Helo Crashes Trigger Probe of Honolulu FAA FSDO

 - February 14, 2020, 3:16 PM

The FAA’s Honolulu Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) is under fresh scrutiny following two separate whistleblower complaints filed last year regarding the office’s oversight of a pair of helitour operators involved in recent fatal accidents. 

Since June, staff from the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation have been investigating the allegations from FAA employees that their supervisors obstructed effective oversight of operators, issued improper check ride certifications, had “inappropriate” relationships with operators, and retaliated against the employees when they questioned supervisors' conduct in these matters. 

In a public statement issued on January 31, the Commerce Committee accused the FAA of stonewalling its investigation by both delaying the production of requested documents for months at a time and then producing tranches of documents that were largely incomplete and irrelevant. The Commerce Committee also suggested that the FAA was engaged in ongoing harassment of at least one of the whistleblowers and has asked the Transportation Department’s Inspector General to investigate “these allegations of regulatory violations and whistleblower retaliation.” 

In a statement provided to AIN, the FAA said, “The FAA takes allegations of wrongdoing very seriously and prioritizes safety above all else. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation acknowledges that its review of these allegations is ‘incomplete and not yet conclusive.’ The FAA itself has been investigating these matters and is already taking steps to address substantiated concerns. As we have indicated 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.” 

Honolulu FSDO Attention

This is not the first time the Honolulu FSDO has drawn unwanted attention. During an FBI raid on the headquarters of Guam-based Hansen Helicopters in 2016, documents were uncovered that led to the federal wire fraud indictment of Honolulu FSDO Aviation Safety Inspector Timothy Cislo, who subsequently pleaded guilty to three counts of wire services fraud in 2018 for taking a 2014 bribe from Hansen in the form of a Taylorcraft BC-12D light aircraft valued at $20,000. 

Hansen acquired a pair of written-off helicopters and returned them to service after Cislo signed off on inspections that were backed by missing/falsified maintenance logs that clearly misstated the extent of the helicopters’ original accident damage. The bribe was paid in exchange for issuing and reissuing special airworthiness certificates for helicopters without performing the requisite inspections.

In emails with Hansen employees, Cislo referred to these illegal certificate approvals as “sign-fests,” according to federal prosecutors. Cislo was also involved in irregularities involving the paperwork on at least eight other Hansen helicopters, according to criminal complaints. Cislo’s activities came to light during an NTSB investigation of a September 2015 crash of a Hughes 369, N9068F, off Manra Island, Kiribati, that killed the pilot. N9068F had previously been reported as “destroyed” following a 1997 crash in Saipan, India. The reported serial numbers of the aircraft from both accidents match. 

Fatal Accidents

More recent fatal crashes, by Hawaiian helitour operators Novictor Helicopters and Safari Helicopters, are central to the current whistleblower complaints and the Commerce Committee’s investigation into the Honolulu FSDO. The initial complaint was made to the committee in June following the fatal crash of a Novictor-operated Robinson R44 on April 29 that killed all three aboard, one of three accidents involving the operator in the last two years.

A second FAA whistleblower, publicly-identified by the committee as FAA principal operations inspector (POI) Joseph Monfort, then came forward in December and alleged that managers in the Honolulu FAA FSDO had “an inappropriately close relationship” with the company and had “granted multiple policy deviations” for it. Novictor is owned by Helicopter Association International board member Nicole Vandelaar. 

John Cox, Novictor's vice president for safety, issued the following statement to AIN on February 17. "On January 31st, Novictor became aware of grossly misleading allegations by a rogue FAA inspector to a Senate committee. 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 went on to point out that Novictor employs an FAA-recognized safety management system and that Novictor "and numerous other operators have had substantial difficulty with working with this particular inspector for quite some time."

According to Monfort, Novictor’s letter of authorization (LOA) to conduct air tours under Part 91 was revoked in November 2018 following an Oct. 22, 2018 crash of a Novictor-operated R44 that seriously injured the pilot and his two passengers and a Sept. 18, 2018 crash that substantially damaged another company-operated helicopter during an emergency landing. Novictor was then required to operate under the more stringent Part 135.

On Nov. 20, 2018, Monfort’s front line manager approved Part 135 check airman authority to Vandelaar, even though she had been denied a similar approval in 2017 by the FAA’s regional flight standards manager due to lack of qualifications under 14 CFR 119.71. That rule requires a director of operations to have three years of managerial experience within the last six years. Monfort’s investigation of Novictor’s fatal April 2019 fatal crash revealed the discrepancy and on May 3, 2019, he revoked Vandelaar’s check airman authority by letter. 

His supervisor removed Monfort from the crash investigation later that day. This was corroborated by documents reviewed by the Committee. 

Monfort also charges that his supervisors stymied his oversight of another company in his portfolio, Safari Aviation, based on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. It operated a tour helicopter that crashed on December 26, killing seven. Monfort said his supervisors did not approve his requests to visit Safari in September and November last year.

In 2016, Monfort “had initiated a review of Safari’s training program due to deficiencies he noted in a check ride with the pilot involved in the December 26, 2019 crash,” according to the Commerce Committee. Monfort said he was subsequently suspended twice after he appealed to senior FAA management to overturn his direct supervisor’s decision not to send him to visit Safari, action he alleges is whistleblower retaliation. He has filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. 

But the Commerce Committee suggests that FAA retaliation against Monfort is ongoing. In January, an FAA special agent began re-interviewing Monfort with regard “to a previously investigated matter from 2018 in which he alleged deficiencies in a Part 135 operator’s training program. Additionally, Monfort was notified that he would be interviewed by FAA and DOT attorneys in February 2020 regarding a fatal helicopter accident he investigated in October of 2017. "Mr. Monfort reports increasing pressure by his FAA manager to revise findings of his Novictor investigations,” the committee reported.

The Commerce Committee concluded that its “thorough investigation and review of available documents lends credibility to Mr. Monfort’s disclosures and appears to corroborate many of his allegations. The review, while incomplete and not yet conclusive, raises significant concerns about the efficacy of FAA oversight in Hawaii.”