Friday, February 03, 2012

Man disregarded no-fly order to go fly, feds say

Andy Johnson, left, owner of Tidewater Flight Center, watches as student Nathan Estes checks out one of the flight school's planes at Chesapeake Regional Airport on Wednesday, July 19, 2006.
(Steve Earley | The Virginian-Pilot)

Andy Johnson was charged with flying without a valid pilot's license.

By Tim McGlone, The Virginian-Pilot
February 3, 2012


During a day of flight instruction over Chesapeake Regional Airport last fall, pilot Andy Johnson, flying a vintage two-seater, performed a triple spin and other aerobatics, including a simulated engine failure that caused the plane to plummet from the sky.

With his student behind the controls in the back seat, Johnson helped guide the plane in for a landing from the front seat. The plane bounced on the runway, and as they tried to stabilize it the propeller struck the ground. Neither was hurt.

But the real problem that day, according to federal authorities, is that Johnson's pilot's license had been revoked after previously being suspended.

In a rare federal prosecution, Johnson was charged with flying without a valid pilot's license. He is scheduled to make his first appearance in U.S. District Court this morning and faces up to three years in prison if convicted.

The criminal case is a culmination of numerous problems for Johnson and his now-defunct Tidewater Flight School.

Johnson, 30, of Barnards Cove Road in Virginia Beach, opened his school in 2006 at the Chesapeake airport, located among farmlands in the southern end of the city. He had obtained his first pilot's license in 1998, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

Business took off for Johnson in those initial years. He went from training with one plane to having 20 employees and 18 aircraft, according to an interview Johnson did in June last year with Inside Business. He told the newspaper he had opened a satellite training center at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.

By last spring, the Chesapeake Airport Authority began having issues with the way Johnson was operating his business. Instead of signing off on a new annual lease in April, the authority voted to offer Johnson a month-to-month lease, according to minutes of the authority's meetings last year.

When Johnson's lease came up for annual approval in August, the authority had reservations. Authority Chairman Kevin Hubbard said he couldn't recommend approval without significant management changes at the flight school, according to the August meeting minutes.

The board voted to approve another one-month lease as long as Johnson removed himself as general manager, which he did, according to the minutes.

Hubbard said this week that the authority at that time had been made aware of issues with Johnson and his license. Meeting minutes from August say that the FAA investigated Johnson and his company for flying planes in unfavorable conditions caused by a fire in the Great Dismal Swamp. No citations were issued.

"We were told at one point that there was a suspension, or that he had voluntarily turned it in," Hubbard said. "We have been given information with issues and what the FAA was looking into."

The FAA first suspended Johnson's pilot's license for 120 days in 2009, based on incidents that occurred in 2007 and 2008.

Records provided by the FAA say that Johnson operated an aircraft "in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." The records also say that he operated planes that were not in airworthy condition. The agency would not provide more specific details.

The FAA said it later discovered that Johnson, on at least nine occasions, flew various aircraft in violation of the suspension order. As a result, on June 13 last year, the FAA revoked Johnson's pilot's license for 10 months.

According to a court filing, that didn't stop Johnson, either. He continued flying and giving lessons out of the Chesapeake airport.

On Sept. 23, he took an unidentified student up in a Citabria two-seater, a plane designed for aerobatics. The student, sitting in the front seat, conducted four landings without incident.

Four days later, Johnson and the student went up again. This time Johnson was in the front and the student in the back.

Johnson demonstrated for the student a three-rotation spin, two loops, two rolls, and an emergency decent after a simulated engine failure, according to the court filing. On their second attempt to land, the plane bounced and the propeller struck the runway.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General opened an investigation and filed the criminal charge against Johnson last Friday. In its complaint, an agent reported that Johnson asked the student not to tell anyone about what had happened. The student refused.

The student "further stated that he would have never taken flight instruction or flown with Johnson if he knew that Johnson was prohibited from flying," an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint says. The affidavit also states that Johnson gave a lesson to another student on Oct. 7.

At the airport authority's November meeting, the board voted to terminate its contract with Johnson and his flight school, according to minutes of that meeting.

Other court records state that Johnson was giving lessons to other students during this period as well.

Three of his former students have filed lawsuits in Chesapeake General District Court seeking the return of their flight school fees after Johnson closed down.

One student, a Navy man, paid Johnson $2,500 in advance for flight lessons he never received, according to the man's lawyer, Albert Hartley. The student didn't know Johnson's license had been revoked at the time.

Now, the student is out of luck in getting his money back, even though he sued Johnson. Johnson filed for bankruptcy Jan. 10, giving him protection from creditors while his finances are sorted out in court. (The bankruptcy filing says Johnson's company had revenues of $700,000 last year.)

"My poor Navy guy says I don't understand how they can do this," Hartley said. "My guy would have never paid him money if he knew his license was revoked."

Johnson, through his attorney Tim Anderson, declined to comment.

According to DOT records, this is only the third time in the past 18 months that the agency has charged someone with flying without a license.


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