Brazil Tragedy: US Pilots Ask Passport Back, Controllers Say They’re Innocent

José Carlos Dias, the lawyer hired by the New York air-taxi company ExcelAire to represent its pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladin before the Brazilian authorities after the collision of the executive jet Legacy with the Boeing 737 over the Amazon jungle, has requested in court today, November 9, that the American pilots get their passports back so that they can go back home.

Lepore and Paladino’s passports were confiscated by the Brazilian Federal Police on October 3 in Rio de Janeiro while the two American pilots were undergoing medical tests following the accident that caused the September 29 crash of the Boeing and the death of all 154 people aboard the plane. 

Brazilian authorities say that they seized the documents to guarantee that the pilots would testify after the Brazilian Air Force concluded its probe on the tragedy. The investigations, however, have been dragging for weeks without any end in sight. They are being conducted in secrecy in Brazil and in Canada where the black boxes of both planes were sent for analysis.

Dias in his request to the court states that the Brazilian authorities seem to have reached an impasse in the investigations while their client are retained in a Rio hotel without any forecast for when they will be released. He contends that this situation is untenable.

"Now we have to wait for the judge to decide," said Dias, "but I still don’t know how long he is going to take to study the request."

On Wednesday, November 8, a Mato Grosso do Sul Justice preliminary order forbade the Legacy from leaving the country or being sold. The judge also ordered the seizure of ExcelAire’s and the two pilots property.

In São José dos Campos, home of Embraer, the manufacturer of the Legacy, air controllers who up to now had kept silent are now talking.

A group who decided to talk to reporters stressed that the Legacy collision with the Boeing is not their fault and denied that the accident occurred due to a mistake by one the controllers at the air traffic control tower in São José dos Campos.

Transcripts from the Legacy’s voice recorders have shown that one operator in São José had instructed the American pilots in a way that might be interpreted as direction for them to fly at 37,000 feet – the same altitude in which the Boeing was travelling – all the way to Manaus, the capital of Amazons state.

"Everybody here has a clear conscience regarding this. If there was a mistake, it wasn’t here," said one of the interviewees, who asked that his name be not disclosed. "The São José dos Campos tower just authorized the take off. We were not monitoring the plane when the accident occurred."

There are military and civilian personnel in the town’s control tower. The group of controllers there has remained the same for years. They say they are friends and very united. Even though some of them had to move recently to Brazilian capital Brasí­lia due to lack of staff at Cindacta 1, the Brasí­lia air control center, they remain a cohesive group. .

Like their colleagues nationwide they also are demanding better job conditions, which include professionalization of their career, higher salaries and updated equipment. They are particularly critical about the way their category seems to have been abandoned by the government:

"The problems have been occurring for quite some time.  Even before the accident there have been alerts that the sector is in crisis. It was necessary that a tragedy happened for the subject to be brought out on the open," said one of the operators to Globo online. "São José’s tower is quiet, there isn’t as much movement as in other towers, but we are worried anyway."

"Before the accident, nobody knew we even existed," commented another controller.

After a work-to-rule campaign last week, which brought chaos to all main Brazilian airports, with flight delays of up to 20 hours, authorities are trying to find a solution for the controllers working situation.

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