Pilots of Embraer Legacy in midair in Brazil

 - December 26, 2006, 4:55 AM

Luck can change in an instant. Pilot Joe Lepore and copilot Jan Paladino were cruising along at 37,000 feet in the cockpit of the brand-new Embraer Legacy they were delivering from the factory in Brazil to its new home base on New York’s Long Island. As the sun fell lower toward the horizon on September 29, all they could see beneath the airplane was the vast canopy of the Amazon jungle, and for the pilots and their five passengers in the cabin behind, life was good.

But their luck turned suddenly sour, and then just as suddenly sweet again. The head-on collision with a Gol Airlines 737 that they were unlucky enough to suffer did not tear their business jet apart. Instead, the Legacy lost most of its left winglet and took a hit to the horizontal stabilizer, but it remained flyable. The 154 airliner passengers were not so fortunate, losing their lives when the 737 plummeted out of control and slammed into the jungle.

Nobody on the Legacy had the slightest clue about what had torn off the winglet, much less about the fate of the 737 and those aboard. A passenger in the Legacy’s cabin reported seeing the sudden flash of a shadow darkening the window shade at the instant there was a loud metallic bang. For Lepore and Paladino, the priority was to get their airplane on the ground. Although it remained flyable, there were signs that the damaged wing might come apart, and they flew it gently to a landing on a conveniently located military airfield. Once safely on the ground, all aboard thanked their lucky stars and pondered what might have happened.

Not for three hours did they hear of the missing Boeing twinjet and the fate of the people aboard. Suddenly their predicament seemed a godsend and the mood turned somber.

Luck did its quick change again for the Legacy pilots. In an act of officialdom that sent a chill up the spine of any pilot who has ever ventured beyond home shores, Brazilian authorities confiscated the passports of Lepore and Paladino so they could not leave the country. For the next 10 weeks, and despite much discussion about the vulnerabilities of Brazil’s military-run ATC system, the two Americans were essentially under house arrest at their hotel. The outlook was bleak, with the authorities talking of detaining the two until the accident investigation was complete, perhaps a year away.

There was much speculation about flight-plan clearances, ATC clearances, dead ATC coverage zones, ATC sector handoffs, and even disabled transponders and hot-dogging by the Legacy pilots, but to observers outside Brazil, the conduct of authorities during the aftermath appeared ever more outrageous. Aviation lobbying groups and associations called for the release of the two pilots but to no avail until December 4, when, finally, Brazilian authorities announced that the pilots would get their passports back in 72 hours. They arrived home on U.S. soil on December 9. Brazilian federal police have charged them with endangering air safety.

The U.S. learned long ago that the criminal component has no place in accident investigation if safety benefits are to be reaped. Brazil’s handling of this aftermath says that such enlightenment still has some traveling to do.