Hawaii’s congressional leaders are calling for an investigation into the Federal Aviation Administration following a scathing report that includes a whistleblower’s complaint alleging management ignored serious concerns raised about the safety of tour helicopters in Hawaii.
“For the past year, we have raised concerns that the FAA has ignored warnings about the safety of aircraft operations, ” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said Friday in a statement. “This report exposed troubling new accounts about how the FAA failed to take action on warnings about the safety of helicopters in Hawaii — warnings that could have saved lives.
“With more than a dozen helicopter accidents in Hawaii over the last five years, it is clear that we need answers from the FAA and stronger protections to keep people safe,” he said.
The report by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation includes claims from a whistleblower alleging violations by Novictor Helicopters, which he was assigned to oversee.
Joseph Monfort, an FAA operations inspector in Hawaii, claimed at least one FAA manager improperly issued “check airman” certification of proficiency to oversee and train new pilots at the company to Nicole Vandelaar, Novictor’s chief pilot and owner. He alleged Vandelaar in 2017 failed to get certified by the regional Flight Standards Division because of a lack of qualifications.
Monfort claimed Vandelaar was “improperly certified to administer check rides on behalf of the FAA” but gave a “check ride” to pilot Joseph Berridge 10 days before the April 29 crash in Kailua that killed Berridge and two passengers.
Monfort also alleged some managers at the Honolulu Flight Standard’s District Office have an “inappropriately close relationship” with Novictor and granted multiple policy deviations for the helicopter company.
In a statement Friday, John Cox, vice president for safety for Novictor, said, “The complaint contains numerous inaccuracies and mischaracterizations both of Novictor’s operations and Novictor’s relationship with the FAA.
“Novictor is and always has been focused on safety and compliance with the appropriate Federal Aviation Regulations, and categorically denies any allegation that states or implies otherwise,” Cox added.
He noted the relationship between the Honolulu office and Novictor is “one of professional commitment to safety and regulatory compliance.”
He described whistleblower Monfort as a “rogue, disgruntled” inspector and claims Novictor and other operators have had difficulty working with him for some time.
In addition to the Novictor allegations, Monfort claimed his managers stopped him from conducting inspections at Safari Helicopters on Kauai. He alleged they twice denied him travel authorizations in September and November to the helicopter company, “making it next to impossible” to conduct adequate FAA oversight.
On Dec. 26 an Airbus AS350 B2 helicopter operated by Safari crashed into a cliff face in Kokee, killing the pilot and six passengers.
Monfort told Senate investigators that he had initiated a review in 2016 of Safari’s training program alleging “deficiencies” in a check ride with the pilot, Paul Matero, involved in the deadly crash.
Attorney David Bettencourt, who represents Safari, asserted there are no deficiencies in the helicopter company’s training program. “For (Monfort) to imply that after he has been overruled by his supervisors is unfair.”
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said, “In the past year, Hawaii has experienced two tragic accidents involving air tour operators. Safety is a key mission of the FAA, and the whistleblower allegations that the Honolulu Flight Standard’s District Office knowingly failed to meet this mission deserve immediate action and a thorough investigation.”
Schatz and Hirono joined the call by U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, to Inspector General Calvin Scovel III of the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct a thorough investigation into FAA’s oversight. “This review, while incomplete and not yet conclusive, raises significant concerns about the efficacy of FAA oversight in Hawaii,” Wicker said in the report.
In a statement the FAA said, “The FAA itself has been investigating these matters and is already taking steps to address substantiated concerns. As we have communicated to the Committee, we cannot comment further on any pending investigations or potential enforcement actions. The FAA will cooperate with any investigation that the Office of the Inspector General might undertake, in the interest of establishing a thorough, fact-based record upon which to base any appropriate corrective action.”
U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, who introduced legislation last year for stringent restrictions on tour helicopters and small-aircraft operations, described the Senate report and recent allegations from multiple whistleblowers, and called Monfort’s claims “serious and deeply troubling.”
The FAA is completely failing to be an independent, objective agency whose mission is supposed to be protecting public safety, not protecting the industry, Case said.
Letter to U.S. DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd