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 (FSDO) in Honolulu, Hawai’i. This initial whistleblower, an FAA employee, alleged that FAA managers too frequently overrode the recommendations of inspectors, hampering their ability to conduct effective oversight. The whistleblower also alleged that at least one FAA manager issued improper check ride certifications. A second FAA employee, Joseph Monfort, who agreed to be publicly identified, contacted the committee in December 2019, with allegations of misconduct at the same FAA FSDO. Mr. Monfort has provided several protected disclosures to the committee and has filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the Office of Special Counsel.
On January 31, 2020, the Senate Commerce Committee released a fact sheet detailing these allegations and announced that Chairman Wicker had requested that the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation (DOT OIG) conduct a thorough investigation into these allegations of regulatory violations and whistleblower retaliation. Since releasing its first fact sheet, the committee has continued to receive information from new FAA whistleblowers regarding the Honolulu FSDO.
On June 21, 2019, an aircraft serving as a parachute jump plane crashed shortly after taking off from Dillingham Airport, Mokul??ia, Hawai’i, killing 11. The committee has reviewed documentation citing a mechanic’s failure to perform the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance as a possible contributing factor to a loss of control immediately after takeoff. At the time, an FAA inspector recommended an emergency revocation of the mechanic’s FAA certificate. This recommendation was submitted in November of 2019.
On February 22, 2020, a second aircraft experienced a loss of control immediately after taking off from Dillingham Airport, crashing and killing two. According to information provided by whistleblowers, an initial inspection revealed that vital cables had broken and exhibited excessive and abnormal wear. Maintenance records revealed a “100-hour inspection” was last performed on September 19, 2019, by the same mechanic associated with the accident that occurred on June 21, 2019. While the mechanic certified that he/she had “checked all cables and control pulleys as required,” FAA whistleblowers contend that the mechanic could not have reasonably failed to notice the level of wear and tear of the vital cables. They also contend that the wear could not have occurred in the timeframe between the last maintenance and the crash. On February 24, 2020, two days after the second fatal crash, and approximately three months after the emergency revocation was recommended by the FAA inspector, the FAA issued the mechanic involved a letter of re-certification, rather than revocation, allowing the mechanic to retain his/her FAA mechanic’s certification. FAA whistleblowers allege this is an example of FAA management’s unwillingness to listen to inspectors and support requested enforcement actions.
On February 20, 2020, FAA whistleblowers expressed concern to the committee that a major “file clean-up project” was undertaken during January at the Honolulu FSDO that may have intentionally or inadvertently destroyed documents vital to DOT OIG’s investigation into allegations in the committee’s first fact sheet. The committee has confirmed that the document clean-up project occurred, but it is unknown whether or not it was in any way connected to the OIG investigation. The committee requested pertinent documents related to whistleblower allegations of whistleblower retaliation and misconduct at the Honolulu FSDO on July 31, September 5, and December 18 of 2019 and has yet to receive many of the specific documents requested.
While the information received by the committee about these accidents is concerning, the committee does not conduct aviation accident investigations or determine cause. The committee’s oversight investigation is focused on whether the FAA is properly enforcing regulations and thereby ensuring the safest aviation system possible. Dozens of FAA whistleblowers contend that it is not. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is responsible for conducting accident investigations and determining cause. Both of these accidents remain under investigation by the NTSB.
Since the committee published its first fact sheet on this topic on January 31, 2020, it has corresponded with six members of the Hawai’ian helicopter tour community. These individuals, including tour company employees and former Novictor Aviation Pilots, contacted committee investigative staff in support of Inspector Monfort’s assertions, uniformly stating their opinions that Mr. Monfort was a strict but fair safety inspector, and that the local helicopter tour community has long held concerns about Novictor Aviation’s operations.
Mr. Monfort alleges that retaliation for his whistleblowing has continued since the committee published its first fact sheet. He has submitted this information to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Mr. Monfort’s attorney advised the committee that changes to previously approved accommodations stemming from Mr. Monfort’s disabled veteran status constitute reprisal for Mr. Monfort’s whistleblowing.
On March 11, 2020, Chairman Wicker sent FAA Administrator Dickson a letter making him aware of these allegations and asking that he personally ensure that Mr. Monfort was treated fairly and appropriately. That day, Chairman Wicker also sent Administrator Dickson a letter requesting a number of documents related to the above allegations. To date, the committee has not received a substantive response to this request.