It’s not all about the guys in Brazil

By Robert Mark on November 27th, 2006

As I look back at nearly two months of captivity for the two Excelaire Legacy pilots in Brazil, I’m beginning to feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland when she said, “Things just keep getting curiouser and curiouser.” 

Certainly that Joe LePore and Jan Paladino have been unable to leave the country smacks Americans in the face like a bucket of cold water.But there is much more to the story behind September’s midair collision over the Brazilian rainforest than the holding of these two Americans as many of you from South America and other parts of the world have been good enough to remind me. (And BTW, there is no need to apologize for sending private e-mails with information rather than posting directly to this blog. Please continue to update us as you learn more) 

Despite the flurry of technical discussions in the aviation press, many of you may not realize that outside of the aviation industry, few people even realize these two guys are still in Brazil. With other things going on in the world too, there are plenty of people who don’t care either.  The question on my lips tonight though is which issue we should be focusing on right now. 

Some of you may know that I spent 14 years of my life as an air traffic controller here in the United States and in Europe. And no matter where you are in the world, there is little else as bad in life as watching two airplanes run together. I saw another controller go through that when I was a trainee many years ago, so my heart goes out to the man or woman who was working the Brazilian airspace where the collision occurred. 

But despite wanting to see Joe and Jan get back home, we cannot lose sight of the issue someone raised with me yesterday from South America, that the ATC system in Brazil is broken and that our trying to help our fellow airmen escape could well have played into the hands of the Brazilian government that is running for cover from this ATC crisis anyway.  

While we busy ourselves appealing to our legislators and diplomats here in the U.S. the Brazilian ATC system continues to be a mess … too much traffic, too few controllers and antiquated technology. The fact that no one in the Brazilian government seems capable of even allowing for the possibly of an ATC system failure – human or technical – makes me think they “doth protest way too much.” 

And what are we doing to protect other airman and passengers from becoming the next unwitting victims on a flight to or from Brazil, or anywhere else in the world where ATC runs this way? Seems like we’re only crossing our fingers.   If the Brazilian military that runs the ATC system refuses to admit the system has any holes anywhere, it means they’ll never take the time to try and fix it. And if they don’t try to repair the system now after a midair like the one in September, it may well be only a matter of time before it happens again.If we think we’re angry now because they’re holding these two pilots, imagine how we’re going to feel if there’s another accident and we did nothing?  I love a good technical debate about flying as much as the next pilot, but we’ve got to get out there and tell people outside of this industry that not only do we want those two guys back, but that we also want the ATC system in Brazil fixed before we send one more airplane of any nationality in or out of that country. If there is even the possibility that ATC in Brazil could have been a cause or a contriubuting factor in the September crash, fix it now.

Let’s just go out on a limb for a minute and assume that the accident reports shows the Brazilian ATC was a factor, but that we don’t learn about it for certain until next fall when the report is complete. What will the Brazilian ATC directors do then? Continue to pretend the problem doesn’t exist?

My guess is that if plain old ordinary airline passengers realize they could be putting their own lives at risk flying in Brazil, or that of their employees, we may do more to win the release of Joe and Jan than anything else. And we may save a few more lives while we do it.   

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