SAFO may offer clues about Brazilian midair

 - July 31, 2007, 6:13 AM

An FAA safety alert cautioning Embraer Legacy pilots against resting their foot on a footrest near the instrument panel because they might inadvertently put the transponder into standby mode has the aviation world scratching its head. While officials aren’t saying there’s a definite link, the document offers new insight into what might have been a contributing factor in the fatal collision of a Legacy operated by charter firm ExcelAire and a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 over the Amazon jungle last September.

In a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) dated July 3, the FAA warns that crews of the Legacy and airline-equivalent ERJ 135/ 140/145 should not put their feet on the “footrest just below the instrument panel” because doing so might “put the ATC transponder into standby mode.” Although the investigation into the cause of the collision is ongoing, a transcript of the Legacy’s cockpit voice recorder indicates the pilots were not given a TCAS alert, suggesting that the system might have been inoperative before the collision.

The accident investigation has found that the Legacy was not seen on radar for about 55 minutes before the accident, but reappeared shortly after the collision. Although the SAFO document says the issue was discovered “during an investigation,” neither the FAA nor the NTSB would confirm to AIN that the collision in Brazil was the impetus. However, there have been no other reported cases of collisions or near midairs involving the models in question.

Pilots familiar with the Legacy cockpit said it would be possible to put the transponder into standby mode by accidentally hitting the mode-select button on the radio management unit with a foot on the footrest. The only indication to the crew would be a small tcas off message on the primary flight display. The NTSB wants changes to TCAS certification criteria, including a requirement for pilots to acknowledge advisory messages anytime the TCAS is placed into standby mode.

Pilots Faulted
Results of the accident investigation being conducted jointly by Brazilian authorities and NTSB representatives are due out later this year. A Brazilian judge has already handed down criminal charges against ExcelAire pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino for “unintentional endangerment of an aircraft through negligence,” as well as separate charges against a number of Brazilian controllers. The American pilots face up to four years in prison each. But because their charges are not covered by a U.S.-Brazilian extradition treaty, it’s unlikely they will ever return to Brazil to stand trial. The judge in the case has set a date of August 27 to hear the pilots’ testimony.

Meanwhile, a congressional inquiry by Brazil’s lower house has concluded that the Legacy pilots bear most of the blame for the collision. A government report cites insufficient knowledge of the airplane’s avionics and recommends tougher charges carrying a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison each.

All 154 people aboard the 737 were killed when it went out of control and crashed after sustaining heavy damage to its left wing in the collision. It was Brazil’s deadliest air disaster until last month’s overrun crash of a TAM Linhas Aereas Airbus A320 at Congonhas Airport, which killed all 186 on board.