Legacy pilots in midair face ordeal

 - November 6, 2006, 6:53 AM

Brazilian authorities held two U.S. pilots in connection with the September 29 midair collision that caused a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 to plunge into the Amazon jungle, killing all 154 on board and beginning a harrowing ordeal for the business jet crew from Long Island.

Pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino were at the controls of the Embraer Legacy 600 that collided with the 737 over Brazil. A judge in the territory where the Gol jet crashed ordered the pilots’ passports confiscated at the request of a prosecutor investigating Brazil’s worst-ever air accident.

The NTSB has sent investigators to Brazil to assist in the probe. NTSB senior investigator William English is serving as the U.S. accredited representative and has been accompanied by two Safety Board investigators and representatives from the FAA and Boeing.

It is too soon in the investigation to determine what role TCAS, RVSM or the actions of the 737 and Legacy crews might have played in the accident. Brazilian media, however, are pointing the finger at the American pilots.

News outlets there have been reporting that the Legacy crew might be at fault, with speculation focusing on indications that the Legacy pilots ignored a controller’s instruction to descend to 36,000 feet from 37,000 feet. The government’s news service said the business jet was supposed to be flying at the lower altitude. Meanwhile, the head of the country’s airports authority told a Brazilian newspaper that the Legacy’s transponder was not functioning at the time of the accident.

The midair occurred at about 5 p.m. local time after the Legacy had been airborne for an hour and half. The stricken jet with seven people aboard and parts of its stabilizers and most of the left winglet torn away, landed safely at a Brazilian military base. The Legacy had been registered on the day of the accident as N600XL to ExcelAire of Ronkonkoma, N.Y. The ExcelAire pilots were picking up the new airplane to fly it to the U.S.

Among the passengers was New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey, who at the time of the midair was on assignment for Business Jet Traveler magazine, a sister publication of NBAA Convention News and Aviation International News. Sharkey recounted the details of his brush with death in an interview for  AINtv.com.

“I had the window shade drawn and all of a sudden I heard ‘Bang!’,” recalled Sharkey in his interview with AIN editor-in-chief R. Randall Padfield. “It was like a car crash–a fender-bender–like a very sharp jolt.”