Brazilian Midair: Were U.S. Pilots to Blame?

By Robert Mark on May 10th, 2007

You just have to love the Brazilian government.

After eight months of pilot and air traffic controller interviews, the Federal Police there seem to have decided the only logical reason for last fall’s midair collision over the rainforest was that the two U.S. Legacy pilots failed to notice their transponder went inoperative. The broken transponder also rendered their Traffic Collision and Avoidance (TCAS) system useless.

No need to consider why the transponder on the aircraft failed, nor any need to note that Brazilian air traffic controllers never noticed the lack of a transponder signal for the last hour before the crash. At least there is no need to admit that publicly.

No need to fuss about the fact that neither sector of Brazilian ATC really understood that both aircraft were at the same altitude. No question about why the Boeing crew didn’t see the Legacy before the accident.

And why would anyone flying an airplane under any flag care that the two airplanes reached the same point in time and space on two completely different radio frequencies.

Nope. Joe and Jan were flying and it happened on their watch.

If only life could be so black and white.

Clearly the Brazilian ATC system is still a mess and the families of the Brazilian victims have been after someone’s head for months. Not surprisingly, President Lula offers up a couple of people from 7,000 miles away over which he has no control.

Should the pilots have noticed the transponder had died? In a perfect world, yes.

But for those of you who fly … think about how often you check the operation of your transponder during a flight. Have you ever seen the innocuous system used on an EFIS tube to alert the crew to the transponder being inop? We’ll probably all watch this more closely though, I’m certain, at least for awhile.

The Air Safety Issue

But what happens to the air traffic system now that Brazil has aired its angst? Isn’t this the very same ATC system the Brazilians just a few months ago said was so screwy it needed to be transferred to civilian control?

It actually doesn’t matter if this crash occurred in Brazil, China or the Congo. Criminalizing an aviation accident serves only one purpose, a politician’s … someone who has their back against the wall.

Little has actually changed in Brazilian airspace since the midair as hundreds of business airplanes and airliners continue flying this same airspace each day.

If we continue to brand pilots and air traffic controllers as criminals for accidents, rather than search for the real causes to improve air safety, passengers and crews will continue to risk paying the ultimate price each and every time they fly.

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6 Responses to “Brazilian Midair: Were U.S. Pilots to Blame?”

  1. Phil G Says:

    In general, I agree with what you are saying, however you should be sure of your facts before writing something like this. The transponder was not “broke” as you indicate. It was “non-functional” as you said, but the reason it was non-functional is because the Legacy pilots failed to switch it from standby to on prior to takeoff, and yes it is a pre-takeoff checklist item. The Legacy’s transponder was simply never turned on, and therefor the TCAS was also non-functional…..and the pilots never noticed the “TCAS not operational” advisory on their displays…..until after the accident.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    My use of the term “broke” probably wasn’t the best, but you are correct that I meant functionally inoperative.

    Your comment about the pilots having missed the transponder on takeoff … can you tell me where you read that?


  3. Phil G Says:

    The NTSB report discusses the conversation in the cockpit immediately following the mid-air (taken from the CVR). It wasn’t printed as in a transcript, but what they said was that the pilot’s noticed their transponder was in standby, they hadn’t switched it on prior to takeoff. Also…..see below

    Reasons for Aircraft Collisions Despite TCAS Subject to Eurocontrol Analysis

    Reacting to a just-issued Eurocontrol Safety Warning Message (SWM) about the loss of traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) functionality, a Germany-based airline captain says many airline checklists are now eliminating a final check on whether TCAS is switched on when lining up for take-off. The reason, he says, is that such a check, which “creates a head-down moment” at a high-workload, high-risk moment, is missed or ignored for runway safety reasons.

    The captain notes that TCAS drills before take-off have been modified because of the increasing use of Mode S ground surveillance by air traffic control, which means that TCAS is now left at standby during taxiing instead of being turned on with the transponder after engine start as it used to be. Eurocontrol safety management tools expert Tzvetomir Blajev, examining the lessons emerging from the Gol Boeing 737-800 collision with an Embraer Legacy business jet over Brazil last September used the emailed SWM to remind pilots that the TCAS and the transponder must both be switched on, otherwise there will be no airborne collision avoidance system (ACAS) alerts to the pilots in conflicting aeroplanes. The US NTSB says evidence suggests the Legacy’s TCAS was serviceable but not switched on, and neither aircraft received any ACAS warning as a result.

    Flight International 5/8/07

  4. BP Says:

    Even if the transponder was not switched on, ATC should have recognized that when they first called departure control after takeoff. Another apparent link in the chain leading up to the accident. For the aircraft to be under radar control (wasn’t it?) and not ever have had the non-operation of the transponder remarked on is very strange indeed.

  5. IsuzuDave Says:

    I am an air traffic controller at an ARTCC in the US. From all of the reading I have done, this looks like the controllers are responsible for putting these two planes together. If the Legacy jets transponder was never turned, on and they are not RADAR identified, how can the controllers provid them RADAR service. If this deal happened where I work the controllers would but it.
    It would have been great if the transponder was turned on. The pilots or the controller would have had a better chance avoiding this accident. It sounds like these planes are in conflict regardless of transponder status.

  6. Controller expert Says:

    Dear Phil G,

    Sorry, you got it completely wrong.

    The transponder was turned on as required by the checklist. And this right from the take-off on. The radar pictures prove it.

    When the transponder went off, roughly 1 hour before the collision, the transponder went on STAND-BY, and not OFF. There is a big difference between the two. This can happen by an accidental finger manipulation, the soft keys are very tricky.

    So the radar tracking was lost and the anti-collision system TCAS stopped to work properly.

    I don’t want to speculate if controllers should have noted the turned off transponder, but the picture they have made sense to them.

    Nor do I want to speculate if 2 professional pilots should have noted the TCAS OFF message on their MFD and PFD. It made all sense to them and we have other reported occurrences where this had happened before.

    Speculations are not a clever thing when a terrible accident occurred. Let’s wait for the final accident report to come out and clarify this. Will it really?

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