Iowa State University finally released its aviation insurance policy and some other documents related to President Steven Leath’s use of university-owned aircraft on October 12, a week after Leath promised to be "open and transparent" about the controversy.
While I work my way through those incomplete materials, let’s take a closer look at one of the least plausible narratives ISU has floated in connection with this scandal: en route to and from an NCAA Sweet Sixteen basketball game in March 2014, pilots of the university’s King Air 350 200 "unilaterally decided" to refuel at the Elmira Corning Regional Airport in Horseheads, New York. The stops supposedly chosen by the pilots allowed Leath’s brother and sister-in-law to hitch a ride at no additional cost to ISU.
FOUR VERSIONS OF ISU’S STORY PINNING THE DECISION ON THE PILOTS
A three-page document initially provided to the Associated Press, which ISU later sent to other reporters, explained the purpose of some flights Leath took on the university’s King Air. You can read the full document here. A portion of Ryan Foley’s October 4 scoop for the AP was based on this excerpt (emphasis in original):
March 27  Ames to Elmira/Corning, NY. Then to Teterboro, NJ. Then back to Elmira. Appears this was transporting Ken and Trish Leath.
Trip was from Ames to Teterboro, NJ (near NYC) enroute to NCAA basketball tournament. Pilots did not want to enter NYC airspace without a full tank of fuel (as holding patterns in NYC are common for small planes), and therefore unilaterally decided to schedule a fuel stop in Elmira, NY. President Leath’s brother and sister-in-law boarded the plane in Elmira. On the return trip, March 29, the plane again stopped in Elmira for fuel, and Ken and Trish Leath were dropped off. They had originally rented a car with the intent they would drive themselves home earlier, but since the team didn’t advance, President and Mrs. Leath were returning to Ames anyway, with a planned fuel stop in Elmira.
This account never sounded convincing, because the Beechcraft King Air 350 is known for its "large fuel capacity" and ability to cover great distances without refueling. The Ames Municipal Airport and the Teterboro Airport are about 880 nautical miles apart. Various charter company websites list the range of a King Air 350 at 1,700 to 1,800 nautical miles, or on the lower end at 1,440 to 1,500 nautical miles. (CORRECTION: The March 2014 trip happened on the university’s older King Air. But that 1977 airplane had the same fuel capacity as later models.)
Prevailing winds, temperature, number of passengers, or cargo weight can influence an airplane’s range, and weather conditions might prompt pilots to choose a flight plan that deviates from the shortest route between two points. That said, ISU’s plane should not have needed to refuel twice on an Ames-Teterboro round trip shorter than 2,000 nautical miles—especially not if the pilots had entered New York City airspace on March 27 with "a full tank of fuel," as ISU’s document stated.
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