The preliminary investigation into Brazil's worst air disaster could be completed as early as next week, authorities said Friday. The American pilots of an executive jet involved in the high-altitude collision said they were cooperating with investigators.
Authorities on Friday focused their probe on why the executive jet would have been in a flight lane assigned to traffic going in the opposite direction.
Local press reports have offered conflicting versions over what led to the deadly collision last Friday between the Gol airlines Boeing 737-800 and the Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet, variously assigning blame either to the two American pilots or to air traffic controllers.
The Boeing 737 jet plunged into the Amazon jungle, killing all 154 people aboard. The Legacy executive jet was able to land safely at a military base in the rainforest and none of the seven people aboard was hurt.
Federal police investigator Renato Sayao said Friday he was heading to Brasilia, the capital, to interview air traffic controllers and added the preliminary investigation could be completed next week.
The Legacy pilots Joseph Lepore, of Bay Shore, N.Y., and Jan Paladino, of Westhampton Beach, N.Y., have repeatedly told investigators they never turned off the device that transmits a plane's location and believed that it was working just before the collision.
Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm hired by ExcelAire, the company that owns the Legacy, said Friday the pilots remained at an undisclosed location in Rio de Janeiro and that they were doing everything possible to cooperate with Brazilian authorities.
"ExcelAire's pilots have responded to all inquires of the investigating authorities, submitted themselves to all requested medical examinations and investigative interviews and (are) committed to doing what it can to assist in the successful conclusion of the investigation," the company said in a statement.
"The Brazilian Air Force has stated that the investigation has not yet reached any conclusion regarding possible cause of or responsibility for the accident. As a result any speculation about those causes or responsibility is premature," it added.
A spokeswoman for the National Civil Aviation Agency has said there would be no official comment until the investigation was completed.
Lt. Brigadier General Paulo Roberto Cardoso Vilarinho, director of the Brazilian Airspace Control center, told reporters in Rio de Janeiro Thursday that tests so far had ruled out any malfunction of Brazil's air traffic control system.
Vilarinho said that air traffic controllers lost contact with the Legacy after the plane passed Brasilia and had tried to contact the plane many times without success. He said that after flight controllers lost contact, they were still able to track the plane's course but not its altitude by radar.
Vilarinho said the fact that the Legacy dropped off the radar and that the anti-collision systems failed suggests the plane's transponder was turned off or broken. But he said he saw no reason the pilots would deliberately turn off the transponder because the plane was flying legally.
Prosecutors said Wednesday they could charge the American pilots with involuntary manslaughter if they turned off the transponder, which is illegal under Brazilian law. The pilots' passports have been seized, but they have not been arrested.
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A pilot's statements suggest that Brazilian air traffic controllers set the two planes on a collision course.
The transponder transmits the aircraft's location and is used to warn other jets equipped with anti-collision devices that it is nearby.
"The 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."