DOT watchdog: FAA harassed pilot, contributing to accident

 - January 11, 2008, 11:09 AM

The inspector general of the DOT has recommended that the FAA take disciplinary action against two Kansas City FSDO officials whose “unwarranted” actions against the pilot of a Cessna CitationJet may have contributed to his fatal crash more than three years ago.

During a layover at Lambert Field/St. Louis International Airport (STL) that day, 54-year-old pilot Joseph Brinell confided to a corporate operator/friend that a supervisor at the FSDO “is trying to destroy me.” The friend said Brinell “wasn’t himself that day” and had  confessed to not sleeping for three days.

The aircraft departed STL with five passengers, one of whom was also a pilot, at about 1447 CST on Dec. 9, 1999, bound for M. Graham Clark Airport in Point Lookout, Mo. The last radar contact was at 1509:48 when the Cessna 525 was five nautical miles from the airport on the 296-degree radial at 2,100 feet msl. All on board were killed when the twinjet, owned by the College of the Ozarks, hit a hillside on the northwest edge of Branson, Mo., 4.3 miles from its destination.   
The NTSB concluded that the crash resulted from pilot error under adverse weather conditions. Factors relating to the accident, according to the NTSB, were pilot fatigue, pressure induced by an FAA inspector and use of inappropriate medication.

Three months after the accident, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) asked the FAA to investigate allegations from Brinell’s widow that the Kansas City FSDO had wrongfully targeted her late husband for regulatory enforcement. Dissatisfied with the FAA’s findings, Blunt asked DOT inspector general Kenneth Mead to look into the accident and the subsequent FAA  investigation of
its inspectors.

In fact, the FAA’s own investigation had acknowledged that a threatened formal
reexamination of Brinell’s pilot competency in May 1999 was not warranted, but it concluded that the FSDO was “not remiss in its oversight responsibilities or abusive in exercising its empowerment to reexamine  Brinell, and the actions taken by the FSDO [supervisor] were appropriate.”

Mead disagreed. In a letter to Blunt last month, he said his office found a number of “troubling irregularities” in the FAA’s investigation, including a lack of objectivity and a bias in favor of the FSDO personnel. That, in turn, compromised the integrity of the FAA investigation, he charged.

Mead pointed out that a member of the three-member team of aviation safety inspectors drawn from the FAA’s Central Region advised that they had “reputations to protect,” and the team leader asserted they should take into consideration that the subjects of the investigation had applied for promotions. The inspector general’s probe found “serious omissions” in the FAA’s Report of Investigation, including a dissenting report prepared by one member of the FAA team that highlighted deficiencies in the agency’s own investigation of itself.

“In consideration of the totality of facts and circumstances in this matter, we have concluded that the FSDO supervisor and principal operations inspector were remiss in their oversight of Brinell, and their actions implicate an abuse of regulatory authority,” said Mead.

“Mr. Brinell clearly perceived that he was being singled out and unfairly treated. Our findings support the NTSB’s conclusion that the FAA had induced stress…” As to the FAA’s conclusion that the actions of the FSDO were appropriate, the DOT IG countered that they “give rise to at least the appearance” that Brinell was being harassed.

Unblemished Record

Mead noted that Brinell had an unblemished record in his 26 years as a designated pilot examiner for the Kansas City FSDO and in more than 28 years as pilot for the College of the Ozarks, where he had become its director of aviation. “We found that Mr. Brinell was reported to have a positive relationship with the FSDO until the arrival of the FSDO supervisor in July 1998, after which the relationship reportedly deteriorated for reasons that remain unclear,” he told Blunt.

But the same corporate pilot/friend to whom Brinell confided on the day of the accident told Mead’s investigators that the FSDO supervisor claimed in November 1999 that “Joe [Brinell] does not give me the respect that I deserve as a supervisor. We are going to change that. We are going to get his attention.”

In his statement to IG investigators, the supervisor could not specifically recall making such comments, but he admitted it was possible. According to Mead’s letter, the supervisor said he had heard that “Brinell didn’t like the FAA, bad-mouthed the FAA and didn’t want to fly in accordance with rules, and changing the pilot’s attitude was [the supervisor’s] job.” His approach to changing Brinell’s attitude, he said, was to “put pressure on him.”

Mead’s staff discovered that between March 1999 and the day of the fatal crash, the FSDO’s general aviation supervisor and a principal operations inspector attempted to strip Brinell of his pilot examiner status, directed a reexamination of his pilot proficiency and ordered him to turn all of his logbooks into the FSDO as part of an investigation into alleged unauthorized checkrides that he gave.

The inspector general said these actions were unwarranted and the FSDO’s justification lacked credibility. Mead also accused the FAA of failing to take the remedial action that it had promised Blunt in a letter.

“For instance, despite assurances to you [Blunt] that specific inspectors would no longer be assigned at the college,” Mead wrote, “one of those individuals–who had pursued enforcement-related actions against Mr. Brinell–was seen by Mrs. Brinell at the college, sitting at her late husband’s desk with his feet on top of the desk.”

Mead, who sent his report and recommendations to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, said this is the third investigation his office has conducted over the past three years involving fatal GA accidents and alleged improprieties on the part of FSDOs.

“The IG’s findings underscore what we’ve long believed,” said Blunt. “The FAA apparently harassed Joe Brinell, contributing to the accident that took his life and that of five other College of the Ozarks officials.” The congressman vowed to meet with the FAA this month to determine what the agency plans to do about the allegations and recommendations.