RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—On a warm afternoon three weeks ago, a Boeing 737 passenger jet was cruising 37,000 feet above the Amazon jungle when, seemingly out of nowhere, a U.S.-owned corporate jet flying in the opposite direction clipped the passenger jet's right wing and tail. The Boeing went into a free fall that killed all 154 people aboard. It was the deadliest plane crash in Brazilian history.
Brazilian investigators still haven't figured out how the accident Sept. 29 happened. Experts said the odds against such an incident were upward of 200 million to 1.
But U.S. experts are worried that Brazilian officials are trying to absolve themselves of blame by focusing on the corporate jet's American pilots, who managed to land their plane safely. Both are under house arrest in a Brazilian hotel and have had their passports seized.
Brazilian Defense Minister Waldir Pires has said air-traffic controllers weren't at fault and has speculated that the American pilots may have turned off the jet's transponder, a device that would've announced the plane's altitude to controllers and possibly helped prevent the accident.
Brazilian news reports have turned against the pilots. A leading newsmagazine ran a story whose headline read: "Two young American pilots. A new airplane. A flight over the Amazon on a sunny afternoon. They thought they could do everything. And brought tragedy."
There's been no evidence released officially that would support suggestions that the pilots did anything to place their plane or the Boeing 737 in jeopardy.
But the stakes are high, not just for the New York-based pilots, Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino, but also for the Brazilian air traffic-control system.
With lawyers from around the world flocking to Brazil to represent the victims' families, the fate of the corporate jet's owner, ExcelAire, also hangs in the balance.
Peter Goeltz, a former managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates air disasters in the United States and often abroad, has noted what he thinks is the irregular nature so far of the Brazilian investigation.
"I would say there was a considerable amount of what sounded like official speculation early on, which was unusual," he said.
The investigation also has drawn attention to what many experts say are flaws in Brazil's protocol for investigating air crashes. Not only does the military run the air traffic-control system, but it also investigates plane accidents, meaning air force officials are asked to monitor themselves. Investigations are conducted behind closed doors.
"By admitting that they really screwed up, that would make the whole system guilty," said Ross Aimer, a retired United Airlines pilot with 40 years of flying experience, including between Brazil and the United States.
"Any system has some problems, even in this country, but to admit that `we screwed up, we killed those people'—I think what they're trying to do is reach at any straw," Aimer said.
Even the president of a union that represents Brazil's 650 civilian air-traffic controllers, who work under military supervision, has expressed concern about the military investigating itself. Jorge Botelho said the system's lack of transparency and oversight put passengers at risk.
"I have no doubt this is affecting the quality of the work," Botelho said in an interview. "This military system isn't letting the public see what's happening and hold people responsible."
Defense Minister Pires has called such criticism frivolous and has placed his confidence in the military investigators.
"These surveys are careful, but it's fundamental to know what happened," he said at a news conference Thursday. "Was there a breakdown? The transponder was turned off? Was there a temporary interruption in contacts? All this needs to be thoroughly investigated."
What's known is that the accident happened 37,000 feet over a remote part of the jungle near the Xingu National Park.
The corporate jet, a Legacy model just delivered by Brazilian aircraft-maker Embraer, was given a flight plan calling for it to fly northwest at 37,000 feet until it reached the capital of Brasilia, where it was to have descended to 36,000 feet. It was then supposed to climb to 38,000 feet when it reached a spot about 180 miles from where the collision occurred.
The Boeing, also a new plane, was following a plan that called for it to cruise at 37,000 feet on its way southeast from the city of Manaus to Brasilia.
Newly recovered data from the planes' flight recorders show that the smaller jet's transponder wasn't on at the time, Brazilian officials said Thursday. Air-traffic officials have said they tried at least five times, without success, to contact the Legacy pilots before the crash when they realized they couldn't read its altitude.
The most vital questions include:
_Why was the Legacy at 37,000 feet when its flight plan called for it to be flying 1,000 feet higher?
_Did its pilots receive instructions to depart from its flight plan?
_Why wasn't its transponder on at the moment of collision?
_Did air-traffic controllers see the collision coming? If so, why didn't they order the Boeing to move horizontally?
Statements by Brazilian officials, as well as leaks to the local news media, often have added to the confusion.
On Tuesday, Pires said radars showed that the Legacy had at least partly followed its flight plan and descended to 36,000 feet after passing Brasilia, contradicting earlier reports that air-traffic controllers hadn't tracked its altitude. Yet two days later, Pires confirmed only that the flight recorders showed the private jet flying at 37,000 feet before the capital. On Friday, he repeated the earlier information.
Also on Tuesday, the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo reported that air-traffic controllers had asked the Legacy to stay at 37,000 feet shortly before reaching Brasilia. They apparently lost radio contact with the jet's pilots afterward. Pires denied the report.
In the absence of anything but a shifting sand of leaks, U.S. aviation experts have more questions than answers.
For example, if the transponder stopped working, "it would be up to the radar controllers to say, `Hey, I'm not getting your transponder; I'm not getting your target,'" said a recently retired crash-scene investigator who requested anonymity because he's often called in as a consultant to probes. "They immediately wouldn't see the airplane and say, `Check your transponder.'"
U.S. experts also are troubled by a parallel criminal investigation into the crash being run by police in the state of Mato Grosso, where the accident happened.
"When you've got a concurrent judicial investigation that starts immediately, and there was considerable speculation about charges, that has a tremendous chilling effect on the accident investigation," the ex-investigator said.
For Alfredo Botelho Benjamim, whose wife of 34 years died aboard the Boeing jet, the goal isn't pinning blame but learning the truth.
"What's important is we have a serious, ethical, honest investigation," he said. "This was an enormous tragedy, and many people are speculating about what happened, but we are not going to make any conclusions before we know for sure."
(Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro, Hall from Washington.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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