Thursday, March 31, 2011

Brazil Midair Collision Testimony Update

I thought this article in today's New York Times deftly and accurately captured the nuances of the moment as two American pilots, on trial in absentia in Brazil for the 2006 Amazon midair collision that killed 154, began testifying via videoconference from Long Island.

Alas, the judge on the other end of the shaky audio-video system in Brazil has now pronounced himself unhappy with the American reporting. From the estimable Globo news organization in Sao Paulo comes this report today:

CUIABÁ - North American pilot Joseph Lepore is testifying at this moment, by videoconference, in the trial which investigates responsibilities in the accident between the Legacy jet and the Flight 1907 Gol Boeing, which resulted in the deaths of 154 people in September of 2006. Lepore, who is in New York, responded to questions put by federal judge Murilo Mendes, of the Regional Federal Tribunal (TRF) of Brasília, and denied that any of the Legacy's equipment had been manually turned off during the flight. As was the case with copilot Jan Paul Paladino, heard this Wednesday, also by videoconference, this is the first time the pilot speaks to representatives of the Brazilian courts.

... During the [session], the magistrate showed himself to be very irritated with an article published by the American newspaper "The New York Times" about Jan Paul Paladino's testimony [yesterday].

Mendes considered the material to be "full of irony." The [article] cited the videoconference connection problems, saying that it was impossible to understand the Portuguese at some moments. The material also said that the case is treated as an obsession with anti-American sentiment. The judge, in today's videoconference, sent a message to the journalist for "The New York Times" saying that he "would not find work in a reputable newspaper in Brazil."

Well then.

Anyway, now that both pilots have testified, the judge's verdict is expected in April. The American pilots face up to five years in prison if convicted, but they cannot be extradited to Brazil under existing treaties. A conviction could, however, cause them grave difficulties in some international flying.

Nothing new came from the testimony yesterday and today, though the Brazilian media continue to quibble over the words "on" or "off," as heard once in the 290-page transcript of the cockpit recording on the Legacy. I've heard the muddy recording, and it's unclear to my English-language ears whether the word uttered is "on" or "off" -- but I also can't for the life of me see that this constitutes evidence of misfeasance or malfeasance either way.

The cockpit voice recorder, as has been known for two years, clearly confirms that Brazilian air traffic controllers instructed the American pilots to fly at 37,000 feet (where the collision occurred) -- routinely overruling a flight plan filed before the plane took off on its planned route from near Sao Paulo to Manaus. The flight plan routinely had the altitude at 36,000 feet at the point route where the two planes collided over the Mato Grosso in the Amazon. All pilots everywhere are required to follow air traffic control directions, which always take precedence over a pre-filed flight plan.

It is also not at all clear why the Legacy's transponder failed to send an anti-collision alert as the two aircraft approached each other at 37,000 feet -- but no evidence has been produced to indicate that the American pilots were at fault, let alone criminally culpable, in the matter of the evidently malfunctioning transponder. The charges that they were are based on conjecture.

Globo also reports today that American pilot Paladino "confirmed" that he had never flown a Legacy jet "before the accident that resulted in the deaths of 154 people who were aboard a Boeing Brazilian airline..." That's obviously not an accurate report, because Paladino and Lepore flew the same brand-new Legacy aircraft on a long test-flight from Embraer headquarters at San Jose Dos Campos on Sept. 28, the day before the crash. I know because I was on both flights.

Meanwhile, it is not in dispute by any serious aviation authority that both pilots were fully qualified to fly the Legacy type of aircraft, and had more than adequate experience to qualify on that type of plane.

On another matter, prosecutors and the Brazilian media have made much of a portion of the cockpit recordings that shows Lepore and Paladino speaking with some confusion about how to operate an unspecified piece of equipment during the flight. Actually, as all investigators are aware, that "equipment" they couldn't figure out how to work was the in-flight cabin-videoscreen system called Air Show. That's an entertainment device for the passengers and it had nothing to do with the operation of the aircraft.

I am also quite taken by Brazilian media choosing to continually make a point of the fact that the American pilots "do not speak Portuguese," and hence could have been culpable in not understanding unspecified verbal communications from Brazilian air traffic control.

One of the many serious criticisms made of Brazilian air traffic control, which is run by the military, has been that controllers there are not adequately trained and supervised, that equipment is outdated -- and that many controllers lack basic skills in communicating in English.

English, as the aviation world knows and universally agrees, is the required language of international aviation. Air traffic controllers and pilots the world over are required by international law to communicate clearly in English.

The reason for having a standard language in the world's skies is quite simple: Aviation safety, which was the critically important issue that got short shrift in Brazil four years ago, in the emotionally overwrought rush to scapegoat the Americans.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The pilot's lawyer, Mr. Theo Diaz, complained that the translation failed today.
Some of the victims relatives demand that the pilots licenses to be suspended... An absurd, but this people want to see the pilots punished as some sort of revenge. They held a small demonstration during Pres. Obama visit to Rio - He stayed at the Marriot, the same hotel in which the Pilots were held back in 2006.
I have no idea how this trial will end. The lawyers are well known. The father of Theo Diaz was minister of Justice in the early 90s. Father and son run one of the most respect law firms in Brazil.
As passenger at Brazilian airspace I still do not know if ATC has improved, if the well known problems were solved. Commercial aviation had an enormous growth during the last 5 years in Brazil. Planes are full, airport do not cope with the demand. However, I do not know if it is safe, if the ATC system was updated, if the flight controllers are better trained. I suspect that things did not improve. This sort of system do not change easily and things get worse when the people in charge of it do not recognize that serious problems do exist. To make matters worse the press simply repeat the official statements - no investigative reporting is done.