Brazil Air Crash Probe Centers on Shared Airspace

Employees of Gol Airlines cry while paying homage to the crash victims. i

Employees of Gol Airlines cry at Brasilia's international airport while paying homage to the victims in the crash of Flight 1907. Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images
Employees of Gol Airlines cry while paying homage to the crash victims.

Employees of Gol Airlines cry at Brasilia's international airport while paying homage to the victims in the crash of Flight 1907.

Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

The investigation of the Sept. 29 midair collision over the Brazilian Amazon is focusing on why an executive jet was flying in the same airspace as the ill-fated Gol Airlines Flight 1907, a new Boeing 737.

The pilots of a Legacy 600, carrying five passengers — including a New York Times reporter — managed to land with a damaged wing and no injuries. The Boeing 737 plunged into the jungle, killing all 154 people on board.

Brazilian authorities have been questioning the two Legacy pilots, Jan Paladino, and Joseph Lepore, both residents of New York state. A Brazilian judge ordered their passports seized to ensure they do not leave the country, though the two are not under arrest.

The $24 million executive jet was made in Brazil by Embraer, a manufacturer of civil, executive and military aircraft. A New York aircraft sales and charter company, ExcelAire, had just taken delivery of the jet from the company headquarters in Sao Jose dos Campos. The accident occurred on its inaugural flight to the United States.

One of the key questions in the midair collision is why the private corporate jet was flying north at 37,000 feet, putting it on the same course as the airliner, which was flying south at 37,000 feet. The Legacy was heading for Manaus on the Amazon River, where it was to clear customs and refuel before heading to Florida, its final destination.

But according Brazil's aviation regulations, planes flying from Brasilia to Manaus must travel at even-numbered altitudes — 36,000 or 38,000 feet, not an odd numbers like 37,000. Authorities say the investigation shows that the pilots had flown to Brasilia from Sao Joe dos Campos at 37,000 feet, and were then supposed to descend to 36,000 feet as they continued on to Manaus. But Jose Carlos Dias, the pilots' attorney and a former justice minister, told reporters that the pilots "said they were at the flight path's correct altitude, and that they tried to communicate with the tower and didn't get an answer."

The newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo reports that Brazilian aviation authorities are annoyed by the pilots' representations. The newspaper said that Brazilian air force technicians affirmed that on the day of the accident all other aircraft that flew over Brasilia to Manaus had no difficulty in communicating with the operators. The director general of the Brazilian Airspace Control Center, Lt. Gen. Paulo Roberto Cardosa Vilharinho, is quoted as saying that radio coverage over the jungle is complete. "There are no black holes."

But a 36-year veteran pilot with the Brazilian airline Varig says there are faults within the country's vast network of radars and aviation communication. Elnio Borges disputes Brazilian authorities' claim that Brazil has no "blind spots" — areas unreachable by radar communication.

Despite a $121 million upgrade on the infrastructure, Borges says, "Everybody that flies in that region [where the 737 went down] knows that they should expect to be out of two-way communication for at least some time during their flights… I think this investigation is risking not lining up all the factors that may have contributed to the accident… and does not address the real issue… flight safety."

There is dispute too over why flight controllers were not able to properly communicate with the Legacy jet and challenge its route. Reports in the Brazilian press quoting investigation sources suggest that the Legacy pilots did not follow orders to descend to 36,000 feet and may have turned off the plane's transponder to evade detection. But the Legacy pilots deny disabling the device that signals their precise location, altitude and heading.

Borges, the veteran pilot, says, "I don't believe anyone turned off anything here because turning off [a transponder] would be like turning off your headlines on a dark night," while you're "driving at 200 miles an hour."

ExcelAire released a written statement stressing that point: "Among the issues that must be looked into are: air traffic monitoring, communications systems on both aircraft, and of responsible control towers involved… The Brazilian Air Force has stated that the investigation has not yet reached any conclusion regarding possible causes of or responsibility for the accident."

As the recovery of bodies from the crash enters its second week, investigators continue to probe the site and analyze the recordings of each aircraft's black box in an effort to discover what led to Brazil's worst aviation accident.

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