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Whistleblowers: FAA refused to inspect Safari helicopters

LIHU‘E — A Federal Aviation Administration employee says his managers prevented him from conducting an investigation of Safari Aviation, the charter helicopter company whose sightseeing tour ended in a fatal crash near Koke‘e that claimed seven lives on Dec. 26.

FAA inspector Joseph Monfort contacted the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in December, alleging that FAA leadership ignored repeated warnings about the safety of helicopter operations in Hawai‘i, according to a report Friday.

Monfort, a retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot and principal operations inspector in Hawai‘i since 2009, said his requests to inspect Safari Aviation in September and November were denied by FAA managers, “making it next to impossible” for him to perform adequate oversight.

Monfort alleged that he was suspended twice because of his repeated appeals to senior management in the Hawai‘i office to have his direct manager’s decisions overturned.

According to the Senate committee’s report, Monfort initiated a review of Safari’s training program due to “deficiencies” he noted during a check ride with the same pilot involved in the December crash, a revelation U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-urban Oahu) described as “shocking” during an interview Friday, calling Monfort’s allegations about Safari helicopters “very disturbing.”

Case spoke with The Garden Island yesterday afternoon following a press conference to address the whistleblower’s complaints. He said the numerous administration employees who have come forward in recent months seem to indicate “a much broader problem” within the FAA.

According to Case, the combined allegations “add up to the same basic question, which is: ‘Is the FAA focused on public safety or on protecting the industry?’”

Monfort also reported allegations of lax oversight at the administration’s Hawai‘i office, and told the committee’s investigative staff that some managers “have an inappropriately close relationship” with Novictor Aviation, a helicopter tour operator involved in three Hawai‘i crashes in the last two years.

Case said inappropriate relationships like those alleged by Monfort sometimes happen when federal regulators “become too cozy” with members of the industry they are charged with overseeing.

The Senate committee said in its report Friday that an investigation and review of FAA documents “lends credibility to Mr. Monfort’s disclosures and appears to corroborate many of his allegations,” and that the review, while still incomplete, “raises significant concerns about the efficacy of FAA oversight in Hawai‘i.”

The committee’s report included information supplied by multiple FAA whistleblowers. One employee alleged the administration’s managers “too frequently overrode the recommendations of inspectors, hampering the ability of inspectors to conduct effective oversight,” and accused at least one manager of issuing improper check-ride certifications.

In a statement Friday, FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor said the administration “takes allegations of wrongdoing very seriously,” has been conducting its own investigation of the matter, and “is already taking steps to address substantiated concerns.”

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Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cloehrer@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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