Brazil midair pilots submit report blaming ATC system

 - May 1, 2007, 6:09 AM

While the investigation into the causes of the September midair between an Embraer Legacy operated by Long Island-based ExcelAire and a Boeing 737 operated by Brazilian low-cost airline Gol is still under way, Brazil’s ATC system is already feeling the repercussions of the investigation, which has exposed weaknesses in the system.

Air traffic controllers recently went on strike for 24 hours, demanding the demilitarization of the ATC system. To resolve the strike, government negotiators agreed to grant the controllers involved in the strike amnesty from punishment under the military justice system. The nation’s generals opposed this decision, demanding that military protocol be followed.

The military has been reluctant to surrender control of the air traffic system and has contended that transferring it to civil authorities could compromise national security. Nonetheless, the government has agreed to move ahead with the demilitarization of the ATC system, but it has not set a time frame.

In the meantime, the fate of the Legacy pilots remains uncertain. On April 20, lawyers for ExcelAire pilots Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino sent to Renato Sayão, the investigator for the federal police who is handling the case, a report placing blame for the accident on the ATC system. The report includes details from the radar system as well as a detailed timeline of the flight.

Theo Dias, the lawyer for the pilots, maintains, “This document leaves no doubts that the principal cause of the accident was the problematic system of Brazil’s air traffic control.” According to the report, both aircraft were free to travel at the same altitude but in opposite directions.

Dias added that the report identifies a series of unanswered questions and unresolved issues, concluding that it is premature for the federal police to recommend criminal action against anyone at this time.

The report was issued after Brazilian defense minister Waldir Pires blamed the pilots for the crash in testimony before the Brazilian Congress. Pires claimed that Brazil’s ATC system is one of the safest in the world, adding that the company has no right to blame the ATC system since the Legacy’s transponder was turned off.

Lawyers for the pilots also said that the investigators have not analyzed or tested much of the equipment installed in the Legacy. As a result, Dias has recommended a detailed analysis of the aircraft’s avionics.

ExcelAire also reiterated its hopes that the Brazilian authorities will reconsider their decision to accuse the pilots of being criminally responsible for the accident.
Relatives of the victims have also expressed their concern about the speed with which the investigation is taking place. Several of the families recently filed lawsuits in a Miami court seeking damages from ExcelAire in the crash.

They claim that the pilots were not flying at the correct altitude and failed to maintain proper communications with controllers.