Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Truth Finally Gets Its Socks On

Given that the two American pilots of the Legacy 600 are now on trial, in absentia, on criminal charges that carry prison time in Brazil, it’s interesting to see how conventional wisdom has finally evolved in Brazil to accommodate realities that were violently in dispute for many months after the Sept. 29 crash.

Take this article by Concetta Kim Martens of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a think-tank whose interests include “the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.” The article was published on the organization’s Web site,, and republished by Brazil Magazine (, where it drew lively reader comment.

Obviously, I have no quarrel with the essence of the article.

That’s because nearly every assertion in it was first made a long time ago on this blog. But that was way back when no one else in the media was even raising the issues of the soundness of Brazil’s air-traffic control system, or criticizing the reckless rush by the Brazilian government, military and Federal Police to criminalize the Sept. 29 accident and scapegoat the American pilots.

Now that accuracy is winning the battle, we need to encourage perspective to march forward. So I need to point out that the COHA article, while essentially correct in its points, shades history a bit. And as I sense we are nearing the point where journalism must tip its fedora to history, I am sure Ms. Martens will forgive my nit-picking.

or one thing, she muddies the facts a bit on the demeanor of air-traffic controllers after the accident. “Since the September 29 Gol crash over the Amazon, controllers felt unfairly targeted for splenetic criticism [my italics] they were receiving from the public, and reacted by staging several work stoppages …” she writes.

Didn't happen quite that way.

Here is what did happen:

First the American pilots were recklessly and, it seemed to me universally, scapegoated. It took a while for the public in Brazil to become aware of, or concede, the role of air-traffic control in the accident.

Remember how long the ex-defense minister, Wonderful Waldir Pires, loudly insisted that the pilots caused the crash by performing reckless aerial loop d loops over the Amazon? Nobody in power told him to put a lid on that nonsense, including his boss, the President, who won a runoff election amid the passions of the disaster, which had occurred two days before the polls opened.

Only in time did the general public, but not the authorities, acknowledge that the Sept. 29 crash had been set in motion by a series of egregious errors by air traffic controllers, who themselves were working in deplorable conditions with faulty equipment within a system beset with major technological deficiencies in radar and radio communications, especially over the Amazon.

Initially, as I argued last October, November and afterward, the air-traffic controllers' protests were basically a warning shot across the bow of government and military to not implicate air -traffic control in the blame.

What actually happened was that low-ranking controllers – fearing that they, too, might become scapegoats along with the pilots (which in fact ultimately happened) – clammed up while the American pilots remained in custody in Brazil.

While the pilots twisted in the wind, the core group of controllers who were on duty during the accident -- the people who knew, for example, that air-traffic control was aware of the transponder malfunction on the Legacy for 50 minutes before the crash and failed to raise the alarm -- remained silent, went to ground and refused to answer any questions, citing psychological trauma.

As the protests continued for months, air traffic in Brazil was thrown into chaos.

For months after the Sept. 29 accident, public sentiment, whipped up by xenophobic Brazilian media, had focused sharply and exclusively on the Americans as culprits. There was no “splenetic criticism” in Brazil of the air traffic controllers that I am aware of. Of course, I was raising criticism of air traffic control on this little blog. It wasn't splenetic -- though the outraged and verbally violent reaction to it certainly was.

Ms. Martens does zero-in effectively on some of the official nitwits who continually brayed that all was well in Brazil’s skies; that the Sept. 29 disaster was caused strictly by reckless, arrogant Americans; that Brazil’s skies and airports were under world-class supervision and that to say otherwise was a base calumny and an insult to the honor of the nation.

Of course, the official indignation all rang a bit hollow again in July, when another airplane crash killed 199 people at overcrowded, unsafe Congonhas Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s busiest.

Wonderful Waldir Pires, the obstinate Defense Minister responsible for air-traffic control, was finally out the door. So was Jose Carlos “Sunshine” Pereira, who ran the airports authority and suggested that it was slander to suggest that anything, anything might be wrong with Brazil’s aviation system.

Sunshine Pereira ranks right up there near Wonderful Waldir as a classic character in this story. Pereira steadfastly insisted after the Sept. 29 crash, even as the evidence became manifestly clear that both aircraft had been put on a collision course at 37,000 feet by air traffic control, that “it is not the best moment to carry out changes” including addressing the inept military control of civilian aviation.

Later, as international aviation groups expressed outrage at the way Brazil had clumsily politicized and criminalized the Sept. 29 accident, and even after the second horrible accident in July, with 350 now dead in two disasters in 10 months, Sunshine Pereira stood by his rusty guns.

Brazil does not need international help,” he proclaimed, inanely. “The crisis is ours. The dead are ours.”

Shortly after, he was ducked-walked off the deck.

But as Ms. Martens writes, the President remained in a defensive crouch. “The security of our aviation system is compatible with all other international standards,” Lucky Lula proclaimed. As recently as three weeks ago, Lucky Lula was still scoffing at the fact, otherwise widely accepted all over the world, that there are black holes and blind spots in air-traffic control radar and radio communications over the Amazon.

I assume Ms. Martens’ small deficiencies in context and nuance are a consequence of the demands of concise summary. She writes: “President da Silva’s government has come under a great deal of fire for failing to properly address the nation’s air-travel safety, an act that according to several aviation experts, and the adamant belief of a good deal of the public sentiment, led to the air disaster” [s]

Well, I'm here to repeat, for the record, that this "public sentiment" took a long time getting its socks on, and even longer to reach the level of being "adamant."

And I should also point out that, while public sentiment may well have finally come around to the truth, as Ms. Martens asserts, two American pilots remain on trial on spurious criminal charges that public sentiment realizes were trumped-up.



wondering ego said...

The final shame to the nation would be if the pilots or the controllers are found guilty of anything...
The usual "rats" (bad politicians/public officers) would scape the trap again! By the way "wonderful" and "sunshine" are brilliant titles for the two of them... on the other hand, they are so descriptive of our beloved country... this gives you, Mr Sharkey, such a refined literary skills!
As you are kind of interested in Brazil, I would recommend you to see the british film "Brazil" (1985, Terry Guillman). It has nothing to do with Brazil and it has all to do with Brazil

Cassandra_Moderna said...

Gee, I keep hoping that you will come to look at this situation from a wider angle that would include some empathy with regards to Brazilian culture and their way of doing things. Note: empathy is not sympathy, it is merely the ability to put yourself into the shoes of the other person (or culture, in this case) and to see things from their eyes from within their context.

But, first, I would like to say that to suggest that Lula won the election on a wave of public sentiment after the crash is simply ludicrous and uninformed. There was never any doubt that he would win, for a various of reasons, the most important of which is that the parties that had held power for so many years before his first election had failed the people completely and showed no signs of changing their ways and offering something better. Unfortunately, Lula and his government have been a huge disappointment, but, as yet, the other parties have not come up with anything better. A Catch 22 all the way round.

Back to the subject at hand: the Brazilian ATCs always knew that they would take the brunt of the blame. There was no getting out of it. Maybe they are not well trained and do not have a sufficient knowledge of English, but they are career professionals and they are not stupid.

Their actions immediately following the crash were perfectly normal in this culture. If you wish to persist in judging them from an American perspective, that is your prerogative, but it will never lead you to an understanding of what occurred here in Brazil after the crash.

Certainly, you have noticed how the Brazilians persist in distorting your every word and action. Why is that? Because they do not understand American culture! (And, I must say, that you are also often quite abrasive in your words in your blogs.)

However, at this point, I would like to say a few words in your defense. Recently, I was able to locate and watch the videos of your TV interview and the NYT interview. There was so much criticism of your manner during those interviews that I felt I had to see for myself what it was that so many people were complaining about.

To all those Brazilians who said that Mr. Sharkey was cold, unsympathetic, arrogant, or anything of that kind, I can adamantly say that you are all very, very wrong.

Mr. Sharkey comported himself in a manner which was completely respectful to the deceased. At no time was he cold, arrogant or unsympathetic -- to the contrary!

If some Brazilians have misconstrued your manner during those interviews, this must be due to the cultural differences in the manner in which Brazilians and Americans behave where death is concerned. The differences are vast.

One more thing: concerning the education of the Brazilian public concerning the problems existing within their air traffic system -- yes, they are now all convinced that there are very serious problems within the system that must be fixed. But, if you think, for one instant, that the majority of the Brazilian public now believes that the two American pilots are innocent, you could not be more wrong. At most, they might believe that the blame should be shared with the ATCs or the failures in the system, but I assure you that most of them will still put the blame on the American pilots. In spite of everything that has been written, the average Brazilian still believes that the Americans turned off the transponder thus causing the crash. None of the rest of the technical mumbo-jumbo matters one whit to them.

william said...

Various comments:
* "Sunshine" Pereira is brilliant. I prefer "Pampers" Pires to Wonderful Walter.

* "It has nothing to do with Brazil and it has all to do with Brazil" - Jeez, I´ve lived in this bureaucratic country for 8 years and only got the point when "wondering ego" said that.

* I only half agree with "cassandra" about having empathy with regard to Brazilian culture. On the one hand, it is true that what the controllers did was predictable to those who know Brazilian culture, and that Mr. Sharkey sometimes expresses surprise at things that are not surprising to those who live here.

On the other hand, it is very frustrating to live in a cultrue where people are always lying to your face and expecting you to sit there and say nothing. As far as I can see, it's a dysfunctional habit in the context of modern capitalist society. And I don't think it is unfair to call attention to this behavior by the authorities and the press when they are constantly saying (whining is really the appropriate word) that Brazil isn't getting the respect in the world that it should. Nobody is out to insult Brazil - they just don't being handed a never-ending line of BS, which is what the Brazilian government has been done in the case of both air accidents - Yes, in predictable confomity with the rules of the culture.

I think Cassandra is right about most Brazilians still blaming the pilots to a certain extent. The Globo (Journal Nacional and Fantastico) has done a pretty good job of reporting on the story, but they are always very careful to state thimgs in such a way as to imply that the blame should probaby be balanced between the pilots and the controllers. That's why most Brazilians think what they think.

As for Lula, of course he would have won anyway. They don't call him "lucky" for nothing. In purely political terms, he is the Clinton of Brazil.

AcesHigh said...

Ive heard about a few other countries, even in the first world (can you imagine that!) that are affected by xenophobia, turn foreigners into scapegoats, and all that.