FAA whistleblower claims his safety warnings of chopper operations in Hawaii were ignored

Published: Jan. 31, 2020 at 5:29 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii’s two U.S. senators called Friday for an investigation into the FAA following a whistleblower’s “troubling” complaint that repeated warnings about the safety of helicopter operations in Hawaii were ignored by FAA leadership, including before two recent crashes.

U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono say the agency’s actions may have put lives at risk.

“In the past year, Hawaii has experienced two tragic accidents involving air tour operators," Hirono said, in a statement Friday.

“Safety is a key mission of the FAA, and the whistleblower allegations that the Honolulu Flight Standards District Office knowingly failed to meet this mission deserve immediate action and a thorough investigation.”

The complaints are detailed in a Senate Commerce Committee report released Friday.

Concerns raised about FAA oversight of Hawaii helicopter industry

#LIVE: Congressman Ed Case is speaking to a reporters about a new whistleblower report that raises concerns about FAA oversight of Hawaii's helicopter industry. MORE: https://bit.ly/3b0zyjG #HINews #HNN

Posted by Hawaii News Now on Friday, January 31, 2020

In it, FAA whistleblower Joseph Monfort ― who agreed to be publicly identified ― said that agency managers in Honolulu had an “inappropriately close relationship” with Novictor Aviation, whose helicopter crashed on a busy Kailua street in April and killed all three people onboard.

Witnesses told the NTSB that the chopper was falling apart mid-air and its rotor blades weren’t moving before it slammed into the ground and burst into flames.

Attorney Richard Turbin represents the family of Joseph Berridge, the pilot who was killed in the Kailua crash. He says the report confirms his suspicions of lax oversight.

“It’s very troubling," he said. "It also invites corruption and I would ask for the proper public officials break that relationship up.”

In a separate incident, the report said, a Novictor helicopter was damaged in September 2018 after making an emergency landing in Wahiawa.

But the company didn’t notify the FAA of the crash, per normal procedure. Instead, the agency found out when inspectors saw the damaged helicopter being transported away with its tail number masked.

“A subsequent investigation into the emergency landing found that the accident occurred due to poor maintenance practices and pilot error,” the report found.

But incredibly, when those findings were entered into the FAA database that tracks aircraft incidents, the pilot and operator fields were left blank.

Monfort, a former Army helicopter pilot who’s worked for the FAA in Honolulu since 2009, told Senate investigators that’s “highly unusual” and “appeared to be an effort to obscure attribution of the incident to the pilot and Novictor.”

Speaking to HNN on Friday, Novictor denied an improper relationship with FAA managers and said the whistleblower characterized some details.

The Senate report also said that Monfort was assigned to conduct oversight of Safari Aviation, whose helicopter slammed into a Kauai ridge during a tour of the Na Pali Coast on Dec. 26.

All seven people on the flight died in the crash, which one witness told investigators happened during “adverse weather conditions.”

Monfort said that in September and November, he asked to travel to Kauai to conduct an in-person inspection of Safari Aviation. But those requests were denied by FAA managers, he said.

Monfort said this made it “next to impossible to perform adequate FAA oversight.”

“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,” the Senate report concluded.

“This review, while incomplete and not yet conclusive, raises significant concerns about the efficacy of FAA oversight in Hawaii.”

In a statement, the FAA said it takes the allegations of wrongdoing “very seriously and already has been conducting internal investigation into these claims.”

“The FAA will cooperate fully with any subsequent investigations,” the agency said.

The whistleblower report comes as the FAA is facing increased scrutiny of its operations.

“For the past year, we have raised concerns that the FAA has ignored warnings about the safety of aircraft operations. This report exposed troubling new accounts about how the FAA failed to take action on warnings about the safety of helicopters in Hawaii – warnings that could have saved lives,” said Schatz, a member of the Subcommittee on Aviation and Space.

“With more than a dozen helicopter accidents in Hawaii over the last five years, it is clear that we need answers from the FAA and stronger protections to keep people safe.”

Congressman Ed Case, D-Hawaii, who has been a critic of the helicopter industry in the islands, said Friday that the whistleblower report is “deeply disturbing.”

“After seven people were killed on Kauai, third accident that year, the FAA’s comment was see no reason to be concerned about the safety of the industry overall,” he said.

“Are they a defender of the industry or a regulator of the industry. And I think the FAA, from what I’ve seen, has become a defender of the industry.”

The FAA also faced heat last year in the wake of one of the worst civilian aviation disasters in Hawaii history. Eleven people were killed when an Oahu Parachute Center’s twin-engine skydiving plane crashed shortly after takeoff on the North Shore and burst into flames.

In a stunning news conference the next day, NTSB investigators publicly criticized the FAA for failing to adopt tougher oversight of skydiving operations — putting the agency “on notice.”

This story may be updated.

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