Wednesday, March 11, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Turbulence on the state plane (11-19-2008)
Beyond the Sun
A state hearing officer found evidence that Nevada’s former chief pilot operated the state aircraft dangerously while transporting top officials, including Gov. Jim Gibbons.
On multiple occasions pilot Gary Phillips landed the state aircraft with only minutes of fuel left, took off overweight and allowed his 14-year-old son to fly the 10-seat Cessna Citation, hearing officer Bill Kockenmeister concluded.
Jim Richardson, who was fired as a state pilot last year, first painted the disturbing portrait of the operation of the aircraft during a November administrative hearing on his dismissal. Richardson claimed he had been fired in retaliation for raising red flags about the conduct of Phillips, who was later demoted from chief pilot to pilot.
The Nevada Transportation Department maintained that Richardson was fired for not reporting an incident in which an intern over-revved the plane’s engines.
Richardson admitted he made a mistake, but said the punishment was too harsh. In appealing his firing, Richardson argued that Phillips had been merely demoted for more serious safety violations.
Kockenmeister ruled last week that the Nevada Transportation Department improperly fired Richardson and ordered that he be rehired and given back pay.
“I feel vindicated,” Richardson said in an interview Tuesday. “I just want to get back to work.”
During the hearing, Richardson testified under oath that:
• On June 23, 2006, the state plane flew to Texas to pick up Darren Mack, who faced charges that he killed his wife and shot a Reno judge. Richardson said Phillips decided to fly back without stopping and landed with 15 minutes of fuel.
• On Oct. 29, 2007, Phillips flew with Gibbons and other state officials on a homeland security tour with insufficient fuel.
• On Jan. 31, 2008, Phillips tried to land the state’s plane in Carson City in bad weather, and didn’t divert to Reno because the aircraft was low on fuel.
“The substantial, reliable and probative evidence in this case clearly establishes that Mr. Phillips committed the ... safety violations,” Kockenmeister wrote.
The Nevada Transportation Department plans to appeal the decision to District Court.
Phillips, who attended the hearing, repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He did not respond to an interview request Tuesday.
Assistant Director of Administration Robert Chisel said the Transportation Department has full confidence in Phillips and the safety of the state’s plane. The department conducted an internal investigation and found the allegations against Phillips could not be proven.
Chisel said he could not disclose why Phillips was demoted.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency has an open investigation into Phillips’ conduct.
In ruling that the department rehire Richardson, Kockenmeister found that the treatment of Richardson was different from the treatment Phillips had received even though the allegations against Phillips were more serious.
An aviation expert “indicated that low fuel and overweight take-offs are very serious safety concerns,” Kockenmeister wrote.