December 9, 2008 / 10:15 PM / 11 years ago

Brazil judge dismisses charge against U.S. pilots

BRASILIA, Dec 9 (Reuters) - A judge in Brazil dismissed negligence charges on Tuesday against two U.S. pilots accused of having contributed to Brazil’s second-worst air disaster when their executive jet collided in mid-air with a Brazilian commercial airliner in 2006.

The Boeing 737 operated by Gol (GOLL4.SA) airline crashed into the jungle from an altitude of 37,000 feet (11,300 metres), killing all 154 people on board.

The smaller Legacy manufactured by Embraer (EMBR3.SA)(ERJ.N) and operated by Long Island-based ExcelAire managed an emergency landing with minor damage on a remote airstrip.

Federal judge Murilo Mendes in the western Mato Grosso state, where the accident happened, absolved the pilots of negligence in trying to communicate with the control tower.

But Joseph Lepore and Jan Paul Paladino still face charges for allegedly putting aviation safety at risk by presenting a faulty flight plan and deactivating a security mechanism that could have avoided the collision, the court and the defense attorney said.

The pilots’ lawyers welcomed the ruling but said all charges should be dropped.

“The prosecutors’ charges are entirely inappropriate,” defense attorney Joel Weiss said. Under an international convention, criminal charges could be brought on gross recklessness but not on the ordinary negligence the pilots were accused of.

Brazil’s Air Force is expected to publish a report on Wednesday blaming one of the U.S. pilots for having “inadvertently turned off” the Legacy’s transponder, a security device that warns of an approaching aircraft.

The report is also expected to fault local air traffic control, which failed to properly advise the Legacy jet on its cruising altitudes, a local newspaper reported on the weekend.

Local investigators last month blamed government agencies, pilot error and company policy for a TAM TAMM4.SATAM.N airliner crash that killed 199 in 2007. [ID:nN19356506]

The occurrence of two major airline accidents within a year has triggered efforts to reform Brazil’s military air traffic control system. (Reporting by Maria Pia Palermo in Rio de Janeiro, Jonas da Silva in Mato Grosso and Raymond Colitt in Brasilia)

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