FAA Fines North Dakota for Lax Maintenance

FARGO (AP) - Federal aviation officials have fined the state $75,000 for alleged safety violations involving three airplanes that fly the governor and other state officials.

The Federal Aviation Administration raised questions about the airworthiness of aircraft owned by the state Transportation Department last year.

State officials, who are contesting the fines, previously have said North Dakota's air fleet is maintained safely, and any problems were addressed promptly when they were identified by federal aviation inspectors.

"It's strictly an allegation right now; it's a proposed civil penalty," Ernest Anderson, a Grand Forks lawyer the state hired as its litigation counsel in the case. "Right now we've made some requests for documents to clarify how we should respond."

"We see all these events as serious events," FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said. "Safety is our No. 1 concern. Whenever we see a violation of regulations, that in our eyes is a violation of safety regulations."

Gov. John Hoeven has said he has confidence in the state's pilots and aircraft, and hasn't experienced any incident to cause him to question the airworthiness of state planes.

The state voluntarily grounded one of the planes as a precaution - a Piper Cheyenne twin-engine turboprop - for two or three weeks last year after federal inspectors found it lacked critical mandatory tests of its engines.

Another twin-engine turboprop, a Beechcraft Super King Air - considered the flagship of the state's air fleet - was found to have safety violations involving the replacement of its air data computer without proper calibration and testing.

The Beechcraft, which is used to fly the governor and other top state officials, operated in an unsafe condition for almost a year, encompassing "numerous flights," until Aug. 24, 2005, inspectors said.

FAA inspectors also identified safety violations involving a third state airplane, a twin-engine Cessna Skymaster. Violations included damage to a propeller and evidence of an oil leak from its rear engine.

The FAA said it found lax procedures for transportation department's management of its aircraft maintenance and state pilots' certification.

The state's chief pilot was demoted last spring after the critical review and a suspension of his pilot's license. He later resigned.

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