FAA Harassed Pilot of Fatal CJ Crash

The DOT?s Inspector General concluded that an FAA inspector systematically harassed a pilot who died in a CJ crash. The NTSB says the stress it induced was a factor in the accident.

The Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently completed an investigation into the alleged harassment of a Missouri pilot, Joseph Brinell, by the FAA. The report found that personnel at the Kansas City Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), including a supervisor, had indeed abused their authority in their dealings with Brinell. The OIG only initiated its investigation after it found that the FAA's own probe into the affair was biased in favor of the FAA personnel involved and that it contained "troubling irregularities."

While under normal circumstances the FAA's alleged mistreatment of a pilot wouldn't warrant headlines, in this case the pilot in question was at the controls of a Cessna CitationJet that crashed while on a GPS approach to a small airport in Point Lookout, Missouri, on December 9, 1999. Brinell died in the crash, along with five others.

In its June, 2001 final report on the crash, the NTSB cited pilot error-Brinell, the report says, descended below the minimum altitude-as the cause. But in what is, to our knowledge, an unprecedented finding, the Board cited as a contributing factor the stress that Brinell was under due to the ongoing, unwanted attention from the FAA.

That attention is the subject of the OIG report, which was requested by Missouri congressman Roy Blunt after Brinell's widow raised concerns about the credibility of the FAA's internal probe.

The OIG's report states that over the course of approximately nine months, the unnamed supervisor and others at the Kansas City FSDO initiated a series of "unwarranted" actions against Brinell, who was then the Director of Aviation for the College of the Ozarks. Brinell, who had been with the college for 28 years and had acted as a designated examiner for 26 years, had an unblemished FAA record.

According to the report, the Kansas City FSDO supervisor who initiated actions against Brinell told a friend of the pilot that Brinell did not "give me the respect that I deserve as a Supervisor" and that "We are going to change that."

The FSDO first moved against Brinell in March of 1999, when it sought to revoke his designated flight examiner status. FAA superiors rejected the attempt.

In May of that year, the FSDO directed a reexamination of Brinell's pilot competency, because it had questions about "identified maintenance lapses" at the college. The retest demand was a highly unusual move, since Brinell was not in charge of maintenance at the college and, by the FSDO's own admission, had not flown in any of the airplanes associated with the lapses. The FSDO retracted the retest order only after it was pointed out to them by an FAA attorney that there was no legal justification for taking such an action and after Brinell had written a detailed letter to the FAA protesting the retest.

Finally, in November of 1999, the Kansas City FSDO told Brinell to turn in his logbooks for examination, as he was under investigation for allegedly conducting two check rides in an aircraft for which he was not authorized (a Cessna 310). The FSDO also invalidated the results of those check rides.

Tragically, Brinell never had the chance to turn in his logbooks. According to the report, for three days before the December 9th accident in which he died, Brinell was so worried about the ongoing investigation that he hadn't gotten a full night's sleep. The FSDO supervisor who requested the logbooks is quoted in the IOG report as saying he was simply trying to help Brinell by finding the missing authorizations, a claim on which the OIG report casts doubt. In fact, the OIG found that the FSDO had lost track of its own paperwork documenting the fact that Brinell was indeed authorized to conduct tests in the 310.

As a result of the investigation, the OIG found that "the FSDO Supervisor and Principal Operations Inspector were remiss in their oversight of Mr. Brinell, and their actions implicate an abuse of regulatory authority." The report goes on to say that, "Collectively, the series of FSDO actions give rise to at least the appearance that Mr. Brinell was being harassed. Mr. Brinell clearly perceived that he was being singled-out and unfairly treated. Our findings support the NTSB's conclusion that the FAA had induced stress in Mr. Brinell."

In concluding its report, the OIG recommended disciplinary action against the Kansas City FSDO supervisor and against the operations inspector there. After the CitationJet crash, the supervisor who had initiated and pursued actions against Brinell was promoted to FSDO manager and, later, to a position as acting regional assistant manager.