Brazil's defense minister on Wednesday defended air traffic controllers involved in the country's deadliest air disaster, dismissing claims by media and a U.S.-based air taxi firm apparently blaming controllers for allegedly ordering an executive jet to fly at the wrong altitude.
Waldir Pires also told a news conference that it was irresponsible to assign blame until the completion of an investigation into the cause of the Sept. 29 collision between Gol airlines flight 1907 and the Brazilian-built Legacy executive jet.
"The (control) tower normally thinks of when an airplane is taking off and what is its final destination, but it isn't what determines the altitudes and course of things," Pires said.
"That is the flight plan," he added. "And in the flight plan, it was written that the (Legacy) should travel at 37,000 feet from Sao Jose dos Campos to Brasilia and in Brasilia should drop to 36,000 feet."
Last week, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo published an unsourced report saying the control tower in Sao Jose dos Campos, where the Legacy took off, cleared it to fly at 37,000 feet - an altitude normally reserved for traffic headed the opposite direction - all the way to the Amazon jungle city of Manaus.
The Legacy collided with the Gol's Boeing 737, which crashed to the jungle floor killing all 154 people aboard. The smaller jet landed safely with not injuries to the passengers or crew.
Pires' comments on Wednesday came in response to a statement issued a day earlier by ExcelAire Service Inc., the Legacy's owner, that appeared to blame the accident on Brazilian controllers.
"In the face of recent confirmations that air traffic control cleared and directed the ExcelAire Legacy Jet to fly to Manaus at 37,000 feet, repeated suggestions that ExcelAire's pilots were flying at the wrong altitude are baseless," Robert Torricella, a lawyer representing ExcelAire said in the statement.
The day before, lawyers for victim's families had filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal courts claiming negligence by Excel and Honeywell International Inc., the manufacturer of the jet's transponder.
Also on Wednesday, Folha published another unsourced report saying that transcripts of flight recorders showed no sign of panic on the Gol flight after the collision, suggesting the plane went into a steep nosedive rendering everyone aboard unconscious in a matter of seconds.
The air force commission investigating the crash returned on Tuesday from Canada, where the planes' data recorders were being analyzed, but has not yet announced its findings. Folha did not say how it obtained its information.
Reports in local media, mostly citing anonymous sources, have shifted the blame between the pilots and air traffic controllers.
Last week controllers caused nationwide delays when they launched a work slowdown, protesting what they say are poor working conditions that make air travel unsafe.
Ten air traffic controllers who were working at the time of the crash were relieved from active duty and reportedly have been receiving psychological care.
Brazilian officials have seized the passports of the two American pilots, both from Long Island, New York. They have remained in a Rio de Janeiro hotel while the probe drags on.
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