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Maybe a minute remained. The Boeing was approaching fast from about 30 miles away. As a narrow head-on silhouette it would have been hard to spot had the Legacy pilots been looking outside. Furthermore, because of illusions associated with the curvature of the earth, the oncoming airplane would have appeared to be significantly higher until the last few seconds before impact. For the Boeing pilots, spotting the Legacy would have been harder still. The captain was one of Gol’s most seasoned men, a line instructor named Decio Chaves Jr., who at age 44 had logged 14,900 hours in flight, nearly a third of them in the latest 737s. His co-pilot was Thiago Jordao Cruso, aged 29, an advanced apprentice with 3,850 hours. The 737 they were flying was fresh from Boeing’s production line and had been in service with Gol for merely two weeks. The flight south so far had been routine, with the airplane cruising on autopilot, at all times exactly where it was supposed to be. The pilots spent much of the flight looking through photographs of their colleagues and friends. About 10 minutes before the end, a flight attendant entered the cockpit for a flirtatious chat. She asked them if they had seen a video of Brazilian model Daniela Cicarelli having sex on a beach. One of the pilots said, “Love, come here. Can you bring something like that for us?” They laughed. As she was leaving, the pilot called out, “Come back, my love!” Soon afterward the controller in Manaus gave them a frequency change to Brasília Center and instructed them to delay checking in until they got to a certain waypoint a few minutes ahead. The pilots switched to the new frequency and, in an odd twist to the story, heard de Alencar’s last broadcast to the Legacy—clearly audible on the Boeing’s cockpit voice recording—because the controller had shotgunned it across multiple frequencies simultaneously. The Boeing’s pilots did not, however, hear the Legacy’s requests for clarification, which Paladino made across a frequency that they were not on. It would not have mattered anyway. The Boeing’s tcas was clear. The pilots had no reason to suspect that the Legacy was near. They continued to look at pictures. There was one of a pilot named Bruno, of a marathon, of a waterfall, and of a quati—a funny four-legged creature that had torn into some bags.
The Legacy came streaking at the Boeing about 30 feet to the left of the fuselage and 2 feet lower. The displacement was infinitesimal on the scale of the sky, and a measure of impressive navigational precision. The Legacy’s winglet acted like a vertically held knife, slicing through the Boeing’s left wing about halfway out and severing the wing’s internal spar. The outboard section of the wing whipped upward, stripping skin as it went, then separated entirely, spiraling over the fuselage and demolishing much of the Boeing’s tail. In the Boeing’s cockpit the sequence sounded like a car crash. Instantly the Boeing twisted out of control, corkscrewing violently to the left and pitching straight down into a rotating vertical dive. The cockpit filled with alarms—an urgent klaxon and a robotic voice insistently warning, Bank angle! Bank angle! Bank angle!, as if the crew might need the advice. Back in the cabin the passengers screamed and shouted. The pilots reacted as one might expect, fighting desperately to regain control. They probably did not know what had gone wrong. They certainly never mentioned it. What is unusual is that they also did not swear. Ten seconds into the dive, one of them did cry “Aye!,” but the other urged him to stay calm. “Calma!” he said, and seconds later he said it again. If pilots must die in an airplane, all would choose to finish so well. Of course these two knew they were gone, but they did what they could, even extending the landing gear to slow the dive. The gesture was hopeless. Twenty-two seconds into the plunge the airplane’s over-speed warning came on with a rattle that continued to the end. Forces inside the airplane rapidly grew until, 30 seconds into the dive, they exceeded four Gs—the gravity-load threshold beyond which some passengers must have begun to black out as the forces drained blood from their minds. Maybe they were the lucky ones or maybe it didn’t matter. In the cockpit the pilots kept trying to fly, struggling with the controls and exchanging a few words which are impossible to discern over the bedlam of alarms. Forty-five seconds into the dive came another “Aye!” Seven seconds later, at 7,000 feet, the Boeing broke into three parts, which plummeted in formation into the forest below.
A One-Man Show
In the Legacy the collision sounded like a snap. Lepore grunted as if he had been punched in the gut. The airplane rolled left, and the autopilot disengaged with a robotic warning and three chimes. Lepore grabbed the controls. He said, “What the hell was that?” He sounded swamped in adrenaline. Paladino for his part sounded pumped up for the game. He said, “All right, just fly the airplane, dude! Just fly the airplane!” He checked the cabin pressurization. He said, “It’s not … We don’t have explosive decompression.” He may have thought that Lepore was shaky, or that on the basis of his own greater experience with that category of jet he perhaps should take over. He said, “You want me to fly it, dude? You want me to fly it?” Lepore did not hear the question, or he chose not to answer. The Legacy was badly out of whack, insisting on rolling to the left, and requiring Lepore to hold the controls a half-throw to the right just to maintain wings-level flight. He was handling the airplane well enough. But he was extremely anxious. He said, “What—we got fucking hit?”
Paladino said, “I dunno, dude. Lemme fly it.”
Lepore acquiesced. Paladino then not only took the controls but assumed command. This passed unsaid between the two men. Paladino was decisive. Lepore had not completely folded, but under the stress his mental processes had slowed. Paladino said, “All right, declare an emergency,” and Lepore hesitated over the most basic frequency known. He asked, “What is it, twenty-one five?” Paladino said, “Yeah, twenty-one five.” That exchange placed Paladino firmly in charge. He said, “Whatever the fuck that was … we have to get down.”
Lepore said, “Go!” A passenger came to the cockpit and said, “You know we lost a winglet?” Lepore said, “Did we? Where the fuck did he come from?” To the passengers back in the cabin Paladino said, “All right, we’re going down! We’re declaring an emergency! Sit down!” Breathing heavily into his microphone, Lepore made the first emergency call to Air Traffic Control. There was no response. Paladino pulled the throttles back and pushed the airplane into a descent. The left winglet had torn away, leaving a jagged stump, the left wing had bent upward, and along its upper surface some of the skin was separating from the internal structure. The passengers could see the heavily deflected aileron necessary to maintain control. What they could not see was that the Legacy’s tail had been hit as well.
From the cockpit none of this damage was in view, but the pilots knew that the airplane was badly wounded and might at any moment die. They needed to land as soon as possible, but to do that they had to descend to low altitudes, where if they were not careful with airspeeds the thicker air might tear the plane apart. Paladino said, “Want to keep the speeds low.” But he also knew that if he got too slow he might lose the ability to control the roll. Someone whispered “Fuck it!” into a microphone. At that very moment the Boeing hit the ground unseen somewhere behind and below. Paladino pushed a button on the Flight Management System and found that the nearest airport lay 100 miles ahead. The airport was identified by its four-letter code, SBCC, whatever that meant. For all they knew it was a jungle strip of the sort that missionaries use, and completely inadequate for a Legacy. They needed more information, like field elevation and runway length. Paladino said, “I got the nearest airport right there. Look that up if you want.” Looking it up might have been possible electronically, but they did not know how. Somewhere they had paper charts that might contain the information. Breathing hard, Lepore asked, “It was books on your side?” Paladino said, “Yeah, no, yeah, I got it.” Lepore reached again for the controls, saying, “I got the … ” Paladino wouldn’t have it. He said, “Let me just fly the thing, dude, ’cause I just think … ”
Lepore said, “Where the fuck did he come from?”
Paladino said, “Did we hit somebody? Did you see that? Did you see something?”
Lepore was hesitant. “I thought I saw … I looked up … ” He made another Mayday call, but remained behind the game. Struggling to look up information about the nearest airport, he said, “What is it … S?”
Paladino answered, “S-B-C-C. We’ll just go direct to it.”
“I don’t know if it’s big enough.”
Paladino said, “I know. We’ll just fly. We’ll find out. Trying to contact these fuckers. They won’t answer the radio.”