A Brazilian judge last week denied a request by lawyers to return passports to the two US pilots of the Embraer Legacy that collided with a Gol Airlines Boeing 737-800 on 29 September. The accident killed all 154 passengers and crew on board the 737. The Legacy was damaged, but landed safely at a military airfield, where it remains. Once on the ground, the pilots had their passports seized, effectively stranding them in Brazil. The accident occurred as the pilots ferried the aircraft from the Embraer factory to its new owner, New York-based ExcelAire Service.

The pilots' problems have been compounded by two lawsuits filed by US law firms on the behalf of victims' families. The suits will try to prove that the pilots were negligent - the aircraft was flying at 37,000ft (11,280m) rather than at the typical "even thousand" altitude prescribed by its heading at the time - and that Honeywell, maker of the Legacy's radio management unit, which includes the Mode S transponder controls, provided faulty hardware. A recent airworthiness directive (AD) on the Honeywell unit called for various fixes needed to prevent the equipment from lapsing into "standby mode" when pilots take too long to enter the four-digit code into the unit via a tuning knob.

Honeywell says the Legacy involved in the collision was not subject to the AD, and is unaware of any evidence that the transponder was not working as designed at the time of the crash. Investigators are focusing on whether the pilots may have inadvertently put the system in standby mode, which would have made the Legacy invisible to the airborne collision-avoidance systems on nearby aircraft. Other leads include whether Brazilian air traffic controllers commanded both aircraft to fly at the same altitude.

The pilots have denied any wrongdoing, but could be charged with involuntary manslaughter depending on the results of the investigation.

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations says there is "no valid reason for the continued detention of the two Excelair pilots", and is calling on the Brazilian authorities to return their passports immediately.

Source: Flight International