Four years after a Challenger 600 operated by Platinum Jet Management crashed on takeoff from Teterboro Airport, resulting in a major FAA investigation of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based charter operator and a subsequent civil penalty assessment of more than $1.86 million, six individuals associated with the now-defunct firm have been indicted on charges ranging from conspiracy to making false statements.
Arrested on February 4 in Fort Lauderdale were Platinum Jet Management president Michael Brassington, 35; his brother and vice president Paul Brassington, 29; managing member Andrew Budhan, 42; and director of maintenance Brien McKenzie, 42. At press time, arrest warrants had been issued for director of charters Joseph Singh, 37, and Platinum Jet pilot Francis Vieira, 59, who were still being sought.
The 23-count indictment, returned on January 23, charges Michael Brassington with “endangering the safety of aircraft” and alleges that all the defendants joined a “conspiracy to defraud charter flight customers, jet charter brokers and the Federal Aviation Administration through interstate wire communications, and to defraud the United States by impeding and obstructing the FAA’s regulation of commercial aircraft in the United States.”
It also points specifically to the “dangerous and fraudulent” tankering of fuel as “the primary contributing factor in the Teterboro crash” in that it shifted the aircraft’s center of gravity too far forward.
When pilot John Kimberling was unable to rotate at a speed of about 135 knots, the crew aborted the takeoff, but by that time the airplane was traveling at a speed estimated to be 160 knots. The twinjet subsequently left the end of Runway 6, went through a fence surrounding the airport, hit cars as it crossed six-lane Route 46 and finally came to rest after penetrating the brick wall of a clothing warehouse, where the airplane burst into flames.
Five of the eight passengers along with “cabin aide” Angelica Calad-Gomez escaped with minor injuries, as did a warehouse employee. Pilots Kimberling and Carlos Salaverria and two people in a car hit by the aircraft were injured and required hospitalization.
In July of that year, following an investigation, the FAA assessed civil penalties against Platinum Jet totaling more than $1.86 million for violations involving
49 passenger-carrying flights. In a July 8 letter informing Platinum Jet of the penalties, the agency said that before the February 2 flight, “Platinum Jet failed to prepare, before takeoff, accurate load manifests containing required information concerning loading of the aircraft.”
In fact, the FAA said that for the flight from Las Vegas to Teterboro the day before the accident, Platinum had listed the fuel weight for the aircraft at 13,000 pounds when it was actually 14,500 pounds. “Platinum thereby operated the aircraft in a careless or reckless manner,” it said.
The FAA further charged that the operator did not establish and maintain an approved pilot training program, used pilots who had not passed a written or oral test and employed flight attendants who had not completed, as required, a Part 135 flight-attendant training program.
By that time the FAA had grounded Platinum Jet. The circumstances of the accident also prompted the agency to re-examine, and later issue new guidance regarding, the matter of Part 135 charter and issues of operational control.
“The fuel loading was the primary contributing factor in the crash,” according
to Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra, Jr. “It is astounding–and criminal–that owners and operators of jet aircraft would repeatedly engage in such a dangerous game with passengers and airplanes loaded to the brim with jet fuel. What this indictment alleges is an anything-goes attitude by the defendants to get their planes in the air and maximize profits without regard to passenger safety or compliance with basic regulations.”
Operating without a Part 135 Certificate
The indictment also specifies numerous other claims against the six men, among them:
• Operating Platinum Jet as an on-demand commercial jet charter company from November 2002 until November 2003 without a Part 135 certificate.
• During the period noted above, “the conspirators” lied in contractual documents faxed from state to state to charter brokers about Platinum Jet’s illegal regulatory and safety status [and] operated more than 85 commercial flights during this period in violation of federal safety regulations.
• That in November 2003, the conspirators started sharing a Part 135 certificate,
a practice known as “piggybacking,” with a Part 135 certificate holder based in Alabama.
• After sharing the certificate, Platinum Jet violated FAA rules by dispatching unqualified pilots and pilots without the FAA-required amount of rest to fly chartered flights.
• To conceal the above violation, Michael Brassington, Vieira and other Platinum Jet pilots signed FAA-mandated flight logs for more than 30 charter-brokered flights, falsely indicating that those charters were private, nonprofit flights.
• From November 2003 until shortly after the crash at Teterboro Airport in February 2005, Michael and Paul Brassington, Budhan and Singh continued to claim in interstate contracts with brokers that Platinum Jet was in compliance with federal safety regulations.
• Platinum Jet, as part of the conspiracy, engaged in “a dangerous and fraudulent ‘tankering’ scheme, where the defendants– to cut costs and take advantage of less expensive fuel contracts at locations including Teterboro– would overfuel aircraft to an extent that their center-of-gravity was too far forward for safe takeoff. The defendants would then falsify FAA-required weight- and-balance graphs to conceal the tankering and dangerous weight configuration.
• McKenzie is alleged to have lied to a Platinum Jet pilot about the weight of one of the aircraft to keep the scheme going [and] Platinum Jet flew more than 25 commercial charter flights on two separate aircraft with centers of gravity that exceeded the aircrafts’ forward limits, and lied about it in FAA-required documents.
• Vieira is charged with lying to the NTSB, saying he believed the Challenger involved in the February 2005 crash weighed 1,000 pounds less than it really did.
The single conspiracy count and 21 false statement counts each carries a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. The count of endangering the safety of aircraft against Michael Brassington carries a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.