Pilots and controllers blamed for Brazil crash

Teresa Guedes, the mother of a Brazilian plane crash victim, receives medical care during the presentation of an air force report in Brasilia December 10, 2008. Brazil's air force blamed two U.S. pilots for causing Brazil's second worst airline accident in 2006, when their jet collided in mid-air with a commercial airliner, killing all 154 passengers on board. (REUTERS)

An air force report Wednesday blamed Brazilian air traffic controllers and two US pilots for a midair collision over the Amazon that killed 154 people, but found no evidence the Americans intentionally turned off a transponder that warns of approaching aircraft.

An Embraer Legacy 600 flown by Joseph Lepore of Bay Shore, New York, and Jan Paladino of Westhampton Beach, New York, collided with a Brazilian Boeing 737 operated by Gol airlines on September 29, 2006.

The Boeing plunged into the jungle and disintegrated on impact, killing all aboard. The smaller plane, owned by ExcelAire Service Inc. of Ronkonkoma, New York, was damaged but landed safely.

The 277-page Brazilian air force report said Lepore and Paladino did not have sufficient knowledge of the aircraft’s avionics, resulting in the inadvertent switching off of the plane’s transponder and the collision-avoidance system.

“There is no indication that allows us to conclude that the transponder was intentionally turned off,” the report said.

The Brazilian flight controllers failed to notice that the transponder was on standby and did not warn the American pilots that they were flying at the wrong altitude and on a collision course with the Boeing, the report said.

The report also said the two American pilots were “pressured by their five passengers” as they rushed through preflight and take off procedures hastily, “preventing them from studying the flight plan adequately.”

Joel Weiss, the lawyer for Lepore and Paladino, said the report “hides the real and obvious cause of this tragic accident.”

“Air traffic controllers placed these two competent flight crews on a collision course, traveling toward each other at the same altitude on the same airway,” he said. “It also buries the fact that this was not only a result of major errors by individual air traffic controllers, but of institutional errors built into Brazil’s air traffic control system.”

The report provoked fresh outrage among relatives of those killed in the crash.

“Brazilian air traffic controllers and the two pilots of the Legacy killed my son,” said Teresa Guedes, whose 28-year-old son Carlos died in the crash.

“Brazil is a country where impunity reigns, a country with no shame,” she said.

Earlier this week, a Brazilian judge threw out negligence charges against the two American pilots, but refused to dismiss charges similar to involuntary manslaughter against Lepore and Paladino.

Judge Murilo Mendes also dismissed some charges lodged against four Brazilian air traffic controllers accused of failing to keep the planes apart.

The crash was Brazil’s worst air disaster until a jet ran off a slick runway less than a year later at Sao Paulo’s airport for domestic flights and burst into flames, killing 199 people.

The back-to-back disasters raised serious questions about Brazilian passenger air travel safety. They coincided with massive weather-related delays and cancelations, and an Amazon area radar outage.

Brazil’s air force operates the nation’s civilian air traffic control system.