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Brazil Finds Out the Truth, But Show Against US Pilots Must Go On

Brazilian protest after TAM air accident

Given that the two American pilots of the Legacy 600 are now on trial, in
absentia, on criminal charges that carry prison time in Brazil, it’s interesting
to see how conventional wisdom has finally evolved in Brazil to accommodate
realities that were violently in dispute for many months after the September 29,
2006, crash.

Take this article by Concetta Kim Martens of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a think-tank whose interests include “the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.” The article was published on the organization’s Web site, www.coha.org, and republished by Brazzil Magazine (www.brazzil.com), where it drew lively reader comment.


Obviously, I have no quarrel with the essence of the article.


That’s because nearly every assertion in it was first made a long time ago on this blog. But that was way back when no one else in the media was even raising the issues of the soundness of Brazil’s air-traffic control system, or criticizing the reckless rush by the Brazilian government, military and Federal Police to criminalize the September 29 accident and scapegoat the American pilots.


Now that accuracy is winning the battle, we need to encourage perspective to march forward. So I need to point out that the COHA article, while essentially correct in its points, shades history a bit. And as I sense we are nearing the point where journalism must tip its fedora to history, I am sure Ms. Martens will forgive my nit-picking.


For one thing, she muddies the facts a bit on the demeanor of air-traffic controllers after the accident. “Since the September 29 Gol crash over the Amazon, controllers felt unfairly targeted for splenetic criticism they were receiving from the public, and reacted by staging several work stoppages …” she writes.


Didn’t happen quite that way.


Here is what did happen:


First the American pilots were recklessly and, it seemed to me universally, scapegoated. It took a while for the public in Brazil to become aware of, or concede, the role of air-traffic control in the accident.


Remember how long the ex-defense minister, Wonderful Waldir Pires, loudly insisted that the pilots caused the crash by performing reckless aerial loop d loops over the Amazon? Nobody in power told him to put a lid on that nonsense, including his boss, the President, who won a runoff election amid the passions of the disaster, which had occurred two days before the polls opened.


Only in time did the general public, but not the authorities, acknowledge that the September 29 crash had been set in motion by a series of egregious errors by air traffic controllers, who themselves were working in deplorable conditions with faulty equipment within a system beset with major technological deficiencies in radar and radio communications, especially over the Amazon.


Initially, as I argued last October, November and afterward, the air-traffic controllers’ protests were basically a warning shot across the bow of government and military to not implicate air-traffic control in the blame.


What actually happened was that low-ranking controllers – fearing that they, too, might become scapegoats along with the pilots (which in fact ultimately happened) – clammed up while the American pilots remained in custody in Brazil.


While the pilots twisted in the wind, the core group of controllers who were on duty during the accident – the people who knew, for example, that air-traffic control was aware of the transponder malfunction on the Legacy for 50 minutes before the crash and failed to raise the alarm – remained silent, went to ground and refused to answer any questions, citing psychological trauma.


As the protests continued for months, air traffic in Brazil was thrown into chaos.


For months after the September 29 accident, public sentiment, whipped up by xenophobic Brazilian media, had focused sharply and exclusively on the Americans as culprits. There was no “splenetic criticism” in Brazil of the air traffic controllers that I am aware of. Of course, I was raising criticism of air traffic control on this little blog. It wasn’t splenetic – though the outraged and verbally violent reaction to it certainly was.


Ms. Martens does zero-in effectively on some of the official nitwits who continually brayed that all was well in Brazil’s skies; that the September 29 disaster was caused strictly by reckless, arrogant Americans; that Brazil’s skies and airports were under world-class supervision and that to say otherwise was a base calumny and an insult to the honor of the nation.


Of course, the official indignation all rang a bit hollow again in July, when another airplane crash killed 199 people at overcrowded, unsafe Congonhas Airport in São Paulo, Brazil’s busiest.


Wonderful Waldir Pires, the obstinate Defense Minister responsible for air-traffic control, was finally out the door. So was José Carlos “Sunshine” Pereira, who ran the airports authority and suggested that it was slander to suggest that anything, anything might be wrong with Brazil’s aviation system.


Sunshine Pereira ranks right up there near Wonderful Waldir as a classic character in this story. Pereira steadfastly insisted after the September 29 crash, even as the evidence became manifestly clear that both aircraft had been put on a collision course at 37,000 feet by air traffic control, that “it is not the best moment to carry out changes” including addressing the inept military control of civilian aviation.


Later, as international aviation groups expressed outrage at the way Brazil had clumsily politicized and criminalized the September 29 accident, and even after the second horrible accident in July, with 350 now dead in two disasters in 10 months, Sunshine Pereira stood by his rusty guns.


“Brazil does not need international help,” he proclaimed, inanely. “The crisis is ours. The dead are ours.”


Shortly after, he was ducked-walked off the deck.


But as Ms. Martens writes, the President remained in a defensive crouch. “The security of our aviation system is compatible with all other international standards,” Lucky Lula proclaimed. As recently as three weeks ago, Lucky Lula was still scoffing at the fact, otherwise widely accepted all over the world, that there are black holes and blind spots in air-traffic control radar and radio communications over the Amazon.


I assume Ms. Martens’ small deficiencies in context and nuance are a consequence of the demands of concise summary. She writes: “President da Silva’s government has come under a great deal of fire for failing to properly address the nation’s air-travel safety, an act that according to several aviation experts, and the adamant belief of a good deal of the public sentiment, led to the air disaster” [s]


Well, I’m here to repeat, for the record, that this “public sentiment” took a long time getting its socks on, and even longer to reach the level of being “adamant.”


And I should also point out that, while public sentiment may well have finally come around to the truth, as Ms. Martens asserts, two American pilots remain on trial on spurious criminal charges that public sentiment realizes were trumped-up.


Joe Sharkey writes, mostly about travel. He has been a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for the New York Times. On September 29, he was one of seven people aboard a business jet involved in a mid-air collision with a commercial Boeing 737 over the Amazon. All 154 people on the 737 died, while the business jet managed to land at a jungle airbase. Sharkey’s account of the crash appeared on the front page of the New York Times and later as a 4,000-word magazine article in the Sunday Times of London. Comments can be sent to  Sharkey_Joe@yahoo.com.


This piece appeared originally at “Joe Sharkey: Brazil,” one of the author’s blog, which can be found in  http://sharkeyonbrazil.blogspot.com.

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