Two whistleblowers separately raised concerns about the federal oversight of Hawaii’s helicopter tour industry prior to 2019 crashes on Kauai and Oahu that killed 10 people, according to a U.S. Senate report released Friday.
One of those whistleblowers, Federal Aviation Administration inspector Joseph Monfort, said he was denied a travel request to inspect Safari Aviation on Kauai weeks before the tour company’s Eurocopter AS350 crashed in remote terrain near the island’s northern coast, the report states. All seven people aboard died in the crash.
Monfort had flagged the pilot in the Kauai crash in 2016 for “deficiencies,” a fact sheet from the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee states.
Further, Monfort alleges that local FAA managers have “inappropriately” close ties with another local tour operator, Novictor, and that they gave the company special treatment, according to the fact sheet.
Novictor’s Hawaii-based Robinson R44-model helicopters have been involved in three crashes and one precautionary landing in the past two years, records show, including the crash in residential Kailua in April 2019 that killed all three people aboard.
Monfort alleged that his manager at the FAA had improperly authorized Novictor’s owner, Nicole Vandelaar, to conduct flight checks for that pilot on the federal agency’s behalf.
The report states that Monfort came forward in December — the same month as the Kauai crash — and that he gave his consent to be named publicly. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A second, unidentified whistleblower came forward months prior to Monfort and alleged that local FAA managers at Honolulu’s Flight Standards District Office too frequently overrode the findings of their inspectors — hampering their ability to conduct effective oversight, the report states.
In light of the misconduct allegations, Transportation Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, has called on the Transportation Department’s Inspector General to investigate.
Hawaii Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz — who also sits on the Transportation Committee — echoed Wicker. On Friday, they issued a joint statement calling on the Inspector General to investigate the alleged oversight lapses within the FAA’s Hawaii office.
“This report exposed troubling new accounts about how the FAA failed to take action on warnings about the safety of helicopters in Hawai‘i – warnings that could have saved lives,” Schatz said. “With more than a dozen helicopter accidents in Hawai‘i over the last five years, it is clear that we need answers from the FAA and stronger protections to keep people safe.”
Both Schatz and Hirono expressed concerns with FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson’s track record when it comes to addressing safety, noting that they voted against his confirmation in part due to concerns he ignored various warnings while working as an executive for Delta Air Lines.
Hirono described the new whistleblower complaints as credible, and in an interview with Civil Beat provided a simple explanation for why an investigation is necessary.
“Safety first,” she said.
Hirono added that she and Schatz are working on legislation to bolster higher standards in aviation, something that she said should occur in concert with the inspector general’s investigation.
In a statement Friday, the FAA said it “takes allegations of wrongdoing very seriously and prioritizes safety above all else.” The federal agency stressed that the Senate committee’s review is thus far “incomplete and inconclusive.” It said it would cooperate with any investigation by the Inspector General.
For Hawaii Rep. Ed Case, concerns over the tour flights were a top issue during his first year back in Congress. On Friday, he said the FAA no longer gets the benefit of the doubt.
“What the FAA claims were isolated incidences look to be a broader concern,” Case said, addressing the media in his office.
The probe isn’t the first time the FAA has been accused of being too cozy with aviation companies that it regulates. Legislators have said the agency gave too much inspection authority to Boeing Co. when it certified the 737 Max passenger jet to be able to fly.
In June, following the deadly skydiving crash in Mokuleia that killed 11 people, the National Transportation Safety Board officials who arrived in Hawaii sharply criticized the FAA for keeping such flights under the weakest-possible set of regulations despite the NTSB’s calls for stricter oversight.
The whistleblowers’ allegations follow calls by community members and lawmakers in Hawaii for stricter regulations on the local air tour industry. Last year, community members were excluded from the first revision in over a decade of the manual that regulates Hawaii tour flights.
In April, Hawaii Case told the FAA that exclusion was “not acceptable” because the manual’s update will have “far-reaching consequences on the public” and yet it “appears to be effectively controlled by the operators.”
In a statement Friday, Safari said it “has no knowledge of any denial or restricted access to our company or its personnel.”
The company “has and will continue to cooperate with the NTSB with its ongoing investigation. We welcome any FAA personnel to visit us any time,” it added.
Novictor fired back at Monfort in a statement Friday, describing him as a “rogue” and “disgruntled” inspector.
“Novictor, and numerous other operators, have had substantial difficulty in working with this particular inspector for quite some time,” the statement read. The allegations in the Senate report are “grossly misleading,” according to the statement, and the tour operator “always has been focused on safety and compliance with the appropriate Federal Aviation Regulations.”
It “categorically denies any allegation that states or implies otherwise.”
The Senate report, meanwhile, states that Monfort was assigned to investigate the Novictor crash, which occurred last April. Monfort’s FAA supervisors removed him from the investigation shortly after he revoked Vandelaar’s “check airmen” status and cited his workload as a reason, according to the report.
Monfort also expressed concerns that Novictor did not report an emergency landing in Wahiawa in September, and that the FAA omitted the pilot and company names in its database, according to the Senate report.
“FAA inspectors only learned of the event when an inspector happened to see the damaged helicopter being transported near the local FAA office with the tail number taped over,” the report further stated.
“That’s probably a good description of the overall problem here in Hawaii,” Case said of the issues described with Novictor. “There is an inappropriately close relationship between the Hawaii tour helicopter and small aircraft industry and at least the local FAA office. And it may be broader than that.”
“When you are a government regulator, your mission is not ensuring the prosperity of this industry,” Case said Friday. “Your mission is to protect the safety of the people in those aircraft and on the ground.”
Wicker’s office said they didn’t have more to offer Friday beyond the fact sheet.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.
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