In June of 2019, investigative staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation received information from a whistleblower alleging misconduct by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) managers at the Flight Standards District Office in Honolulu, Hawai’i. This initial whistleblower, an FAA employee, alleged that FAA managers too frequently overrode the recommendations of inspectors, hampering the ability of inspectors to conduct effective oversight. The whistleblower also alleged that at least one manager issued improper check ride certifications. The whistleblower indicated that his/her knowledge was indirect but well known by local employees and representatives of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialist (PASS) union.
On July 31, 2019, Chairman Wicker sent a letter to then-Acting FAA Administrator Elwell requesting documents that included information specific to allegations of misconduct in Hawai’i. On September 5, 2019, committee staff provided the FAA a prioritized request for certain items included in the July letter. This prioritized request again included information regarding a specific aviation company in Hawai’i.
A second FAA employee whistleblower contacted the committee in December 2019, with allegations of misconduct at the same FAA office. The whistleblower, Joseph Monfort, expressly agreed to be publicly identified. Mr. Monfort has provided several protected disclosures to the committee and has filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. Mr. Monfort served 20 years in the United States Army and retired as a warrant officer helicopter pilot. He began his FAA career in 2009, and has worked as a principal operations inspector in Hawai’i. Mr. Monfort alleges that some managers in the Hawai’i FAA office have an inappropriately close relationship with Novictor Aviation, a helicopter tour operator in Hawai’i. According to Mr. Monfort, these FAA managers have granted multiple policy deviations for Novictor. The committee notes that three Novictor crashes have occurred in the last two years, one of which resulted in three deaths.
Operations of small non-commercial aircraft, excluding on-demand charter flights or air tours, are governed by Part 91 of title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Part 91 is generally less restrictive when it comes to safety requirements. Certain exceptions for some commercial operators allow them to operate under Part 91 instead of the more stringent safety standards found in Part 135, which generally applies to on-demand charter flights and air tours. The National Transportation Safety Board has a long history of concerns about the safety of Part 91 air tour operations and has recently recommended eliminating the exemption that allows certain air tours to operate under Part 91.
On November 2, 2018, local FAA management revoked Novictor’s Letter of Authorization to operate under FAA Regulation Part 91, citing the company’s accident history and lack of verifiable safety measures, according to Mr. Monfort. As a result, Novictor was required to operate under Part 135. On November 20, 2018, Mr. Monfort’s Front Line Manager (FLM) at the FAA, Darett Kanayama, granted check airman authority to the owner and operator of Novictor, Nicole Vandelaar. The committee notes that in 2017 Ms. Vandelaar had been prohibited from receiving Part 135 check airman authority by the Manager of the Regional Flight Standards Division. Mr. Monfort alleges this prohibition was due to a lack of qualifications, including the 14 CFR Part 119.71 requirement that Directors of Operations have three years of managerial experience within the last six years.
As a principal operations inspector, Mr. Monfort was assigned to conduct oversight of Novictor Aviation. On April 29, 2019, a tour helicopter operated by Novictor crashed on a residential street in Kailua, on the island of O’ahu, killing all three aboard. Mr. Monfort began an investigation into the crash, which revealed that Ms. Vandelaar had received her check airman certification from Mr. Kanayama improperly. According to Mr. Monfort, Ms.Vandelaar was improperly certified to administer check rides on behalf of the FAA, but subsequently gave a check ride to the pilot involved in the April 29th crash 10 days before the accident. Mr. Monfort proceeded to revoke Ms. Vandelaar’s check airman authorization by letter on May 3, 2019. Later that day, Mr. Monfort was removed from the investigation by his Assistant Manager, Michael Heenan. Mr. Monfort’s workload was cited as the reason for his removal. Documents reviewed by committee staff corroborate these claims by Mr. Monfort.
In a previous episode involving Novictor, Mr. Monfort became aware that a Novictor helicopter had made an emergency landing near Wahiawa, Hawai’i, on September 18, 2018, damaging the aircraft. Novictor, according to Mr. Monfort, did not notify the local FAA office per normal procedure. FAA inspectors only learned of the event when an inspector happened to see the damaged helicopter being transported near the local FAA office with the tail number taped over. A subsequent investigation into the emergency landing found that the accident occurred due to poor maintenance practices and pilot error. When these findings were entered into the FAA database that tracks these incidents, a process that is approved by the FLM, the pilot and operator fields were left blank by the staff assigned to input data. According to Mr. Monfort, this is highly unusual and appeared to be an effort to obscure attribution of the incident to the pilot and Novictor. As a result, a search of the FAA’s internal accident database for “Novictor” or the pilot’s name does not reveal this incident. Mr. Monfort alleges that this discrepancy in the FAA incident report is evidence of an effort by Novictor and/or FAA employees to divert attribution of this incident away from Novictor Helicopters LLC.
Mr. Monfort was also assigned to conduct oversight of Safari Aviation, Inc., a helicopter tour operator located on the island of Kaua’i. In September and November of 2019, Mr. Monfort requested two travel authorizations to proceed to Kaua’i to conduct an inspection of Safari Aviation. Both requests were denied by FAA managers, making it next to impossible for Mr. Monfort to perform adequate FAA oversight. On December 26, 2019, a Safari Aviation tour helicopter crashed, killing seven. In 2016, Mr. 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.
During these episodes, Mr. Monfort repeatedly appealed to senior management in his office to have his direct manager’s decisions overturned. Mr. Monfort alleges that as a result, he received two separate suspensions that amount to whistleblower retaliation. Mr. Monfort has filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
On December 18, 2019, after not receiving any documents in response to previous requests about FAA aviation safety in Hawai’i, committee staff submitted an inquiry to counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) about the production status of the documents prioritized on September 5, 2019. The agency indicated the request was in process. Committee staff emphasized the importance of the specific Hawai’i request and further focused the request by providing an FAA enforcement file number that had been provided by Mr. Monfort. Eight days later, while committee staff awaited the production of these documents, the December 26th Safari Aviation crash occurred, killing seven.
On January 17, 2020, committee staff received a tranche of documents in response to the previous and prioritized requests. Of the 157 pages received, only five were substantively related to the prioritized topic of Hawai’i. These five pages identified several relevant attachments that were not provided to the committee. This document production did not provide all documents related to the specific FAA enforcement case file requested on December 18, 2019.
On January 22, 2020, committee staff learned that Mr. Monfort was being re-interviewed by an FAA Special Agent in regards to a previously investigated matter from 2018 in which he alleged deficiencies in a Part 135 operator’s training program. Additionally, Mr. Monfort was recently notified that he will 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 managers to revise findings of his Novictor investigations.
The committee’s thorough investigation and review of available documents lends credibility to Mr. Monfort’s disclosures and appears to corroborate many of his allegations. This review, while incomplete and not yet conclusive, raises significant concerns about the efficacy of FAA oversight in Hawai’i. As a result, Chairman Wicker has requested that the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation conduct a thorough investigation into these allegations of regulatory violations and whistleblower retaliation.