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A pilot employed by an oligarch was granted an FAA license, despite being failed over safety issues

Why did FlightSafety Textron Aviation Training certify a pilot who, according to evaluators, should have been denied a license? And why has the FAA ignored the red flags raised by more than one whistleblower?

By Dale Nickerson

I was a chief pilot, captain, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) check airman for over 20 years. I’ve subsequently worked as a jet simulator instructor and training center evaluator since 2007. At FlightSafety Textron Aviation Training, my job was to ensure the safety of the public by instructing pilots, evaluating their skills, and making a call as to whether they should be certified to fly a specific type of jet aircraft.

I have instructed and evaluated hundreds of pilots who sought FAA licenses or type ratings for the planes that they or their employers purchased. Most of those pilots passed their tests. The handful whom I did not recommend for certification for safety reasons were either denied a license entirely or received additional training until they were proficient.

That is, until May of 2019, when a pilot employed by a Ukrainian oligarch’s company came through our training center in Lutz, Florida. The company of the oligarch in question (who I will not name here, for perhaps obvious reasons) had recently purchased a Citation Jet made by Cessna and then registered it in Utah via a noncitizen trust called TVPX Aircraft Solutions.

As background: When a plane such as this is purchased and registered in the United States, any pilot who will fly the plane must hold an FAA license and also go through an FAA-approved training program specific to that aircraft. These same FAA licenses are necessary to fly anywhere in Europe, as this particular Citation Jet frequently does. This pilot training is often negotiated as part of the aircraft purchase agreement with Cessna.

It’s important to note that Cessna is a division of Textron, the same entity that conducts the training as part of a joint venture with FlightSafety International. Thus, in cases like this, the FAA outsources the pilot’s evaluation and certification to the very company that has sold the aircraft to the customer. Clearly, this arrangement is fraught with conflict of interest. A company that sells a plane has a vested interest in a license being issued to the pilot of that plane, because they want to keep their customer happy.

Strange things can happen when the same company that trains a pilot to be licensed also stands to benefit by gaining a satisfied billionaire jet customer. After all, this probably wasn’t this oligarch’s first jet purchase and likely won’t be his last. But that’s why we have the FAA. The FAA sets specific requirements for pilot training and evaluation for a license. These requirements include, but are not limited to: maneuvers, normal, abnormal and emergency procedures, judgment, risk mitigation, and cockpit resource management.

The pilot employed by the oligarch’s company completed the training in May 2019, but there was one very big problem: when I attempted to recommend the pilot for his FAA Practical Test the following day, I quickly determined that he could not speak or understand English at the level required by the FAA to be eligible for a license. The English proficiency standards I used are those listed in the FAA Advisory Circular AC60-28B, which sets out the requirements.

Since 1951, English has been the official international language of aviation. It is a violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations to grant any level of license to a person who cannot speak and understand English to the FAA-established standard. This is a requirement because wherever a US-licensed pilot flies in the world, the vast majority of exchanges between that pilot and an air traffic controller will take place in English. This includes information about altitudes, headings, and taxi instructions on the ground. Imagine the consequences of a misunderstood instruction to a pilot at a busy airport; the results could be catastrophic.

On the FAA website, the first activity listed in describing the agency’s role is safety regulation: to “issue and enforce regulations and minimum standards covering manufacturing, operating, and maintaining aircraft” and to “certify airmen.” But what you don’t see on the website is the fact that the FAA relies to a large degree on private training providers and their employees—who answer to management on a daily basis—to carry out the mission of certifying pilots.

After nearly 25 years of flying jets internationally, I was confident in saying this individual would struggle to understand an English-speaking air traffic controller. He also had a great deal of difficulty answering questions about the material in the aircraft’s pilot manuals (written in English), and struggled to carry on a conversation about the aviation topics we needed to discuss to complete the review I was entrusted by the FAA to perform properly.

As a result, I stopped the review and recommendation and reported the matter to the director of training. I expected the FAA to be called in to examine this pilot, as that requirement for cases like this is spelled out in the FAA Advisory Circular. Instead, the center manager ordered the director of training to conduct an English skills evaluation, which allowed this pilot to be tested the following day—despite the fact that I, an experienced evaluator, had just failed to recommend him due to his lack of English skills, which should have made him ineligible until further FAA evaluation.

What is even more alarming is that this wasn’t the pilot’s first time at the Lutz training center. In January of 2019, just a few months prior, he had attended training there as a foreign pilot. He held an FAA private license at that point, which should have required that he speak fluent English. Yet, his flight training records from the time indicated his English language skills were so poor that he required an English interpreter—an interpreter made available by the very center manager now assigning the director of training to evaluate the pilot’s English.

Any experienced evaluator, let alone center manager, should have seen the pilot’s lack of English skills and need for an interpreter as a major safety alarm bell. Yet, during that first visit, this center manager appears to have arranged for one of my colleagues to administer an FAA Practical Test for a jet type rating.

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, I have obtained evidence from the FAA that shows this test being started by the evaluator, then stopped halfway through. This is very unconventional, unless there is a failure of the pilot—but, in fact, the pilot ultimately was not failed. I know because I obtained another FAA form that shows he achieved a satisfactory completion. This leaves questions about what took place, and why the test was terminated prior to its completion.

I filed a safety complaint with the FAA. While the investigation was in progress, I became aware of additional evidence, so I contacted the FAA inspector and fleet training program manager assigned to the Lutz facility. Although FAA order 2150.3C states that the FAA is responsible for the investigation of all potential safety violations, I was told to “back off,” and that this was bigger than me, and “not a party I was invited to.” It felt like I had gotten too close to something that was making someone very uncomfortable.

It wasn’t until after I was selected by the Lutz center manager for furlough in April 2020 and then termination in July 2020, as part of a supposed Covid-related reduction in force, that I started becoming aware of many of the behind-the-scenes details I’ve outlined above, via FOIA requests, deposition videos, and conversations with colleagues. I feel strongly that my termination is linked to this safety-related complaint. I further discovered that four others who had raised concerns about this pilot had also been selected for termination.

I reached out to FlightSafety’s legal department in Denver, Colorado, to an attorney handling evidence related to a coworker’s whistleblower wrongful termination suit. Explaining what I knew, I pleaded with her to do the right thing: to investigate my claims that a very unsafe situation had been created by a group of FlightSafety Textron employees. I never received a reply. To the best of my knowledge, all of the management staff and instructors who cooperated in the certification of this pilot’s license remain employed at the facility in Lutz, while all of those who raised objections became victims of the layoffs blamed on Covid. A coincidence?

The FAA eventually did conduct an official investigation. When I obtained a copy of the final report through a FOIA request, I discovered that three other instructors had also written specific notes in this pilot’s training record about his difficulty with English. And yet—despite overwhelming evidence from training records, an invalid FAA evaluation form, proof that an interpreter had been used in training, and an official FAA record showing what appears to be an unauthorized use of the FAA computer system to issue a type rating—the FAA concluded there were no violations and refused to order a re-examination of this pilot’s English skills.

Given recent events in Russia and Ukraine, it is also worth mentioning that to register a plane like the jet referenced herein, you must be a US citizen or resident. The owner of the company that bought this plane is neither, but through the aforementioned noncitizen’s trust, he used a loophole that thousands of the wealthy elite have exploited to obtain the coveted US registration. Using aircraft trusts and shell companies, the rich sidestep the US citizenship/residency requirement and also evade taxes—such as the up-to-27 percent VAT the European Union would require for the same registration on their soils. This practice also opens up the potential to evade sanctions, because the true owner of a plane landing on any soil will be obscured.

Of the various concerns raised in this essay, none is more important to me than safety. Certifying a pilot who cannot speak English at the appropriate level is a direct violation of FAA regulations, and unquestionably a serious safety hazard. The FAA has a tough job, and is short on personnel and funding. Even so, it’s time to evaluate the process of permitting a large corporation to operate on the “honor system” by authorizing its employees to perform the function of an FAA inspector and issue pilot licenses. We need to take a closer look at the loopholes that billionaires can exploit to gain influence in our aviation regulation system, and ensure that the lives of innocent people are not put at risk.

The FAA responded to our request for comment with the following statement: The FAA is looking into the concerns based on new evidence.

FlightSafety International responded to our request for comment with the following statement: We cannot publicly comment on the training records of our clients. FlightSafety maintains the highest level of training standards, and our training is approved by the FAA and other airworthiness authorities around the world.

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