Two American executive jet pilots were ordered by a judge to stay in Brazil while authorities investigate whether they caused a midair collision with an airliner that crashed into the Amazon, killing all 155 people aboard.
A Brazilian newspaper reported that the pilots’ Legacy jet, which was carrying seven Americans, disobeyed an order by the control tower to descend to a lower altitude just before coming into contact with Gol airlines Flight 1907.
Federal police said Wednesday the pilots could be charged with manslaughter if investigators determine they were responsible for the crash.
"We have received an order from the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Mato Grosso to begin investigating the possible commission of a crime inside the aircraft," said Geraldo Pereira, acting director of the Federal Police in Mato Grosso.
"We will start investigating if the two pilots caused the accident and if they are considered guilty they could be charged with involuntary manslaughter," Pereira said.
A judge in Mato Grosso state ordered federal police to seize the passports of pilot Joseph Lepore, of Bay Shore, N.Y., and co-pilot Jan Palladino, of Westhampton Beach, N.Y., "as a result of the doubts surrounding the case and the emergence of indications that the accident was caused by the Legacy," Mato Grosso Justice Department press spokeswoman Maria Barbant said by telephone Tuesday, October 3.
She said the two were not arrested but "just prevented from leaving the country, at least until we know exactly what happened" in Brazil’s deadliest air disaster.
The daily O Globo paper said the Legacy flew at 37,000 feet to the capital, Brasília, but then ignored an order to descend to 36,000 feet to continue its flight to the Amazon city of Manaus. The Gol jetliner was flying at 37,000 feet from Manaus to Brasília en route to Rio de Janeiro.
The damaged executive jet safely landed at a nearby air force base after the incident.
The pilots, who have been questioned by Mato Grosso investigators, were brought to Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday for routine physical tests. They were not injured in the incident.
The Legacy had been making its inaugural flight to the United States, where it had been purchased by an American company, said its manufacturer, Embraer.
Air force commander Gen. Luis Carlos Bueno also said the Gol flight, a brand-new Boeing 737-800, had a flight plan for 37,000 feet and the Legacy jet was authorized to fly at 36,000 feet, according to an interview Tuesday with Brazil’s government news service Agência Brasil.
He said neither plane was authorized to deviate from the plans. He said only an investigation of the planes’ black boxes could clarify the cause of the accident.
Christine Negroni, an investigator for the aviation law firm Kreindler & Kreindler of New York, said in an e-mail that under international guidelines the Legacy should not have been at an odd-numbered altitude because it was heading northwest.
"All westbound flights fly at even numbers with 1,000 feet separation. East bound flights fly at odd numbers, same 1,000 separation," she said. "Since the American pilots were flying northwest, they should not have been at 37,000 since that’s odd."
Investigators began examining voice and data recorders recovered from the jetliner Tuesday, but the National Civil Aviation Agency said one of the voice recorders was missing data.
"This unit is essential for analysis," the agency said on its Web site. It said military units were searching for missing parts.
Investigators will also look at why the pilots weren’t alerted by on-board equipment designed to avoid collisions. The air force said both jets were equipped with a Traffic Collision Avoidance System, or TCAS, which monitors other planes and sets off an alarm if they get too close.
The Gol plane crashed deep in the Amazon jungle in Mato Grosso state, some 1,100 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, killing all 149 passengers and six crew members.
There appeared to be only one American on the flight – Douglas Hancock, 35, of Missouri. He was in Mato Grosso for business and was returning to Rio de Janeiro where he lived, his father, Paul Hancock, told the Southeast Missourian newspaper.
Bueno said about 100 bodies were found within a half-mile of the wreckage and were flown to the coroner’s office in Brasília for identification. He said rescue workers would have to open more clearings in the dense jungle to try to recover the rest.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of investigators, who would be joined by representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing Co.
The U.S. agencies were involved because the Gol plane was manufactured in the United States and the smaller jet was registered there.