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Fleet Of Government Planes Available Free To Pilot-Bureaucrats

July 3, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Some 1,400 top officials and inspectors in the Transportation Department and Federal Aviation Administration have free use of a fleet of government planes to keep their piloting skills sharp.

According to the FAA, the government financed flight program also gives key employees and executives, including Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, first-hand experience with the actual workings of the nation’s aviation safety and air traffic control systems.

This program has roots that go back more than 40 years, so bureaucrats and inspectors, who are also licensed pilots, have access to planes in the FAA’s fleet of 61 aircraft. The flights are paid for by a $4 million annual congressional appropriation.

Skinner, the program’s top-ranked pilot, came under fire in a CBS television news broadcast Tuesday night for logging - at taxpayers expense - more than 200 hours in FAA Cessna Citation executive jets during his first 2 1/2 years in office.

Most of the 61 FAA aircraft are used by the agency to check the accuracy and reliability of flight systems and navigational aids.

According to the FAA, the majority of the 1,400 pilots in the program are flight standard inspectors, those FAA employees who ride the jump seats of aircraft to check out a pilot’s skills.

Another large group includes FAA inspectors who work with the operators of private and business aircraft and who also certify flight instructors. Others in the program include air traffic controllers and mid-level managers.

″We think it’s good that the inspector is as least as good as the pilot whose skills he’s inspecting,″ said FAA spokesman Hugh O’Neill. ″You can’t get that out of a book.″

Most of Skinner’s 212 hours at the controls of FAA aircraft were spent as a co-pilot during official trips. The FAA said that during 40.7 hours he flew strictly for flight proficiency reasons.

In an interview, Skinner, a licensed pilot since 1977, said the experience gave him valuable experience that helped him shape aviation safety and air traffic control policy.

Skinner and the other pilots, flying aircraft for which they have qualified, are checked for proficiency in instrument flying, basic flying, navigational systems, and emergency operations, O’Neill said.

Skinner flew to Texas on board an FAA aircraft on Wednesday, making stops at Houston, Victoria, Dallas and Texarkana.

At a news conference in Houston, Skinner said flying is important to his job because he gets an earful from the nation’s air traffic controllers.

″Whenever I talk to the tower and they know it’s me, I’m always hearing, ‘When are we going to get this?’ ‘When are you going to do that?’

″It’s very important to my job,″ he said.

″I have bragged to everybody I can″ about being a private pilot, he said.

He said he justifies the federal government paying for his flying time because, ″if I wasn’t transportation secretary, I wouldn’t be making decisions every day about aviation safety.″

Skinner is one of 65 DOT and FAA executives and staff members in the Washington area, all licensed pilots, who keep up their flight proficiency on FAA aircraft.

The six top executives in the program include Skinner, FAA Administrator James B. Busey, a retired Navy admiral; Busey’s deputy administrator, Barry Harris; Tom Accardi, the FAA’s director of Flight Standards; Charles Heutner, acting FAA assistant administrator for aviation safety and Ed Harris, the FAA’s director of aviation system capacity.

O’Neill, the FAA spokesman, said the program dates to at least July 1, 1949 when the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the FAA’s predecessor, authorized the use of its aircraft by employees who were qualified pilots to maintain their flight proficiency.

The program has been in existence at FAA since it was created in 1958, O’Neill said.

Skinner, was authorized to joint the program by Busey and, like other participants, must pass yearly qualification tests to stay involved.

Under ″justification,″ Busey wrote:

″As Secretary of Transportation, (his) participation in the flight program is required to maintain the highest level of proficiency for the purposes of ongoing assessment and of and high visibility in the national Airspace System by regularly participating as a flight crew member.″

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