Brazil’s Air Tragedy: Transcripts Show US Pilots as Confused and Inexperienced

American pilots Jan Paladino and Joseph Lepore after leaving Brazil This Sunday's Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil's largest-circulation daily, publishes an analysis of 290 pages of conversations between the American pilots of an executive Legacy jet and Brazil's air traffic controllers before and after the collision with a Boeing 737, which  would become Brazil's worst air accident ever with the death of all 154 people aboard the big jet.

Despite damages to the smaller plane, the seven passengers in the Legacy were able to land safely at an Air Force air base in the Amazon jungle.

Joseph Lepore, 42, and Jan Paladino, 34, two American pilots who were flying the Legacy plane over the Amazon last September 29, concluded Folha, are not telling the truth about what happened during their flight and they also seem to have little familiarity with their plane and the Brazilian skies.

They apparently were also sometimes paying more attention to a laptop playing a movie than to the flight. The article written by journalist Eliane Cantanhêde concludes that the accident was caused by a "a series of mistakes, misunderstandings and a certain inexperience or incompetence."

While the original flight plan anticipated a change in altitude from 37,000 feet to 36,000, the Folha text concluded that the transcripts make it clear that problems of communication between the control tower and the pilots for three times prevented the pilots from getting a straight answer at what altitude they should fly.

For Folha, Lepore and Paladino lied when they said that they became aware that they had hit another plane only after their emergency landing at Serra do Cachimbo military Air Base. The transcripts show one of the pilots asking right after the collision between the two planes: "What the hell was that?" A little later one of them says, "We hit another plane. I don't know where this shit came from."

According to Folha, the transcripts don't answer a key question: "Why the Legacy's transponder, which should have prevented the collision, wasn't working at the time of the accident?"

Brazilian investigators work with the hypothesis that one of the two pilots, Lepore or Paladino, had a laptop open in the cockpit in a way that its cover hid the panel where the transponder was located. While there is no explicit mention of laptop in the taped conversation, they talk about a DVD.

From the almost 300 pages of voice data gathered from the small jet's black box, 112 pages are for conversations from the American pilots. The rest contains communications  with the São José dos Campos tower, from where the Legacy took off and attempts from the Cindacta-1 control tower in Brasí­lia and Cindacta-4 in Manaus to understand why the Boeing 737 had disappeared from the radars.

The transcripts also reveal that flight controllers in Brazilian capital Brasí­lia were sure that the Legacy was at 36,000 feet and not 37,000, which was the real altitude.

The pilots seem to show they have little experience with the Legacy. Talking about the FMS (Flight Management System) one of the pilots comment: "I'm still working on how to deal with this thing." A little later he says that he needs to "read the manual" and complains: "Everything is a mess because (…) we need, I think,  to clean and set up this plane."

In one dialogue a pilot says to his colleague: "I need to learn this international shit." Both complain about the bad English of the São José dos Campos's controller.

The transcriptions were made at Washington's NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). 

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