Soldiers retrieve flight data recorder of Gol airlines flight that crashed Sept. 29.
In this picture released by the Brazilian Air Force, two soldiers retrieve the flight data recorder of the Gol airlines Boeing 737-800 that crashed on Sept. 29.
updated 11/2/2006 5:31:20 PM ET 2006-11-02T22:31:20

The flight recorder transcript from the executive jet involved in Brazil’s worst air disaster shows its American pilots were told by air traffic control to fly at the same altitude as a Boeing 737 before the planes collided over the Amazon rainforest, a newspaper reported Thursday.

Pilot Joseph Lepore was told by the tower in Sao Jose dos Campos to maintain an altitude of 37,000 feet as he flew the jet beyond Brasilia on a northwest path to Manaus, the Folha de S. Paulo quoted the transcript as saying.

That altitude contradicted the pilots’ filed flight plan as well as established norms, which reserve odd-numbered altitudes for southbound flights.

The Defense Ministry was not immediately able to confirm the report, spokeswoman Flavia de Oliveira said Thursday, and won’t have more information until air force officials return Monday from Canada, where black boxes from both planes were sent for analysis.

Folha, Brazil’s largest-circulation daily, did not reveal how it obtained the transcript. The air force, which oversees Brazil’s air traffic controllers, has not released it to Brazilian federal police or to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

All 154 people aboard Gol Airlines Flight 1907 were killed when the Boeing 737 crashed into the Amazon jungle on Sept. 29 after clipping the Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet.

The Legacy’s pilots — employees of ExcelAire Service Inc. of Ronkonkoma, N.Y. — were flying the Brazilian-made jet on its maiden voyage back to New York, and managed to land the badly damaged jet safely. They’ve been ordered to stay in Brazil during the investigation.

An American lawyer for ExcelAire in Brazil said the Folha report supports the pilots’ testimony to investigators.

“As we’ve maintained from the beginning, the pilots were cleared to Manaus for flight at three-seven-zero (37,000 feet) at the time of departure, and we’re confident that anyone that is able to hear the tower tapes or see a transcript of the instructions issued by the Sao Jose tower will hear the exact same thing,” attorney Robert Torricella said.

Series of problems
The tower instructions may have been the first of a series of problems that led to the crash. As the Legacy approached Brasilia, the plane lost radio contact with the control tower. The Legacy’s transponder, which signals the plane’s location to the tower and other airplanes, also stopped working.

Just what caused the failures remains unclear, but from that point on, both the pilots and the air traffic controllers lacked critical information. Controllers had no way of knowing the smaller plane’s altitude.

Brazilian officials have insisted the Legacy should have returned to its original flight plan after losing contact with the control tower. That plan would have mostly kept the smaller jet at 36,000 feet after Brasilia, and out of the path of the 737, which was flying at its customary altitude of 37,000 feet. Instead, both planes remained on a collision course.

But aviation experts say air traffic controller orders always take precedence over flight plans. They have also questioned why the controllers didn’t order the larger jet to change course just to be safe, since they lacked altitude information on the smaller jet.

Ten flight controllers who were working during the collision are on paid leave from their jobs.

Passports seized
Brazilian officials also have seized the passports of the two pilots — Lepore, of Bay Shore, N.Y., and Jan Paladino, of Westhampton Beach, N.Y. — while the probe drags on, delayed in part by the air force’s reluctance to turn over the transcript.

The air force has explained the delay as normal under the Convention on International Civil Aviation, which is designed to protect information given voluntarily to investigators.

Torricella called on Brazilian investigators to suspend the criminal probe until the accident investigation allows for “frank disclosure of all the facts,” and to allow the American pilots to return home in the meantime.

“It is unreasonable to expect them to remain here, essentially under confinement, while what could be a lengthy accident investigation continues,” he said.

Meanwhile, a work slowdown by air traffic controllers has provoked severe flight delays across Brazil. The controllers have complained that they are understaffed, overworked and underpaid despite robust Brazilian commercial flight growth.

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