Pilots in Brazil Crash Defend Actions

Two pilots whose executive jet collided with a larger jet over the Brazilian jungle, killing 154 people, said Friday they were flying at the altitude assigned by air traffic controllers.

Speaking publicly for the first time about the Sept. 29 crash, Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino said on NBC's "Today" show that they never saw the larger plane and could not avoid the collision.

Paladino said they were flying at 37,000 feet, as directed, and could not have left that altitude without their permission.

"Air traffic controllers have responsibility to manage that traffic," he said.

Flight controllers have been under investigation in the crash, and federal police superintendent Daniel Lorenz Azevedo said Wednesday that other people may be charged.

The collision over the Amazon jungle killed everyone on board the Gol Airlines Boeing 737-800 in Brazil's worst air disaster. The smaller jet, owned by ExcelAire of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., landed safely with all seven people aboard unharmed.

"We were compliant with all regulations," Paladino said. "We were doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing, and we just experienced, automatically, just a jolt out of nowhere."

Brazilian authorities have formally accused Lepore, 42, and Paladino, 34, saying their "lack of caution" played a role in the crash. In a preliminary report, Brazilian police said the pilots could have prevented the disaster if they had noticed their plane's transponder was turned off.

The report said it wasn't clear whether the transponder malfunctioned or was turned off by the pilots. The device transmits the plane's altitude and operates the automatic collision warning system.

Paladino and Lepore said they never learned about the accident until a couple of hours later, though they said they asked immediately after landing whether another airplane had issued a distress call. The impact tore a wing tip and part of the tail off their plane, Lepore said.

A Brazilian judge will decide whether to indict the pilots and send them to trial. If convicted, each could face up to 12 years in prison.

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