SANTA FE (KRQE) - Air New Mexico, the state-owned airline for the exclusive use of the political elite, is plagued with safety violations going back years, a News 13 investigation finds.
It's a government scandal the state won't talk about.
"We were directed on late Friday afternoon that we would no longer have an interview with you," James Chavez, acting director of the Transportation Services Division, said when News 13 approached him with a hidden camera.
In 2005, one state official noted, "The driving force in the (Aviation Bureau) seems to be one of making the schedule and disregarding safety and proper operating practices. It is truly a miracle that (they have) not had a serious accident."
A three-month News 13 investigation uncovered a laundry list of blunders and mishaps. There have been airborne mistakes, lack of training, disregard of regulations, inadequate record keeping, unqualified pilots and reckless maintenance failures.
For example, on Aug. 1, 2005, pilots Mike Warren and John Maldonado flew officials across New Mexico in the state's Aero Commander. The pilots were later reprimanded for failing to abort when a "potentially dangerous" electrical problem was discovered mid trip.
By continuing to fly, a supervisor said the pilots "put (their) lives and the lives of (their) passengers at risk."
In 2005, the Aviation Bureau was criticized for a series of dangerous safety lapses:
• A pilot risked a mid-air disaster by knowingly flying the Aero Commander with an unlocked baggage compartment.
• The state airline faced the possibility of tens of thousands in Federal Aviation Administration fines for failing to perform required checks of navigation equipment.
• Pilots recklessly flew passengers in violation of federal regulations by operating the plane with inoperative equipment.
In 2006 a pilot in command of the state jet was reprimanded following a series of midair safety blunders including an unstabilized landing approach and the inadvertent disconnect of the autopilot.
In a 2006 memo, the airline's then-chief pilot was cited for "bizarre and inappropriate behavior." Among the findings? Unfamiliarity with an aircraft flight computer, landing technique and airport procedures. The list goes on and on.
"Aviation is one place you can't cut corners on safety," said retired Delta Airlines Capt. Mike Cox, a safety expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who examined some of the documentation News 13 uncovered.
"They are beyond troubling," Cox said of memos he reviewed. "If I was a passenger, state official who was flying in those aircraft I would be very concerned about the qualifications and continued safety of the agency who was operating those aircraft."
The state's dismal airline record came to a head in September when one pilot resigned over New Mexico's failure to address safety issues. News 13 is withholding his identity at his request.
"At times it was to the point where I was concerned about an accident actually happening," the pilot said.
His concerns included unqualified pilots.
"They have used their mechanic as a second-in-command on the aircraft," the pilot said. "In fact they used him when he was a private pilot and very low (flight) time."
The mechanic was not qualified to be second-in-command on state aircraft, he added.
"If he was operating as second-in-command he was in violation," Cox said. "If he was an observer, if this aircraft only required one pilot, he could sit there all day long. But if he's operating a second-in-command he's in violation."
And, during cold winter conditions, state pilots have been known to recklessly cut corners, according to the former state pilot.
"In a couple of cases, instead of de-icing the aircraft, they'll leave it in the hanger, load passengers up, pull it out and try to get it off the runway before they get ice on the aircraft," he said. "Trying to get to the runway before ice builds without de-icing fluid on the aircraft is an accident waiting to happen."
Such an action is both a safety hazard and a violation of federal code, Cox said.
"The aircraft could be unairworthy," he continued. "The safety risk that you are personally taking is enormous."
The former state pilot said he also knew of a case where aircraft on-board radar was not working, and yet pilots flew in conditions requiring instruments.
"You are flying blind in weather without a radar," he said.
Prior to every flight, pilots are required to calculate aircraft weight and balance. In the New Mexico state fleet it may be required, but it's not routine, the former state pilot said.
Without those calculations, pilots don't know for sure that their aircraft is in condition to fly.
"If you are just throwing cargo and passengers on aircraft without taking into any consideration weight and balance issues, you could easily find yourself in a situation where an aircraft couldn't become airborne," Cox said.
And then there's Oct. 17, 2008, when Gov. Bill Richardson was scheduled to fly on the state jet to Carlsbad, Las Cruces and Alamogordo.
However, the governor's flight conflicted with a policy requiring a minimum rest period for one of the pilots. Aviation officials ordered the pilot to fly the governor anyway.
In a handwritten note obtained by News 13, a state aviation official wrote, "(The) governor's needs supersede any internal procedures at this time."
"To meet his needs we had to deviate from our standards," the former state pilot said.
But when it comes to safety, does the governor or any other chief executive take precedence over regulation?
"No, absolutely not," Cox said. "That's why regulations are there, to prevent abuse and to ensure that no matter who is the passenger flying aboard that aircraft, that those regulations are adhered to."
News 13 asked James Chavez whether he or anyone else with the state General Services Department, which includes the aircraft fleet, had ever directed pilots to deviate from the General Operating Manual to accommodate the governor.
"I think what we need to do is you need to put that request in writing, sir," Chavez said.
"I'm also telling you this is what I've been directed to do, sir," he said. "No comment."
That's not the only question the state won't answer. In fact, they won't talk safety at all. At the last minute cabinet Secretary Art Jaramillo, who heads the General Services Department, pulled the plug on a scheduled interview with Aviation Bureau Chief John Maldonado.
When News 13 with a hidden camera later caught up with Maldonado, he said he would not make any comment on aircraft safety despite being the aviation bureau chief.
"There are no safety issues," he said. "Aviation Services has a clean record, and the only thing we are dealing with is, in the past, personnel issues.
Maldonado did not respond when asked why, if there are no issues, he would not sit down and talk about safety.
"The primary importance is the safety of your passengers. The safe passage of people who have entrusted their lives to you," Cox said. "It's critical. And I don't care if it's the governor, if it's a senator or if it's a minor state official.
"If that person has to be somewhere and is going to use the state aircraft, they need to be transported in a safe manner."
Although the FAA has oversight of the state airline, it has not conducted thorough inspections of New Mexico's planes because they are considered privately owned.
****NOTE**** A few weeks after this story aired, Gov.-elect Susana Martinez named a former state aviation director to lead a team in reviewing New Mexico's aircraft fleet. The team will make recommendations on whether New Mexico needs the three aircraft operated by the General Services Department.
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