* Pilots were flying small jet that clipped larger plane
* Sentence suspended in favor of U.S. community service (Updates with whereabouts of pilots, paragraph 6)
SAO PAULO, May 17 (Reuters) - A Brazilian court convicted two U.S. pilots of negligence for their role in the 2006 crash of a Brazilian airliner over the Amazon rain forest that killed 154 people, but the judge suspended their sentence.
Joseph Lepore and Jan Paul Paladino were flying a small business jet that clipped wings with a Boeing 737 operated by Brazilian airline Gol (GOLL4.SA)(GOL.N), causing the airliner to plunge into the jungle in one of Brazil’s worst air disasters.
Federal Judge Murilo Mendes of the state of Mato Grosso said late on Monday the two pilots had failed to adequately check plane equipment that would have alerted them to the presence of other aircraft nearby.
Lepore and Paladino, who were unharmed in the incident and managed to land their jet safely, have consistently denied responsibility for the crash.
Mendes suspended a four-year sentence, instead requiring that the pilots do community service in the United States. The judge also temporarily suspended their pilot’s licenses.
The pilots were not in court during the proceeding. They have not returned to Brazil since the crash.
Brazilian officials harshly criticized the U.S. pilots in the first few weeks after the crash, but a preliminary report in 2006 by the Brazilian Air Force said both aircraft had been cleared to fly at 37,000 feet (11,000 meters).
Attention later shifted toward complaints of air traffic controllers over excessive workload, low pay and blind spots in radar coverage. (Reporting by Bruno Marfinati, Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Eric Beech)