Bizjets provide lift for North Korea mission

 - August 27, 2009, 11:29 AM

The aircraft that carried former President Bill Clinton to North Korea last month on an errand of mercy seeking the release of two imprisoned U.S. journalists wasn’t a government jet. The secretive mission–which the White House describes as a private diplomatic initiative–instead traveled to Pyongyang in a BBJ, the use of which was donated by owner Stephen Bing, head of Shangri-La Entertainment and a personal friend of the ex-President.

The swiftly arranged flight required an FAA exemption from Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 79, in place since February 1998, which lists restrictions for flights within North Korean airspace. Logistics for the trip were arranged by California-based AvJet, the owner’s management provider, which worked closely with government agencies. “It was quick and efficient with great FAA cooperation,” said Kenneth Seals, AvJet’s director of operations. “We just needed to provide the FAA with the documentation and proof they needed that we could do this trip safely. That included the RVSM and navigation status of the airplane and the qualifications, training and experience of the flight crews. We were also required to have an authorization number from North Korean Civil Aviation before we could enter North Korean airspace. The entire operation was highly detailed and required continuous coordination with the Department of State and the Air Force to make it happen smoothly.”

Originating in Burbank, Calif., the 14-hour flight to Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport stopped at Air Force bases in Alaska and Japan along the way. The airplane then spent 20 hours on the ground in the North Korean capital, with the flight crew remaining on board to rest, while Clinton met with North Korean leaders. The return flight with Clinton and newly liberated journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling on board stopped again at Misawa Air Force Base in Japan before flying nearly 10 hours nonstop back to Burbank. According to AvJet, based on a direct operating cost of $6,000 per hour for the BBJ, the trip (paid for by Bing) cost at least $150,000. According to published reports, Dow Chemical also provided one of its corporate aircraft to transport Clinton from New York to Burbank. The company acknowledged that one of its aircraft was used in the mission but declined to comment further.