For pilots, 'no' is not an option

BY RONNIE GREENE

rgreene@MiamiHerald.com

On the morning of his final flight, as his Piper PA-34 readied to depart Colorado on a cross-country journey, cargo pilot Perry C. Grant begged for someone to fly with him.

Grant, 27, had taken on as many hours as possible, but he was burning out, friends and family said -- so much so that he had fallen asleep at the controls more than once while ferrying bank records and medical supplies for American Aviation Inc. of Salt Lake City.

"He wanted to fly commercial, and I think this was kind of the carrot dangling in front of him," said his wife, Jennifer Grant. "We have three kids and it was always just, he needs to fly and get his hours. I don't understand why he wouldn't tell them no."

On that June 2005 morning, unable to find a copilot, he entered the cockpit solo.

Thirty minutes later, he crashed into a mountain near Telluride, Colo. Witnesses heard the explosion and then saw a rockslide, dust and a giant plume of smoke as the plane's wreckage trailed for hundreds of feet.

The company thinks the pilot had fallen asleep at the controls.

The Federal Aviation Administration had fined Grant's employer seven times in five years for safety violations, and last December said American Aviation did not give pilots the required uninterrupted rest. The company continued to fly, even though it failed to pay most fines and some pilots said they "had never been trained in several areas," records show.

After Grant's death, the FAA revoked American's license.

Perry Grant's final flight provides a brutal glimpse into the life of air cargo pilots, who often pocket poor wages and fly at all hours to earn their stripes, and who work for companies that sometimes blatantly skirt safety rules -- and get away with it.

Nearly every month, another cargo pilot falls from the sky, making theirs the deadliest form of commercial aviation in the United States. Behind those casualties is a booming industry that draws young pilots hungry for flight hours and the chance to rise to better-paying jobs.

Some cargo pilots themselves have adopted a nickname: freight dogs.

Pilots say pay can be as low as $15,000 a year, a stark contrast to the six-figure salaries for pilots employed by larger carriers. Most earn $30,000 to $60,000 a year, depending on their employer, experience and hours, interviews show.

In death, the disparity continues.

Insurance rates for cargo operators are sky-high, experts say, because of the danger of the industry. Freight dogs for smaller companies have difficulty obtaining private insurance and must rely on their employers.

Lara Goldman Lennon, whose husband, Thomas, died in a crash in Maryland in 2004, said Epps Air Service offered $25,000 life and $25,000 accidental death and dismemberment coverage to employees. The second policy excluded pilots.

"The secretary would get twice as much life insurance as the pilots," said Lennon, a former human resources executive. "I didn't want him to get more than anybody else. My fury over that issue is that he got half of what everyone else got."

A CULTURE OF RISK

Experts say the very profile of the industry -- older planes, less-experienced pilots, longer hours, overnight flying, dangerous weather -- adds safety hurdles.

"Those are all little risk factors ... that require additional oversight and training on the part of the company, and that is usually missing in most of the cargo operators," said John J. Goglia, who served on the National Transportation Safety Board for nine years as an outspoken safety advocate.

"Alone, any one of those means nothing. All of a sudden, we have a string of them coming together, and all of a sudden we've got an accident," Goglia said.

Royce A. Read, 32, an Oklahoma State University graduate who made the dean's list and aspired to join NASA, viewed ferrying freight as a ladder to his dreams.

"He always loved and dreamed to fly," said his wife, Stephanie Read. "Loved it, loved it, loved it."

Like other young pilots, he found work in cargo. "They were the ones that were hiring pilots hungry for hours," she said. "While other people build their résumé, pilots are trying to build their hours."

In August 2001, the Learjet piloted by Read and Brian O'Laughlin, 30, was destroyed while departing Tompkins County Airport in Ithaca, N.Y., at 5:42 a.m.Destined for Michigan with 400 pounds of auto parts, the pilots got approval to take off on a morning so foggy the copilot had said, "I can't even see the other end of the runway."

The NTSB cited as the crash's cause a "failure to maintain a proper climb rate while taking off at night," along with the poor visibility.

Read kept an eye on safety issues, and he held close a green accordion folder full of safety notations as he flew for Ameristar Jet Charter of Texas. "He had told me and several other people on many occasions: 'If anything should happen, make sure you get this green folder,' " his widow said.

After the crash, Ameristar gave the folder back -- with the maintenance logs gone, she said. "After Royce's plane went down, there was someone immediately from Ameristar there. And someone from the FAA. There was no one to represent Royce."

Their insurance coverage was $20,000. With double indemnity, it paid $40,000.

The couple had young twin sons, and Stephanie Read was pregnant with their third child when her husband died. Today his children's photo album says: This is my Daddy. He died in a plane crash and he can't live with us anymore.

Two years later, another company plane went down after overrunning a Del Rio International Airport runway, killing the captain, 29, and burning the first officer, 38, in an accident attributed to pilot failures.

Teak Biondo, listed in NTSB reports as Ameristar's director of operations, declined to discuss the two crashes or the industry's safety record. "No comments on any of it," he said. Cargo pilots fly more hours than their peers navigating passenger planes. They often do so against the clock, while much of the nation sleeps.

"From livestock to mail. I've flown bank checks to live chickens," said Rebecca Loranger, who regularly flew over rough Alaskan terrain and once safely landed a cargo plane that lost an engine over Pennsylvania. "Cargo pilots on the whole are typically more skilled. They do fly in worse weather."

The culture is different.

"In the cargo world, it's negative to come back and say you couldn't do it. When you say you cannot accomplish something and you're a passenger pilot, everybody has this emotion of safety -- and 'It's OK. We didn't want you to take that chance with the lives on board,' " Loranger said.

In dense Alabama fog at 1:43 a.m. Dec. 1, 2001, a Cessna 208B flying as Fast Check 600 went down, killing pilot Michael J. O'Neill and copilot Dimitri Tohovitis.

The Air Carriers pilots flew on a night so rough that one witness said the fog was the thickest he had ever seen at the airport.

"The money he was making down there was peanuts, really," but he did it "to put [in] some flight time to find another job," said the copilot's father, Athanasios Tohovitis. "I lost my son. My wife and my kids, they are still crying every day."

'WE CAN DO IT'

Another victim was Mark Blevins, 40.

A client had called his cargo company, Priority Air Charter, to see if it could deliver goods to Detroit on a March 2002 evening so dangerous with icing that at least one other company's plane was forced to make an emergency landing.

The client wanted to know: Could Blevins still fly? "The Priority Air Charter dispatcher responded, 'Yes, I spoke with my boss and we can do it,' " records show.

Witnesses saw the pilot chipping ice from the plane, and the Cessna 208B was soon en route. "I tell you what," Blevins said at 1:50 a.m., just before the crash. "I got my hands full right now."

Shane Storz, director of operations for Multi-Aero Inc., a cargo company that lost a pilot in an Iowa crash in 2001, said the culture of the industry impacts safety.

"A lot of these companies, they don't have good training programs. They take an individual out of flight instruction and put him in a [cargo] seat, and that's where you get a lot of accidents," Storz said. "These guys are so hungry to go to the airlines, they will do anything. You've got pilots flying for nothing."

Todd DeSimone, general manager of an Illinois company, Planemasters Ltd., that was involved in a fatal crash in December 2002, said the freight industry should be every bit as safety-conscious as others.

"I know some of these operators aren't training at the highest standards, because it's freight," DeSimone said. "I don't care if it's boxes or people, it's got to be the same when it comes to the training."

Perry Grant's last flight reveals the consequence of the industry's safety breakdowns.

Grant was born into an aviation family and built model airplanes as a child, so it was little surprise that he held both commercial pilot and fight instructor certificates.

He found work in cargo.

"According to family members, friends and colleagues, the pilot was 'tired' and displayed symptoms of burnout," NTSB records say. "One colleague reported that during an extended flight, the pilot had fallen asleep while acting as pilot in command. Several other passengers, whom had flown with the pilot, reported that he had fallen asleep during their flights."

On that June morning in 2005, NTSB records say, "the pilot made several requests for someone to accompany him during his flight because he was tired."

Thirty minutes after taking off alone, Grant was dead.

FAA enforcement records reveal American Aviation as a frequent safety scofflaw. Clear warning signs existed years before Grant's crash.

"This operator needs to be watched closely," a 2001 inspection report noted.

"The company is not maintaining the required number of current pilot personnel who are qualified and capable of conducting day to day operations at the highest level of safety," another FAA report found.

The FAA issued seven fines totaling more than $40,000 since 2000, saying American operated aircraft past inspection cutoffs, flew planes in unairworthy conditions, failed to comply with a manufacturer's maintenance program and, among other failings, had a plane with a dented left wing and broken up de-ice shields.

The plane Grant used on his final flight had been written up a year earlier because it had flown in 2003 even though the right engine and right propeller governor were past the manufacturer's recommended overhaul limits.

After Grant's crash, an inspection of pilot training in March concluded: "Even though the training records indicated the training had been done ... the pilots stated that they had never been trained in several areas."

In April, an FAA review of Grant's crash found even more maintenance issues -- and said the company "continued to violate the safety regulations and is significantly delinquent in the payment of civil penalties."

Ten months after Grant's death, "The Administrator has determined that an emergency exists related to safety in air commerce and that immediate action to revoke American Aviation's Air Carrier Certificate is required."


| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |