Torqued: Presidential Campaign Charters Need FAA Scrutiny

 - August 2, 2017, 4:52 PM

When an airplane skids off a wet runway, it’s usually fairly easy to show whether the crew did something wrong and what their error was. The release in June of the NTSB's 400-page factual report on the Oct. 27, 2016 crash of a Boeing 737 chartered to the Trump campaign carrying then vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence certainly highlights a series of mistakes made by the flight crew that resulted in the airplane skidding off Runway 22 at New York La Guardia. The report, which consists of witness interviews and other factual data but no analysis or opinions by the Board, details evidence of the mistakes the crew made that sent the 737, operated by Eastern Air Lines Group, skidding off Runway 22 at 7:42 p.m., veering to the right, and partially transiting the engineered material arresting system (Emas) before coming to a stop on the grass 200 feet off the runway end. None of the 11 crewmembers or 37 passengers was injured. The aircraft incurred minor damage from the runway excursion.

The aircraft landed 4,200 feet beyond the runway threshold, significantly beyond the touchdown point, according to the report. The transcript and FDR data indicate that the flying pilot, the first officer, was trying to steer the aircraft down the centerline, while the captain was pulling the aircraft to the right. The transcript does not indicate that the captain stated that he was taking control of the aircraft. By steering the aircraft to the right, the captain prevented it from going straight into the Emas, which is designed specifically to contain runway excursions safely. The NTSB files indicate that while the first officer was aware of the Emas at the end of Runway 22, the captain either was not aware or had forgotten.

As a long-time airline accident investigator and former member of the NTSB, I find in the report’s witness statements, cockpit voice recorder transcript, weather and maintenance reports a reason to question not just the decisions made by the crew on this particular flight but also decisions made by the airline to fly this flight from Fort Dodge, Iowa, into night IMC at La Guardia, with this particular crew and with the automatic speed brakes inoperative. The report also raises questions about the FAA’s oversight of new air carriers and whether new entrants should be flying campaign charters, especially presidential campaigns, without demonstrating specific capabilities and added agency oversight.

Experience Matters

Presidential campaign charter flights are difficult even for experienced companies. They require pilots to fly into and out of diverse airports—from small rural airports with minimal facilities to the complex airspace and airports of major cities—under tight deadlines with the added pressure of carrying the people who might be the future President or Vice President of the United States. The NTSB’s report raises questions about whether these airlines should be allowed to fly such charters without tighter FAA oversight.

According to the NTSB report, at the time of the runway excursion the charter operator had held an FAA certificate to operate as an airline for less than a year-and-a-half, having received its authorization on May 15, 2015. The airline’s only base of operations was at Miami International Airport and it primarily flew scheduled charters to various cities in Cuba and a number of charters to Latin America and the Caribbean. There is no indication in the report that it flew charters outside these areas before beginning the campaign work.

Just as the airline appears to have had limited experience flying into La Guardia, this particular crew had limited or no recent experience flying into the airport, according to the report. This is significant because flying into La Guardia is complex on a good day and particularly so in night IMC. A crew pairing without recent, appropriate experience flying into La Guardia should raise concerns for airline management.

The captain on this flight had landed at La Guardia only twice and only during the day, in good weather. The copilot, who was the flying pilot on landing, had not flown into La Guardia in more than two years, but had flown into the field regularly when he worked for Republic Airlines. But the aircraft he was flying for Republic was the Embraer E170 regional jet, which is smaller and lighter than the 737 and can come to a stop on much less runway. The decision by the airline to pair this particular crew—highly experienced pilots but with little recent experience flying 737s into La Guardia, especially at night in IMC—should be reviewed by the FAA as part of its oversight of the airline.

The captain’s decision to allow his copilot to land the aircraft in the rain—at times torrential, as the crew described it—might make sense since the copilot had more experience flying into LGA, albeit not recently. But the transcript raises questions about crew training and crew resource management. The transcript shows a lack of crew discipline in complying with the sterile cockpit rule, a rule that bars non-essential conversations during critical phases of flight, including that below 10,000 feet. This is of particular concern given the heavy rain and lack of recent experience with the airport in night IMC.

Also of concern are comments made by the former FAA principal operations inspector. According to the NTSB file, the former inspector “stated that the most challenging part of working with Eastern Air Lines was the former director of safety, who he classified as 'old school' and did not use the most up-to-date information available when beginning to start the airline’s safety management system. He further stated that the CEO attempted to have him removed from the certificate four times when he had requested the airline to do something.”

The record does not indicate what review was done by the airline—or the FAA—when it took on the challenges of flying charters for a presidential campaign. It should have been clear to both that the types of charter the airline was flying in its short existence—basically in and out of Miami, Cuba, Latin America and the Caribbean—were different from the rigors of a nationwide campaign. Even if the airline’s SMS program was not fully functional at this time, certainly the FAA should have been rigorously looking at whether a new-entrant air carrier with limited nationwide experience could handle the particular demands of a Presidential campaign.