Two U.S. Pilots Criticized in Brazil

Joseph Lepore, in white T-shirt, and Jan Paladino, in baseball cap, were piloting a small jet that clipped a Gol Airlines Boeing 737-800 in midair two weeks ago over the Amazon rain forest. All 154 people on the airliner died.
Joseph Lepore, in white T-shirt, and Jan Paladino, in baseball cap, were piloting a small jet that clipped a Gol Airlines Boeing 737-800 in midair two weeks ago over the Amazon rain forest. All 154 people on the airliner died. (Associated Press)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 12, 2006

BUENOS AIRES, Oct. 11 -- Two American pilots are embroiled in controversy in Brazil as authorities try to determine if they accidentally caused a midair airplane collision two weeks ago over the Amazon rain forest, killing 154 passengers aboard a commercial jetliner.

The Americans were piloting a small executive jet being flown from its manufacturer in Brazil to its new owner in New Jersey when their plane hit a Gol Airlines Boeing 737-800 flying in the opposite direction. The pilots of the small plane, which carried seven people, landed safely at a military base about 120 miles from the point of impact, but the commercial airliner crashed into the dense jungle below, leaving no survivors.

This week, investigators released details that have led many Brazilians to blame New York residents Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino for the worst air disaster in Brazil's history.

A spokeswoman for the Mato Grosso state police department, which has been investigating the crash, on Tuesday told the Associated Press that the American pilots had been instructed to fly at 36,000 feet at the time of the crash, according to the executive jet's flight plan. The airspace where the collision occurred -- at 37,000 feet -- had been reserved for the commercial jetliner, she said.

Lepore and Paladino earlier told police that they were following flight instructions given to them by Brazilian authorities. Brazil's defense minister, Waldir Pires, labeled the pilots' statements "frivolous" and "irresponsible" during an interview with O Globo Television on Tuesday, adding that it is customary for northbound flights to fly at even-numbered altitude levels.

Adding to the controversy were the comments of a New York Times business columnist who was aboard the executive jet while in Brazil on a freelance magazine assignment. The columnist, Joe Sharkey, told CNN last week that he had heard that Brazil's air traffic control system was notoriously incomplete in the area of the Amazon where the plane crashed. Those comments sparked angry admonitions from Brazilian officials who defended the nation's air control systems, saying they thoroughly cover even the most remote jungle regions.

Meanwhile, ordinary Brazilians have vented their own anger at the American pilots.

"They have to be judged as criminals," Evarista Soares da Silva, 50, a doorman at an apartment complex in Rio de Janeiro, said Wednesday. "A lot of people died because of them. They were totally irresponsible."

As the investigation continues and the contents of the 737's "black box" are revealed, investigators hope to learn why the transponder aboard the executive jet failed to alert the larger plane of its presence and why the pilots of the small plane did not respond to calls from air traffic controllers before the crash. Some Brazilian authorities have publicly speculated that the pilots might have turned off their transponder, though the pilots' lawyer on Wednesday denied that they had done so.

Even the possibility of mechanical failure doesn't placate many Brazilians who believe that the American pilots could have prevented the crash.

"They said they had problems with the equipment, but why didn't they follow the route?" asked Joyce da Conceicao Fonseca, 67, of Rio de Janeiro. "I'm really sad for all the people who died. I prayed for them."

Special correspondent Fred Alves in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.


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