College of the Ozarks grounds planes after anonymous complaint

Sunday, October 26, 2003

POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. -- Eight airplanes used in a college's aviation program won't fly again until administrators are satisfied that an anonymous complaint about inspection records was unfounded.

The complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration in late September drew two FAA inspectors from Kansas City to College of the Ozarks, where they studied maintenance records as well as the eight-plane training fleet.

After that visit and another in early October -- requested by the school -- the FAA concluded there was no need to ground the planes, the Springfield News-Leader reported Saturday. But the school is now conducting its own analysis, which is expected to be finished soon, Dean of Administration Larry Cockrum told the newspaper.

"We're very sensitive with safety issues," Cockrum said.

About 60 students are enrolled in the college's aviation science program, housed at its M. Graham Clark Airport, pursuing degrees that will enable them to become pilots, aviation technicians or both.

The anonymous complainant alleged that a mechanic had falsified records for a Cessna 172 to make it appear as though the single-engine plane had not been operated past a scheduled inspection.

College officials believe the complaint may have been retaliation for laying off three mechanics earlier this year and replacing them with the man targeted in the complaint. Still, Cockrum said, president Jerry Davis immediately grounded the fleet upon hearing of the FAA's involvement, "to make sure we were erring on the side of safety."

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory would not discuss details of the investigation by the agency's Flight Standards District Office in Kansas City, but said inspections could produce several possible results.

"Within our regulatory authority, you can assess fines. You can take action on a certification, and you can also issue letters of warning. Or you can do nothing," Cory explained.

Although the investigation remains open, there is little evidence that the mechanic tampered with records, Cockrum said. He said it appeared the complaint was filed because "somebody got mad."

"We had other mechanics that were in that position that are no longer in that position. We did some cutbacks," he said. "It's some sort of personal vendetta."

In reports following the FAA's September and October visits, the acting director of the Flight Standards District Office wrote that the agency's inspectors noted some missing documents and instances of inconsistent record keeping, but that those deficiencies were linked to the current mechanic's predecessors.

The inspections also found the school's planes to be in good condition overall, the News-Leader reported.

In December 1999, six people were killed when the college's Cessna Citation crashed on a fog-shrouded hillside about four miles from the school's runway. They included the pilot, Joe Brinell, who was the college's aviation director.

Brinell's widow sued the FAA, alleging the agency was partly to blame for the crash because its officials had placed pressure on him through harassment. The agency had found maintenance violations on some of the college's planes nine months earlier, and had then tried to re-examine Brinell's pilot competency and requested his pilot logbooks.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that pilot stress, fatigue, rainy weather and poor visibility contributed to the crash. It said Brinell endured "pressure induced by others," but that was not listed as a crash factor.

A federal judge dismissed the widow's lawsuit two months ago, saying she had failed to provide documents or grant conferences requested by the defendants.

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