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.

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