Brazilian Crash Prompts Probe on Airport Work

Tuesday, July 17, 2007
By George Hatcher

Projects intended To Improve Runway

BUENOS AIRES, July 18 — Brazil is planning to investigate if recent construction projects intended to improve runways at Congonhas contributed to the TAM crash, which killed at least 189.

Officials emphasized that it is too soon to determine a specific cause but the world’s worst air crash in five years, is the source of sadness and outrage in Brazil. Critics of Congonhas airport have long predicted an accident like Tuesday’s.

The Airbus 320, touched down and when the pilot realized he could not stop, he attempted to take off again, narrowly clearing an elevated roadway before crashing into a fuel station and cargo office. The capacity of the plane was 185 adults. The 186 people on board included a baby. The weight of the plane was within approved safety ranges. One day before the crash a small turboprop plane harmlessly slid off the same wet runway.

Rescue crews continued recovering bodies. Authorities confirmed all 186 fatalities aboard the plane. The number could rise. The “black box” recorder has been delivered to the United States for analysis.

The 6,362-foot runway at Congonhas is 500 feet shorter than the runway at Reagan National Airport, which is considered too short for large jet landings during rain. The newly repaved runway was scheduled to be grooved to channel rain. as standing water has caused delays in the past.

A congressional panel is already probing Brazil’s aviation security system. Accusations have been made that airport authorities have taken bribes. Federal police are investigating the airport construction projects.

The Sao Paulo attorney general’s office closed Congonhas runway to large jets. “The runway needs to be extended by 1,275 feet to provide adequate space to accommodate jetliners…The airport put at risk the lives of passengers, crew members and those living in the surrounding area due to the constant skidding caused by the inefficient drainage system.”

Responding to objections from airport and airline authorities, an appeals judge lifted the ban. The Airbus 320 was not among those planes that had been restricted from landing.

In Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city with a population of about 20 million, Congonhas airport is surrounded by densely populated commercial and residential neighborhoods. In 1996, a TAM flight crashed a mile from the runway, missing an elementary school.

Gideon Ewers said, “Runway excursions account for something like a quarter of accidents. Anytime you run off the runway and are confronted with a steep slope, a sheer drop, a four-lane highway and buildings, it’s not good.” Ewers is with the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations represents pilots from over 90 countries.

The federation urges authorities to add safety-strip extensions to the ends of runways or install “arrestor beds.”

Since 2000, there have been seven accidents in Sao Paulo resulting major damage to aircraft. Six occurred upon landing. A Gol Airlines jet collided with a small private plane over the Amazon rain forest, killing all 154 people abpard just ten months ago, but Tuesday’s crash is the deadliest in Brazil’s history.

A U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has an investigator at the scene to assist in the crash probe. Authorities will be combing the site, checking the runway slickness and the possiblility of pilot error. Former NTSB investigator Ron Schleede said. “Most runway-overrun accidents involve slick surfaces or planes going too fast to stop.” A Miami-based lawyer representing the families of 30 victims of the Gol crash, Ricardo Martinez-Cid said he has been contacted by attorneys for families in Tuesday’s disaster. Court actions could be filed after more evidence has been collected.

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