Brazilian authorities finally permitted ExcelAire pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino to leave Brazil Friday, but not before federal police officials charged the two men with endangering air safety because of the Sept. 29 midair collision between their Embraer Legacy and a Gol Airlines 737.
ExcelAire officials at the company's Ronkonkoma, N.Y. headquarters said Lepore and Paladino were on a private aircraft that departed Brazil about 1300 on Friday. The flight was expected to stop in Florida overnight before bringing the pilots back to Ronkonkoma Saturday, where the company officials, co-workers and friends were planning a welcoming ceremony.
Asked how Lepore and Paladino were holding up after 70 days of being kept in Brazil because their passports had been seized by Brazilian officials, David Rimmer, executive vice president of ExcelAire, said, "It's been a difficult and emotional time" for both the pilots and their families. Lepore and Paladino went through "a terrible trauma," Rimmer said, by being involved in the midair collision that claimed the lives of all 154 people aboard the 737 and which easily could have killed the ExcelAire pilots and their passengers as well. Instead of being able to recover from that event, the two pilots have had to face the ordeal of accusations and criminal charges while being detained in Brazil.
Pilots Cooperated with Accident Investigators
ExcelAire said earlier that Lepore and Paladino had cooperated fully with Brazilian accident investigators, providing detailed statements and responding to questions. But Rimmer said Friday the men had not been questioned or interviewed since Oct. 3 - they were kept in limbo waiting to have their passports returned - a move finally authorized by a Brazilian judge last week. Before leaving the country, the two pilots were required to appear at federal police headquarters in Sao Paulo to make a statement. But "even before the start of the planned interrogation [Friday], federal police officers advised them that they were accusing them of unspecified criminal conduct," ExcelAire said in a statement.
"The decision to accuse Joe and Jan of criminal wrongdoing is irresponsible in the face of overwhelming evidence that exonerates them," said Robert Torricella, the Miami, Fla.-based attorney representing the pilots and Excel-Aire. "The Brazilian Federal Police is telling the world that pilots who fly in Brazil can be accused of crimes for doing nothing more than complying with applicable aviation regulations and following air traffic control directives. This is an alarming precedent for the international aviation community."
Terribly Dangerous Precedent
ExcelAire's Rimmer echoed that view, calling the treatment of the company's pilots a "terribly dangerous precedent," asking "who wants to fly" an airplane when you might find yourself "under the threat" of possible criminal charges and a lengthy detainment in the event of an incident or accident. "It's pretty frightening," Rimmer added. He said the aviation community has to come up with an "action plan" for "how the world responds to [a situation like the one in Brazil] the next time it happens."
A number of aviation organizations have been calling for the release of the ExcelAire pilots for weeks, urging the U.S. government to get involved, and writing to Brazilian authorities asking them to focus on finding the cause of the accident instead of pursuing criminal charges before all the facts are in (BA, Nov. 27/239). Five of those groups - the Flight Safety Foundation, National Business Aviation Association, the International Federation of Air Traffic Control Associations, the International Federation of Air Line Pilot Associations and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation - issued a joint letter Friday commending the action of the court in ordering the return of the pilots' passports and "renewing a call that criminal inquiries not be made a part of investigations into any party involved in the accident."
The letter warned that a situation like the one that evolved in Brazil "has the potential to set a dangerous precedent for applying criminal charges to any pilot or other party to accidents involved in international aviation operations, and is counter to the recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organization." The five signatory organizations also said that hasty criminal investigations "can produce conclusions and verdicts, that could be proven erroneous once a full safety investigation has taken place." An emphasis on criminal penalties "distracts investigators from addressing the root causes of an accident, and finding ways to avoid such causes in the future," they said.
Jose Carlos Dias, the Brazilian counsel for the ExcelAire pilots, in the statement issued by the company said, "We had hoped that the police investigation would be conducted with integrity and transparency, and that they would have listened to the pilots' testimony before making baseless accusations. We are disappointed that the police investigator could not rise above the politics of the matter and let the facts determine its actions."
While the Brazilian media and some government officials began making accusations about the ExcelAire pilots within days of the accident, subsequent events have revealed serious problems with that nation's air traffic control system. Some airports in the country were closed again last week because of sporadic morning and afternoon blackouts in communications between aircraft and the Brasilia air traffic control center. Brazilian aeronautic authorities were investigating the causes of the blackouts, which affected Brazil's entire southeastern and central western airspace, with ensuing flight delays and cancellations. After previously denying that "blind spots" existed in Brazil's air traffic control system, Defense Minister Waldir Piris assured reporters that the entire system is being reassessed to take whatever measures are needed to restore the confidence of the traveling public.
Information from the flight data recorder of the Legacy and transcripts of tapes from ATC facilities show that there were extended periods both before and after the Sept. 29 collision when the Legacy pilots and controllers were unable to establish or maintain radio communication with one another.