Brazilian federal police on Friday charged two U.S. pilots involved in a collision that killed 154 people with exposing an aircraft to danger. The charges could carry a sentence of 12 years in prison.
Joseph Lepore, 42, of Bay Shore, and Jan Paladino, 34, Westhampton Beach, were questioned by police for six hours and then were allowed to pick up their passports and leave the country, but they are required to return for their trial.
The two pilots from the Long Island area of New York state told police they would reply in court, and did not speak to media after questioning.
Police had seized their passports after the Sept. 29 crash to prevent them from leaving the country, and they had been staying in a hotel on Rio's Copacabana Beach. But a Brazilian court released their passports this week, saying there were no legal grounds for restricting their movements.
Lepore and Paladino were piloting a Brazilian-made Legacy executive jet when it collided with a Gol Airlines Boeing 737-800 heading south over the Amazon jungle. All 154 people aboard the Gol flight were killed, while the Legacy landed safely with all seven people aboard unharmed.
The Legacy, owned by ExcelAire of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., was heading northwest on its maiden voyage from the southern city of Sao Jose dos Campos to the United States when the accident occurred at an altitude of 37,000 feet, usually reserved for flights headed in the opposite direction.
Transcripts suggest the Legacy had been authorized by the tower in Sao Jose dos Campos to fly at 37,000 feet to Manaus, although that contradicted the plane's original flight plan.
Warning systems failed on both planes before they collided, an Air Force investigator said last month.
Air traffic controllers believed the Legacy was flying at 36,000 feet at the time it collided with Gol Flight 1907, Brig. Gen. Luiz Carlos da Silva Bueno recently told a Senate committee.
But "at departure, air traffic control cleared the Legacy to Manaus at 37,000 feet," ExcelAire lawyer Robert Torricella said at the time. "Absent a contrary clearance by air traffic control, the Legacy was required to remain at that altitude."
The lawyer for the pilots, former Justice Minister Jose Carlos Dias, said the pilots picked up their passports and were taken to Guarulhos airport for a charter flight to the United States.
Dias called the police decision "biased" and "discriminatory," and said police were simply "looking for someone to blame for the crime." He added that if the factors leading to the fatal collision were considered unintentional, the maximum penalty would fall to four years in prison.