Senate committee report criticizes FAA oversight of Novictor Helicopters
By Elan Head | December 22, 2020
Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 17 seconds.
A report released last week by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation highlights allegations of misconduct at the Honolulu Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) in Hawaii, finding that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) managers there improperly granted regulatory and policy deviations to local aerial tour company Novictor Helicopters.
The report on aviation safety oversight is a sweeping condemnation of the FAA, which it says continues to retaliate against whistleblowers instead of welcoming their disclosures in the interest of safety. The document has gained widespread attention for its revelations about the Boeing 737 MAX, including that Boeing and FAA employees involved in returning the model to service skewed human factors simulator testing in an apparent attempt “to cover up important information that may have contributed to the 737 MAX tragedies.”
But the report doesn’t stop there, also detailing whistleblower disclosures related to the FAA’s ineffective safety oversight of Southwest and Atlas Airlines, abuse of its Aviation Safety Action Program, and improper training and certification, in addition to misconduct in Hawaii. “In the most alarming cases, whistleblowers have warned of tragedies before they occur only to be retaliated against by managers,” the report states, contending that “in many cases FAA management appears to be aware, and in some cases complicit in thwarting the very oversight they are charged with directing and supervising.”
The report’s discussion of Novictor Aviation, which does business as Novictor Helicopters, builds on a fact sheet released by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Jan. 31, 2020 — just three days after Novictor CEO Nicole Vandelaar was elected to the Helicopter Association International (HAI) board of directors.
The fact sheet laid out allegations by an FAA employee whistleblower who agreed to be identified, Joseph Monfort, that some managers in the Honolulu FSDO “have an inappropriately close relationship with Novictor Aviation” and have granted multiple policy deviations for the company, which has had three accidents since September 2018. In the most recent of those accidents, all three people on board were killed when a Robinson R44 helicopter crashed and burned in a residential neighborhood in Kailua, Hawaii, on April 29, 2019.
The Senate committee’s new report found sufficient evidence to conclude that FAA managers improperly allowed Novictor to operate under Federal Aviation Regulations part 91, rather than the more restrictive part 135, before that authorization was revoked on Nov. 2, 2018. The committee also found that Vandelaar was improperly granted part 135 check airman authority by Monfort’s front line manager, Darett Kanayama, on Nov. 20, 2018.
According to the Senate report and earlier fact sheet, Monfort uncovered the latter discrepancy during his investigation of the Kailua crash, discovering that Vandelaar had given a check ride to the pilot involved in the crash 10 days before the accident. Monfort proceeded to revoke Vandelaar’s check airman authorization on May 3, 2019. Later that day, he was removed from the investigation by his assistant manager Michael Heenan, who cited Monfort’s workload as the reason for his removal.
The report states that Monfort has experienced “increasing pressure by his FAA managers to revise findings of his Novictor investigations,” and “alleges that retaliation for his whistleblowing has continued since the committee published its first fact sheet,” including through changes to previously approved accommodations stemming from his disabled veteran status. Meanwhile, the committee said it has corresponded with six members of the Hawaiian tour community since the publication of its fact sheet in January.
“These individuals, including helicopter 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 is a strict but fair safety inspector, and that the local helicopter tour community has long held concerns about Novictor Aviation’s operations.”
However, Vandelaar told Vertical that the committee has refused to hear her side of the story.
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“Novictor stands steadfast in its resolve to working with the FAA and other stakeholders in improving the fact-based approach to improving safety and oversight,” she said in an emailed statement. “Accordingly, at the outset of the committee’s investigation, Novictor wrote to the committee asking for an opportunity to testify regarding the whistleblower allegations but we did not receive the opportunity to provide evidence and testimony supporting our positions.
“Since its founding, almost 10 years ago, Novictor has operated and continues to operate in compliance with all Federal Aviation Administration regulations.”
Novictor not the only subject of concern
The report calls out other allegations of misconduct at the Honolulu FSDO with potential bearing on fatal accidents now under investigation. These include the Dec. 26, 2019, crash of an Airbus AS350 operated by Safari Aviation; all seven people on board were killed when the tour helicopter went down in bad weather.
Monfort, who was assigned to conduct oversight of Safari on the island of Kaua’i, alleges that in the months before the accident, his direct managers denied travel authorization requests to inspect Safari’s operations, “making it almost impossible for Mr. Monfort to perform adequate FAA oversight.” When he appealed to his office’s senior managers to have the denials overturned, Monfort claims, “he received two separate suspensions that amount to whistleblower retaliation.”
The Senate committee also received troubling evidence related to a mechanic whose failure to perform recommended maintenance may have been a factor in the June 21, 2019 crash of a Beechcraft King Air operating as a parachute jump plane in Oahu. Eleven people died when the aircraft struck the ground shortly after takeoff, in what has been described as “one of the worst civilian aviation disasters in Hawaii history.”
In November 2019, an FAA inspector recommended an emergency revocation of the mechanic’s FAA certificate, but the recommendation wasn’t acted upon. On Feb. 22, 2020, a Cessna 305A recently inspected by the same mechanic also crashed shortly after takeoff, killing two; whistleblowers contend that the mechanic’s failure to inspect vital cables likely played a role in that accident. Yet two days after the second fatal crash, the FAA issued the mechanic a letter of recertification, rather than revocation, in what whistleblowers allege is an example of “FAA management’s unwillingness to listen to inspectors and support requested enforcement actions.”
According to the report: “Although 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 has focused on whether the FAA is properly enforcing regulations and thereby ensuring the safest aviation system possible. Dozens of FAA whistleblowers contend it is not.”
In response to the Senate report, the FAA stated, “We are carefully reviewing the document, which the committee acknowledges contains a number of unsubstantiated allegations. The FAA is committed to continuous advancement of aviation safety and improving our organization, processes, and culture.”
The agency added, “With respect to whistleblower allegations, the FAA takes allegations of whistleblower retaliation very seriously and is committed to following the law that prohibits retaliating against employees for making protected disclosures.”
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When contacted by Vertical, HAI declined to comment on the allegations against its board member Nicole Vandelaar. HAI president James Viola also declined to comment directly on the report. Prior to joining the trade association, Viola served as the FAA’s director of General Aviation Safety Assurance, where he oversaw 78 FSDOs across the U.S.
Instead, HAI said simply that it “appreciates and applauds the work” of the Senate committee in producing the report. “HAI has had a long, positive relationship with the [FAA], and we support recommendations from any sources that seek to improve safety throughout the industry and improved safety culture throughout the agency,” the association stated.
On Monday, Congress approved an omnibus bill containing, in addition to a $900 billion stimulus package, an Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act, intended to address oversight failures uncovered by the investigation into the 737 MAX. Reportedly developed with strong bipartisan support, the act also contains several measures intended to strengthen whistleblower protections within the FAA, and facilitate investigations into whistleblower retaliation.