IFATCA's statement makes note of this, saying that it is "disappointing, as in the aviation community there was hope that the final accident report would shed a neutral light on the problems and shortcomings of the Brazilian air-traffic control system."

Last month, on the same day CENIPA issued its report focusing on the American pilots and an apparent equipment failure on the Legacy, the internationally respected U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which had been an observer in the CENIPA investigation and which also conducted its own independent investigation, issued a report with strikingly different conclusions.

The NTSB report found that the primary cause of the accident was air traffic control failures, among them a fatal order from an air traffic controller who instructed the Legacy to fly at 37,000 feet -- on what would be a collision course with the approaching 737 airliner over the Amazon.

The NTSB report found that a transponder device that failed to signal on the Legacy, and thus inactivated the on-board anti-collision system that would have been the last chance to avert a crash already set in motion by air traffic control errors, was a "contributing factor" in the disaster.

Here's a link to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board findings on the Brazil crash. (10 pages).

And here is a link to the disputed Brazilian CENIPA report. (Warning, it's 266 pages).


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