Brazil Air Tragedy: US Pilots Talk. Where Were the Controllers, They Ask

More than two months and a half after Brazil’s deadliest air accident ever and one week after being allowed to leave Brazil, the two American pilots who were in the Legacy executive jet that collided with the Boeing 737, talked for the first time to a newspaper reporter about their fateful flight, the Legacy and the plane’s equipment as well as Brazilian traffic control and their ordeal at the hands of the Brazilian authorities.

The author of the interview, Folha de S. Paulo’s Eliane Cantanhêde, flew to New York for the Friday, December 15, interview, which appeared in the Sunday issue of Brazil’s largest newspaper.  Cantanhêde was the reporter who first broke the news that the flight controllers in São José dos Campos – the place from where the Legacy left – had given instructions to the pilots to fly at 37,000 feet, The pilots understood they should keep that altitude all the way to Manaus.

The Boeing was in the same altitude coming from the opposite direction. Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino told Cantanhêde that their plane’s radio "worked well, perfectly well," despite  the fact that they had close to 30 unsuccessful attempts to reach the control tower in Brazilian capital Brasí­lia.

According to them, there is no way to assure that the transponder was down as the Brazilian authorities have been saying. The pilots also said that the air controller didn’t show any urgency when finally was able to reach them.

Why did they keep at 37,000 feet even knowing that this altitude was the wrong way? Because they were following São José dos Campos’s instructions, they said. For them only air traffic controllers could change the direction, but they never did.

Despite being interrupted several times by their lawyer, the American Robert Torricella, who also answered some of the questions on behalf of the pilots – he explained that they had been arraigned by the Brazil’s Federal Police and that anything they said could be used against them in court – Paladino and Lepore were able to comment on the Brazilian authorities and to talk about their experience as pilots.

The interview was given in an unnamed New York city hotel. Cantanhêde flew from Brazil especially for the question and answer session.  Torricella, says Folha, demanded that the two tapes with the interview were given to him as soon as they were transcribed into Portuguese. He gave his promise to destroy the tapes and not use them in court. Pictures were only allowed for a few minutes before and after the interview.

Following are some stretches of the talk:

Folha – How well did you know the Legacy? How many hours have you flown it?

Lepore – I’ve been a pilot for 20 years, I’ve trained 20 hours in the simulator and, moreover, I have been flying for a long time in very similar planes. I’m used to them. The equipment was very familiar to me.

Jan Paladino – I’ve been a pilot for 16 years and had flown a lot as commander in the Embraer 145, which is a Legacy’s exact copy.

Folha – Were both of you familiar enough with the command cockpit and with the plane’s equipment, like the  transponder?

Lepore – Certainly. I had trained a lot in the simulator, which has the same equipment, and felt entirely comfortable with the aircraft.

Paladino – The same with me.

After asking if they has studied their flight plan Cantanhêde asked:

Then you knew that flying in an odd altitude between Brasí­lia and Manaus would be the wrong way?

Torricella didn’t let the pilots answer cutting in: "The isn’t an appropriate question because the matter is something else. It is very common that aircrafts have authorization to fly in altitudes that are not regular or standard, it all depends on the air control centers.

Torricella once again interrupted when the reporter asked the pilots to reproduce the dialogue between the control tower in São José dos Campos and the Legacy. But Lepore said he had been authorized to fly at 37,000 feet all the way through Manaus.

Folha – You concluded that you should fly all the way at this altitude the whole time despite the fact that the flight contemplated three different levels? Haven’t you questioned that?

Lepore – This was the clearance. If they wanted us to do something different they would have told us clearly. They didn’t.

The newspaper asked if they hadn’t questioned the instructions to fly at 37,000 feet, pointing out that the flight plan was different:

Paladino – It’s not uncommon to have a difference, it happens all the time. You have to fly according to the authorized plan.

Folha – So, you did not question, all you did was to follow  the instruction to fly at 37,000 feet?

Lepore – As Paladino said, it happens all the time, that you get a flight plan for an altitude and then is authorized to fly in another one. Let’s say that it happens 99% of the time.

Folha – 99%?!

Lepore – Yes. Flight plan is nothing but a mere proposal.

Paladino – The real flight plan  is  the "clearance" that you get from the control center.

Folha – In the preliminary report, they say that neither you asked to lower to 360 (36,000 feet) when flying over Brasí­lia, nor the controllers guided you to do this. Is this an indication that there was an error?

Paladino – We’re not expected to contact the control center while flying over Brasí­lia.

Folha – The preliminary report said that there were almost 30 frustrated attempts of contact by radio, seven by the controllers, and the rest by you. what happened?

Paladino – I can assure that our radios were working properly, the proof is that we were getting transmissions in Portuguese from Brasí­lia during the whole flight. This is a fact. We do not understand a word in Portuguese, but we knew that the radio was working properly. The chart did not indicate any change of sector, and it is the traffic control’s duty to contact the plane when it’s time to change the sector.

Folha – If you tried to contact 19 or 20 times without success, why didn’t you type code 7600 in the transponder, registering communication trouble? Isn’t this the right procedure?

Paladino – This is incorrect.  7600 is not for when there is trouble talking to the control center, but for when there is equipment failure. It wasn’t the case. The radio was working well, perfectly well. What we have to do, in such cases, is to look for another frequency, more appropriated to the route, and this was what I did. And this took only a few minutes.

Folha – There were versions, in the beginning, that you were outside the cockpit and did not hear the radio because you were playing with a brand new plane. What do you have to say about the hypothesis that you turned off the transponder to do pirouettes in a way that the radars wouldn’t record it?

Paladino – These were false charges. We knew that the investigations would show that they were all false, because the black box recordings would prove that nothing was true. These are the facts.

Lepore – We were at 37,000 feet, we were flying on autopilot and never left that altitude, as the preliminary report showed. I’d never do that. I don’t even like amusement parks, Ferris wheel.  I I hate it. What I really like is everything straight, on the level.

Folha – Why the transponder wasn’t working then?

Torricella –  There is no evidence that it was not working. What the preliminary report says is that there was a contact error between the transponder and the control center. This is different from not being working. Let’s remind that the transponder is still undergoing a probe in the U.S.

Folha – Have you turned off the transponder or not?

Lepore – Absolutely not.

Folha – The transponder signal disappeared from the Brasí­lia’s radars, this is a fact that the professional aeronautical investigators have already confirmed.

Paladino – We don’t know why the signal was not getting there. Where were the controllers, who haven’t noticed that?

Folha – Is it possible for the transponder to stop without the pilots noticing it?

Paladino – The plane is not designed to give any signal or indication in case the transponder malfunctions. There is no alarm in the cockpit for the pilots if the transponder stops working. There have been cases in which the transponder failed, and the air traffic control immediately contacted the pilots and said: "Please, check your transponder, I’m not getting any signal". What you do then is to turn off and turn on again, exactly like when your computer freezes and you have to reboot it. Often, when you act like that, the machine starts to work again when you reboot.

At this point, Torricella once again cut in to say that the Brazilian Federal Police had been too premature in their accusations: "There are several things that could have occurred here, and that’s why the professional investigators alerted that several months will be necessary to get to a final conclusion over what really happened. That’s why the Federal Police shouldn’t adopt this posture of making accusations so fast."

Folha – Why have you refused to give your version in the testimony to the Federal Police? Why have you kept quiet?

Torricella – Joe and Jan were detained in Brazil for 70 days, supposedly because their presence was necessary to give information to the police investigators, but before they could answer a single question, the police chief was saying that they had already been charged. It became clear to us that they had already made their decision in their head and that the facts were irrelevant.

Folha – Was the difficulty in communication, due to the language,  a decisive factor in the accident?
Lepore – I don’t think so. We didn’t understand anything wrong in the communication with the controllers. Maybe we asked them to repeat a thing or two, but this is absolutely normal, even here in the U.S.

Asked if they noticed in some way that the Boeing was coming
Lepore answered: "We did not see a thing." And Paladino added: "At first we had no idea something had hit us. We couldn’t even imagine hitting another plane and still be here alive. We thought that what we had experienced was due to the plane’s structural failure. Nobody could imagine that another plane had hit us. So, our attention was to control the plane, to land as soon as possible, because we knew that time was running against us. We didn’t know for how long the wing would hold out."

They would know about the disappearance of the Boeing only after a couple of hours following their emergency landing at the Cachimbo military base in the state of Mato Grosso.

Paladino – Soon after we landed at the Cachimbo base we met some military men, but with the exception of one nobody spoke English. The first thing we asked him was if he had received any emergency call from another aircraft. ‘Please, tell us’. And he said: ‘No,  we haven’t heard a thing.’ And we felt a tremendous relief, thinking that there was no other plane involved in that.

Folha – After the collision, how was the climate in the Legacy? Were people nervous? Has anybody screamed?  Was there any panic?

Lepore – Everybody, actually, was very calm. I was happy with that, because we didn’t have to worry that much with the passengers and we could concentrate on the plane and on how to land.

Asked if Brazil has blind spots in its skies, Paladino responded: "It is a problem in the system, but it is not signalized in any place. I think the Brazilian government must know about it. Some people say that there is no blind spot, but everybody knows that they exist."

And how was the time they spent in Brazil, they were asked.

Lepore – It was very hard. We didn’t know what was happening day after day, all those charges being made, we had no idea what was going to happen to us. We were really worried.

Paladino – It was a very emotional time with all those charges against us… In respect to the families, we kept ourselves in silence. We wanted the facts to come out, because we knew this would eliminate the false accusations. We kept quiet, waiting for the emotions to calm down, so that the investigators could do their job. That’s what we wanted to happen. We never thought that would take that long, that we would stay for so long detained in Brazil. So, we were afraid. Our freedom was being taken from us because we could not come back home.

Lepore revealed that during their stay in a Rio hotel he and  his colleague wanted to be left alone.

Folha – The reception party for you in New York, with red carpet and everything else, didn’t seem right in Brazil. After all, 154 people died. Some people in the American press referred to you as heroes. Do you really feel as heroes, despite the tragedy?

Lepore –  There is nothing of that.  We do not see ourselves as heroes.

Paladino – We only did our job.


  • Show Comments (14)

  • andy murphy

    to ch.c
    you may have something there interesting and quite revealing.keep posting your line of thoughts

  • cgirard


  • wilka paulistana da gema

    I have to say realgivp that you are my hero on this whole problem. Thank you so much for your contributions. Be sure your efforts will stand for the future. I really hope, givp that American pilots and everyone involved in aviation activities really learn something useful from this all tragedy and that they can work in peace and with security. Thank you for your efforts for clarification, it seems this whole thing became an American subject and not a matter of security and ethics. Thank you for your efforts of making our lives safer. VocÀƒª foi demais! All the best.


  • Norman Kemble

    ã‚’À¨¦‹À¥¼µã‚‹, À¨­¦À¦ˆ’する

    tenha um dia agradÀƒ¡vel

  • Norman Kemble

    I post so that the intelligent, truth seekers, people who know that aviation accidents do not occur because of just one thing and those interested in reading all view points have a knowledgeable source inside the aviation community to go to.

    There are way too many of people here with their own axes to grind, distorters, xenophobesˢ۪ , people working for excel, and or their family friends work at excel or certain journalists. Or the just plain ignorant and/or stupid or people with nothing better to do.

    Since you posted on Christmas Day IÀ¢€™ll leave it to the people on the board to figure out which community(ies) you belong to.

    Personally I have no interest in communicating with you since I feel you belong in the second paragraphˢ۪s group.

  • Rick

    And just because you are posting doesnÀ‚´t mean you are communicating with me.

  • Norman Kemble

    Part 2 International Flying
    Internationally (especially with the implementation of RVSM) it is next to impossible to fly at the wrong altitude for the wrong direction. Almost all countries will not allow this except for weather or fuel and even then it is fairly rare. In Canada the only time IÀ¢€™ve gotten a À¢€œwrongÀ¢€Â altitude for the direction is at FL450 (45000 feet) going westbound coming back from Europe and that was only because of weather. The fact is there are no airplanes up there, especially going eastbound to Europe, but those are the rules and they adhere to them; especially in countries where English is not the first language. The flying I did in Brazil (and granted the last time was 8 years ago before RVSM) you were still expected to fly the right altitude for the right direction. It was, and still is, the pilotÀ¢€™s responsibility to clarify when to comply with a change in altitude. I feel that Lepore and PaladinoÀ¢€™s asking a general À¢€œshould we stay at FL370À¢€Â before BRS gave the wrong impression to ATC, as well as to the pilots themselves. ATC said to À¢€œmaintainÀ¢€Â and probably the thinking was that they were going to have them stay at the right altitude and then be changed to the correct altitude for direction after BRS. The pilots erroneously assumed that that meant for the route after BRS flying at the wrong altitude for the direction of flight. You must at all times be exactly sure of what is going on, what to expect and what ATC expects. Asking non-specific questions or not clarifying routes, altitudes etc. when different then the rules is complacency at best. It is not only unprofessional; it is downright dangerous and reckless.

    One last thought on communication: When you have not been in contact with ATC for over an hour and have made numerous calls, you have to assume that you have lost communication and start to follow the lost communication procedures. Also, it is disingenuous to say that because you heard ATC that the radio was working perfectly. Maybe your receiver was working, but not your transmitter. Maybe both had failed. Maybe your receiver failed but not your transmitter. Just because you heard them doesnˢ۪t mean that you are communicating with ATC.

  • Norman Kemble

    Part I Domestic Flying
    As I read the interview with the pilots, I am now more firmly convinced that everything that I have posted on this board is accurate. I feel that while Brazil ATC can be faulted, the pilots were not trained adequately in international procedures, and should also accept responsibility for their role in this tragedy.

    The 99% figure (that all airplanes file one altitude and fly another) that some have grasped onto is disingenuous at best. Thatˢ۪s lumping US domestic flying and international flying along with flying at the correct altitude for direction of flight. Itˢ۪s mixing apples and oranges. These two gentlemen have almost no international experience. In the US you can change your altitude from the filed altitude for many reasons: better winds, smoother ride, someone is already at that altitude and there is not the necessary distance in trail, weight of the airplane, temperature, etc. That is for the altitudes for the direction of travel, basically even altitudes westbound and odd altitudes eastbound. That is NOT true for flying the wrong altitude for the wrong direction, i.e. FL370 (37000) going westbound. It is basically impossible to get that clearance in the US below FL400 (40,000 feet). Above FL400 you can get that kind of clearance depending on traffic, workload, etc. The biggest reason for this is because there are very few airplanes flying at those levels. Also, when you are flying and you change direction from one direction even/odd altitude to a direction of odd/even altitude, you expect to change altitude to comply with RVSM.

  • Joseph

    many reasons
    For an accident to happen, there are many failures although it is human nature to want a simple reason, such as the flippant american pilots did it. Seing the news in the aftermath of the accident was like seeing a lynching about to happen over overwrought emotions! The ATC did screw up, and did so badly but I dont understand the comments made by the pilots that they didnt think another plane was involved but then asked about another plane upon landing…also, I stil dont understand why the anti-collision devices on both planes didnt work and why the Brazilian government doesnt do somthing about the “holes” over the Amazon that everyone knoes exists in the traffic system but noone wants the responsibility to change……

  • ch.c.

    very strange…….
    ….that not one forum member raises questions or make comments OF WHAT THE BRAZILIANS ATCs DID WRONG based on the US pilots interview !

    Despite this was well commented, proven by the Brazilians news, revelations and investigations.

    I know nothing on piloting, but it is quite strange that some of you, apparent “experts”
    dont make a comment if it is effectively as frequent as 99 % of the time that pilots are given a different height altitude instruction than the original flight plan.

  • Allen Brown

    I AM WITH ED on this one

    Why would ask something if it never crossed your mind i the first place.

    has any body seen pic of the plane at the military base with all this going on there should be some some where .

    and where did the wings make contact ?????

  • Ed

    How can these pilots make the statemennt that:
    Lepore answered: “We did not see a thing.” And Paladino added: “At first we had no idea something had hit us. We couldn’t even imagine hitting another plane and still be here alive. We thought that what we had experienced was due to the plane’s structural failure. Nobody could imagine that another plane had hit us.
    and than go on to say:
    Paladino – Soon after we landed at the Cachimbo base we met some military men, but with the exception of one nobody spoke English. The first thing we asked him was if he had received any emergency call from another aircraft. ‘Please, tell us’. And he said: ‘No, we haven’t heard a thing.’ And we felt a tremendous relief, thinking that there was no other plane involved in that.
    Jesus Christ, why would you ask that question if it never crossed your mind that you had a collision with another plane.
    I do not think thier lawyer was very wise in permitting that interview. With these statements thier problems are sure to continue!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jayson Blair

    Here another example how these guys spread lies

    JosÀƒ© Wilson Miranda, the writer:

    “the flight controllers in SÀƒ£o JosÀƒ© dos Campos – the place from where the Legacy left – had given instructions to the pilots to fly at 37,000 feet all the way to Manaus. “

    Records shown Sao Jose controllers giving the pilots green light to take off and fly at 37000 feet. They never mention “all the way to Manaus” neither the word “Manaus”. What a bunch of liers.

  • bo

    they are heroes!!
    There would’ve been 163 people dead if it wasn’t for the heroic actions taken by these two pilots! They remained calm and landed their plane safely keeping all onboard alive! It’s a tragedy that so many people died in the Gol airplane, but after these pilots getting blamed for the accident before an investigation even being made, being held for over two months and apparently trying to be made look like flippant american pilots who caused this accident on purpose by the brazilian military, it’s 100% understandable why they were given a “welcome home” as they were.

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