Thu, Oct 12, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Brazilian minister slams US pilots over air disaster

AP , RIO DE JANEIRO

A Brazilian Air Force rescue team waits for the landing of a helicopter to load the bodies of victims of Gol flight 1907 in the Amazon rain forest on Oct. 2.

PHOTO: AFP

Brazil's defense minister said two US pilots were "irresponsible" in claiming they were at the correct altitude when their plane collided with a Gol airlines Boeing 737-800, killing 154 people.

"It was a frivolous statement ... It was irresponsible," Waldir Pires said in an interview with Globo TV aired on Tuesday. "The flight plan says that the [planes] should fly on even-number levels."

Investigators are questioning why the pilots were flying the Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet at 11,280m, an altitude reserved for planes going in the opposite direction at the time of the crash, Brazil's worst air disaster.

Pires has balked at any suggestion that errors by Brazilian air traffic controllers led to the crash.

Pilots Joseph Lepore, of Bay Shore, New York, and Jan Paladino, of Westhampton Beach, New York, told Mato Grosso state police that they were only following the flight plan when their jet collided with the Boeing over the Amazon rainforest on Sept. 29.

The Boeing crashed into the jungle, killing all 154 people aboard, while the Legacy, which was on its maiden flight to US purchaser ExcelAire Service Inc, landed safely at a Brazilian military base with none of the seven people aboard harmed.

On Tuesday, Edimara Fagundes, spokeswoman for the Mato Grosso Civil Police, said that the pilots' statements contradicted the flight plan obtained from the plane's Brazilian manufacturer and that investigators would seek to interview the two pilots again.

Brazilian authorities seized the passports of the Legacy pilots to prevent them from leaving the country. While they have not been arrested, the pilots remain holed up in a Rio de Janeiro hotel until the investigation is completed.

Fagundes said the flight plan shows that the Legacy was to fly at 11,280m from the southern city of Sao Jose dos Campos until it changed course over the nation's central capital of Brasilia.

At that point, the plane turned northwest and should have dropped to 10,970m. After flying another 500km, the flight plan said the plane should have risen to 11,580m.

But the pilots told investigators they lost contact with air traffic controllers after Brasilia and stuck to the altitude of 11,280m, where the collision apparently occurred.

The air force said on Tuesday it had recovered 143 bodies from the crash sight and was sending in heavy equipment to see if the remaining 11 bodies could be pinned beneath the wreckage of the fuselage and the wings.

Soldiers at the crash site also hoped to recover part of the plane's flight data recorder that is still missing.

Brazilian authorities have suggested, citing preliminary investigations, that the pilots may have turned off the executive jet's transponder, which transmits the aircraft's location. The pilots have repeatedly denied they turned off the device and said they did nothing wrong.

The Legacy's flight data recorders were to be sent to Canada to be analyzed by the International Organization of Civil Aviation, providing "complete transparency," officials said.

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