Brazilian court upholds LI pilots' convictions

At the ExcelAire terminal at Islip MacArthur Airport,

At the ExcelAire terminal at Islip MacArthur Airport, pilots Joseph Lepore (wearing white shirt) and Jan Paladino, (wearing dark suit) arrived from Brazil where they were held for 10 weeks after an air crash. Lepore holds his daughter Nicole, 3. (Credit: Daniel Goodrich)

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An appeals court in Brazil upheld the convictions of two Long Island pilots for their roles in a 2006 collision over the Amazon jungle, but reduced the sentence issued by a lower court.

The judges cut the sentence from 4 years, 4 months to 3 years, 1 month, and eliminated any community service for the pilots, essentially sentencing them to probation. The prosecution, which had appealed with a victims' family group to seek a more stringent sentence, is expected to appeal the latest ruling.

Joel Weiss, the pilots' Uniondale attorney, said, "It's not perfect, but it's a big step in the right direction." He said the pilots' legal team is considering whether it would appeal the latest ruling.

The appeals court upheld the lower court ruling from last year that pilots Joseph Lepore of Bay Shore and Jan Paladino of Westhampton Beach were negligent for not verifying that anti-collision equipment and a device that would have alerted controllers to their location were functioning in the Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet they were flying. They have both denied that accusation.

Lepore and Paladino were transporting the new Brazilian-built Embraer Legacy 600 purchased by ExcelAire Service Inc. of Ronkonkoma to Long Island when the aircraft collided with a Gol Lineas Aereas Intelligentes SA Boeing 737 on Sept. 29, 2006. Although they were able to safely land their damaged plane, all 154 people aboard the commercial airliner died when it crashed into the jungle.

The failures that led to the 2006 crash have been bitterly disputed by controllers, pilots, judges and aviation officials.

It was Brazil's worst air disaster until a jet ran off a runway less than a year later in Sao Paulo and burst into flames, killing 199 people.

Lepore and Paladino faced charges in Brazil of negligence and endangering air traffic safety, and were accused of flying at the wrong altitude and failing to turn on the aircraft's anti-collision system. Last year, the judge convicted them of impeding the safe navigation of an airplane.

Neither Lepore nor Paladino were in Brazil for the ruling. They have not returned to the South American nation since being allowed to leave about two months after the crash.

In December 2008, a Brazilian air force report concluded that the U.S. pilots might have contributed to the crash by inadvertently turning off the plane's transponder and collision-avoidance system. However, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board blamed the collision mostly on shortcomings in Brazil's military-run air-traffic control system.

In videoconference testimony at the trial last year, the pilots denied any wrongdoing.

"We knew that the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) and the transponder were on, but we had no indication that there was anything out there, no display, no warnings, no pop-ups," Lepore testified at last year's trial. "All we knew is that our transponder was working. If there was another plane out there, it could have been their equipment that wasn't working."

Paladino also denied any responsibility for the crash.

In 2010, a military court convicted air-traffic controller Jomarcelo Fernandes dos Santos, an air force sergeant, to 14 months in jail for failing to take action when he saw that the Legacy's anti-collision system had been turned off. Four other controllers were acquitted for lack of proof.

With AP

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