Two Long Island pilots involved in a September midair collision over the Amazon rain forest were never lost before impact and were trying to figure out an onboard entertainment system - not the critical flight-management computer, as previously indicated, the voice cockpit recorder on their jet shows.
Nearly eight months after the accident in which 154 died, the full transcript of the cockpit recorder has surfaced, and the 112 pages give a very different impression of the pilots' competence compared to leaked excerpts in the Brazilian media in February. Those excerpts suggested the pilots did not know how to program their flight computer and did not know where they were shortly before the collision.
But the availability of all of the cockpit dialogue has done nothing to reduce the controversy over the accident.
Pilots Joseph Lepore of Bay Shore and Jan Paladino of Westhampton Beach were allowed to leave Brazil in December. They are now waiting for a prosecutor in Brazil to decide whether to indict them after a federal police investigation two weeks ago blamed them and air traffic controllers for causing the collision between the Embraer Legacy they were flying and Gol airlines Flight 1907, a Boeing 737 that crashed Sept. 29.
Part of lawsuit
The transcript, prepared by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board for the Brazilian government, was submitted recently to federal court in Brooklyn as part of a lawsuit by the families of those killed against Lepore's and Paladino's employer, Ronkonkoma-based ExcelAire, and Honeywell, which made electronics on the Embraer Legacy jet.
The San Francisco law firm Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein filed the transcript, which previously had only been released to parties in the investigations, to prove their contention that Lepore and Paladino were preoccupied with trying to figure out how to operate systems on the plane. As a result, the suit says, they caused the crash by not realizing the locational transponder had stopped working.
But several independent aviation safety experts say the document supports ExcelAire's position that the pilots did nothing wrong. They said the pilots checking out the plane's operating systems while at cruising altitude with the autopilot on was not out of the ordinary. And they added that the transcript shows Brazilian air traffic controllers erred by failing to reroute Flight 1907 when they could not communicate with the Legacy. All 154 people on the Gol flight died.
When excerpts of the transcript were leaked and printed in the Brazilian media, ExcelAire claimed information had been taken out of context or mistranslated into Portuguese. The full transcript supports that.
The transcript is based on two hours of recordings, beginning after takeoff and concluding after the plane makes an emergency landing at a Brazilian air force base. It begins at 18:37:12 local time with the crew discussing fuel loading and how it affects the plane's handling. They discuss difficulty understanding the controllers: "They are speaking English, but it's tough," one pilot says. Most of the dialogue - more fully detailed in the new transcript - concerns fuel consumption, the weather and the layout at the Manaus airport.
At 19:40:13, the plane tries to reach the Brasília controllers for the first of 12 times. There is a response from a controller, but the communication is broken up. At 19:55:47, a pilot says, "I got radio problem here."
Then at 19:56:54 comes the sound of the impact, which ripped off the tip of one of the Legacy's wings. A pilot says, "What the hell was that?" The other pilot responds, "All right, just fly the airplane, dude ..."
A pilot says, "Do we have a wing tip?" Another voice responds, "No."
At 20:20:05, as the Legacy approached the runway at an air force base, one pilot said, "We hit something, man. We hit another airplane. I don't know where the -- it came from." The other pilot responded, "I never saw it, dude."
Two seconds later comes the sound of the aircraft touching down. When one pilot says, "Good job, good job ..." his colleague responds, "We're alive ..." Then there is laughter and the sound of the passengers in the cabin clapping.
Who is to blame?
Hans-Peter Graf, former investigator in charge at the Swiss Aircraft Accidents Investigation Bureau who is working for the Lieff firm, said the transcript shows the pilots and controllers both made mistakes.
"A first impression was the pilots were not very well trained with the airplane," Graf said. "They were not totally prepared to do the flight, so they had to do part of the flight preparation," such as planning the landing, during the flight instead of before it.
As for the controllers, Graf said, "the transcript shows that the controllers only started calling the airplane very late, only minutes before the accident." This is new information from the transcript; Brazil has not released the transcripts of tower conversations.
Joel R. Weiss, a Uniondale lawyer representing the pilots, said the transcript "reveals that the pilots functioned in a completely competent manner." He added that "the real issue here" is that "air traffic control would authorize and clear these two aircraft onto a collision course."
John M. Cox, president of Safety Operating Systems in Washington and a former safety official at the Air Line Pilots Association, said, "I am not in any way critical of the way that that crew handled themselves. They talk quite a bit about fuel planning; they're not talking about how the Yankees did. I think the Brazilian air traffic control system has a problem."
Bill Waldock, professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, said the pilots' behavior was proper for a crew picking up a new aircraft. Working with the flight-management system and entertainment system "would be a normal pilot response at 37,000 feet where you're not constantly scanning for traffic" and expect controllers to be keeping track of other aircraft.
Recording's key moments
The San Francisco law firm Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein has submitted the full transcript of the cockpit recorder to federal court in Brooklyn in a lawsuit against pilots Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino, ExcelAire and Honeywell. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the victims' families. Here is a summary of the moments before the collision:
At 19:40:13, the plane tries to reach Brasília controllers, the first of 12 attempts. A controller responds, but the communication is broken up. At 19:55:47, a pilot says, "I got radio problem here."
At 19:56:54 comes the sound of an impact. One pilot says, "Uh-oh," the autopilot disconnects and three chimes ring out. A pilot says, "What the hell was that?" The other pilot responds, "All right, just fly the airplane, dude ..."
Seconds later, one pilot says, "Where the -- did he come from? All right, we're going down. Declaring an emergency. Sit down." At 20:03:00, a pilot said, "We are on course. We're on level attitude. I don't know what the -- we just hit."
The pilots make five more radio calls to Brasília without response and then one says, "Do we have a wing tip?" Another voice responds, "No."
At 20:20:05, as the Legacy approached the runway at an Air Force base, one pilot said, "We hit something, man. We hit another airplane. I don't know where the -- it came from." The other pilot responded, "I never saw it, dude."
Two seconds later, the aircraft touches down.
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