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October 5, 2006 6:10 pm

Brazil defends air traffic controllers

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Brazilian officials have reacted angrily to attacks on the country’s air traffic control systems after an executive jet collided with a passenger aircraft over the Amazon region in central Brazil last Friday, leading to the worst accident in Brazilian aviation history.

The smaller aircraft landed safely after the collision but the passenger jet, a Boeing 737-800 operated by Gol, Brazil’s second biggest airline, crashed into thick forest, killing all 155 passengers and crew on board.

Joe Sharkey, a US journalist who was on board the executive jet, told US television interviewers that the Amazon region was notorious for the precariousness of its air traffic control, which had an atrocious history, and that the two US pilots of the executive jet, being questioned in Brazil, were in danger.

Waldir Pires, Brazil’s defence minister, described Mr Sharkey’s remarks as “irresponsible” and “lamentable” and pointed to Brazil’s very good safety record in civil aviation.

The Amazon region is covered by one of the most modern air traffic control systems in the world, installed in 2002.

Only one of two flight recorders on the Boeing has reportedly been found and has been sent for examination at the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, Canada. The smaller aircraft involved is a Legacy executive jet made by Embraer, the Brazilian manufacturer of civil, executive and military aircraft. Its flight recorder has been sent to Embraer for examination.

The Legacy was on its first flight and had taken off from São José dos Campos in São Paulo state, where Embraer is based, on its way to Manaus in northern Brazil. It was being flown by two US pilots employed by its new owner, ExcelAire, a US air taxi service.

According to press reports, the Legacy’s flight recorder shows that the Legacy had deviated from its flight plan by failing to reduce altitude from 37,000 feet to 36,000 feet on passing Brasília, in central Brazil.

Reports also claim that the Legacy’s transponder – which enables air traffic controllers to determine an aircraft’s location more accurately than with radar alone – had been turned off before the collision and was turned on again immediately afterwards.

Controllers reportedly tried five times to contact the Legacy by radio immediately before the accident but received no response.

ExcelAire, Embraer and Gol declined to comment.

Brazilian police are investigating whether the pilots had turned off their transponder and radio to disguise unauthorised manoeuvres. The pilots have surrendered their passports and will remain in Brazil for questioning.

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