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Thu, Oct 19, 2006

Brazil's Defense Minister Backtracks

Says US Pilots Did Follow Flight Plan

The two US pilots still in Brazil were following their flight plan.  So says Brazil's Defense Minister Waldir Pires.

The two remain in Brazil as the investigation of a suspected mid-air collision continues. They gave up their passports on a judge's order and have been cooperating with investigators since.

The two were flying the Embraer Legacy 600 authorities suspect collided with a Gol Airlines 737 which crashed in the Amazon jungle on September 29. All 154 aboard perished in the accident.

Pires has been particularly critical of the pair even as the investigation proceeds. Pires has suggested the two were flying at the wrong altitude. He's even intimated they turned off the altitude reporting equipment aboard the business jet. So far, investigators have unearthed no conclusive evidence proving either of those allegations, and the two pilots have categorically, and consistently denied them.

In fact, they maintain they were following their flight plan, a claim Pires previously ridiculed as irresponsible. Now, Pires says they WERE following their flight plan.

He says radar records show the Legacy followed altitudes listed on the flight plan for at least part of its route. The executive jet was to fly at 37,000 ft until reaching the central capital of Brazilia when it was to turn northwest. If the crew were following their flight plan, the Legacy should have descended to 36,000.

It was on that northwest leg the mid-air occurred, and up to now, Brazilian authorities have said they weren't tracking the Legacy on radar.

Pires told the Associated Press "Information from the radar shows that after flying at an altitude of 37,000 feet, the plane (The Legacy) dropped 36,000 feet as it approached Brasilia. The flight plan was therefore being followed that time."

What happened then remains the unanswered question in the investigation.

Interestingly, this is the first time ANY Brazilian official has publicly discussed radar records showing the Legacy. Up to now, authorities had maintained they weren't able to track it. In fact, that claim is what prompted the initial allegations the pilots had turned off their transponder.

ExcelAire, the company the two pilots work for, declined to comment on any new information in the investigation.

In a statement the company said it, "...wishes to maintain its position of deference to the investigative process, a process to which it and its pilots continue to provide their full cooperation. The company remains convinced that the ongoing investigations will confirm that its pilots acted properly."

For now, the waters are muddier than ever in Brazil. And while not under arrest, Joseph Lepore and Jan Paladino remain in Rio de Janeiro -- without permission to come home.



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