The flight recorder transcript from the Long Island executive jet involved in Brazil’s worst air disaster shows that its pilots were told by Brazilian air traffic control to fly at the same altitude as a Boeing 737 before the planes collided, according to a newspaper report Thursday.
All 154 people aboard Gol Airlines flight 1907 were killed on September 29 when the Boeing 737 crashed into Brazil’s dense Amazon rainforest after clipping the Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet. The smaller executive plane, which managed to land safely, was piloted by two Long Island men: Joseph Lepore of Bay Shore, N.Y., and Jan Palladino, of Westhampton Beach, N.Y.
According to the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, the flight recorder shows Mr. Lepore receiving instructions from the tower in São José dos Campos to fly northwest at 37,000 feet "until Eduardo Gomes," the airport in Manaus. That altitude contradicted the pilots’ filed flight plan as well as established norms, which reserve odd-numbered altitudes for southbound flights.
Defense Ministry spokeswoman Flávia de Oliveira said she could not confirm Folha’s report but added more information could come Monday after Brazilian Air Force officials returned from Canada where the black boxes from the two planes were sent for analysis.
Folha did not reveal how it had obtained the transcript. The Air Force, which oversees Brazil’s air traffic controllers, has not yet released it to Brazilian federal police investigating the crash, or to the National Transportation Safety Board investigators who are participating in the probe.
The Legacy’s pilots – employees of ExcelAire Service Inc. of Ronkonkoma, N.Y. – were flying the Brazilian-made jet on its maiden voyage back to New York, and managed to land the badly damaged jet safely. They’ve been ordered to stay in Brazil during the investigation.
A lawyer for ExcelAire said the Folha report supported the pilot’s testimony to investigators.
"As we’ve maintained from the beginning, the pilots were cleared to Manaus for flight at three seven zero (37,000 feet) at the time of departure and we’re confident that anyone that is able to hear the tower tapes or see a transcript of the instructions issued by the São José tower will hear the exact same thing," said the lawyer Robert Torricella.
The tower instructions reported by Folha may have been the first of a series of problems that led to the crash. As the Legacy approached Brasília, the plane lost radio contact with the control tower. The Legacy’s transponder, which signals the plane’s location to the tower and other airplanes, also stopped working.
Just what prevented the radio and transponder from working remains unclear, but from that point on, both the pilots and the air traffic controllers lacked critical information. Controllers had no way of knowing the smaller plane’s altitude.
Brazilian officials have insisted that the Legacy should have returned to its original flight plan after losing contact with the control tower. That plan would have mostly kept the smaller jet at 36,000 feet after Brasilia, and out of the path of the 737, which was flying at its customary altitude of 37,000 feet. Instead, both planes remained on a collision course.
But aviation experts say air traffic controller orders always take precedence over flight plans. They’ve also questioned why the controllers didn’t order the larger jet to change course just to be safe, since they lacked altitude information on the smaller jet at the time.