Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine talks about his experience aboard a state aircraft that began smoking. DeWine says he won’t fly on a state plane again because of the costs involved.

State’s plane fleet aging and costly

An engine part overheated on a 1973 plane that was carrying Attorney General Mike DeWine.

“I said I certainly did,” DeWine recounted.

Sure enough, the device on the engine intake that prevents ice build-up overheated and needed to be replaced. The 1973 plane stayed in Youngstown for three days for repairs and the Ohio Department of Transportation sent another plane – one normally used for aerial mapping – to pick up DeWine and his communications chief, Lisa Hackley.

Some of Ohio’s highest-ranking state officials are flying on aging aircraft plagued with increasingly troublesome maintenance issues and costs. Ohio’s auditor has also raised questions about whether the state needs such a large fleet — currently 24 aircraft spread over three departments — given how little some of the planes are used and the expenses involved in maintaining them.

A Dayton Daily News examination of state flight records found that between January 2011 and March 2013, pilots noted maintenance issues on 38 passenger flights and issues on at least 10 other flights when no passengers were on board. The Daily News also found that Ohio taxpayers have shelled out $1.5 million in the last five years for maintenance on just two passenger planes.

The pilot logs show serious mechanical issues have arisen recently with the planes used to fly Gov. John Kasich, his cabinet members and other state leaders.

Kasich and seven other passengers were flying in the King Air B200 from Columbus to Cincinnati and Miamisburg for an Ohio Turnpike event on Dec. 14, 2012, when the auto pilot initiated an uncommanded pitch. The pilot noted: “a/p was disconnected by control wheel cut-off switch. Pitch was not subtle. Upon shut down both engines appear to smoke excessively. R engine is more pronounced.”

A month later on a flight to Detroit in the same plane, the auto pilot system had to be turned off after it “aggressively rolled to 30-degree bank, began slow descent and rapidly pitched up,” according to the pilot notes. On board were Kasich and six other passengers.

ODOT spokesman Steve Faulkner said as aircraft ages it’s not uncommon for maintenance issues to increase but “at no time has safety been compromised.”

“At some point they will need to be replaced,” said Rob Nichols, spokesman for Kasich, who is the biggest current user of the planes. “Until then, the governor trusts in ODOT’s ability to maintain these aircraft.”

ODOT’s aviation division, which is funded by gas taxes, cost $31.9 million over the past five years. That figure includes an airport grant program, operating and maintaining ODOT’s five aircraft and maintaining Ohio Highway Patrol’s 16 aircraft and the Department of Natural Resources’ three aircraft. The division staff includes five full-time pilots, five mechanics and nine support staff.

The highway patrol’s fleet ranges in age from 1994 to 2006 while ODOT’s aircraft range from 1973 to 2004. DNR’s three aircraft are from the late ’70s and early ’80s, a spokesman said.

High maintenance costs are part and parcel of owning older planes. Maintenance on the two passenger planes alone has cost $1.5 million over the past five fiscal years: $470,304 for the King Air C90 and $1,027,177 for the King Air B200.

The King Air B200, which seats eight, was built in 1982 while the six-seater King Air C90, the one DeWine was on, was built in 1973, the year before President Richard Nixon left office.

Because of the age of the aircraft, difficulty in getting parts and overall maintenance costs, ODOT Aviation Administrator James Bryant recommended four years ago that the department replace four aircraft with newer planes and helicopters that would cost roughly $10.2 million.

In 2010, ODOT sold off six aircraft, including two planes built in the 1960s, for a total of $888,000 but didn’t buy any newer planes.

“When it comes to upgrading the fleet, that’s something we could consider going forward,” Faulkner said. “But I think probably for right now, we’ll end up sticking with what we have.”

‘Hands-on governor’

The King Air planes are available for state agencies in the following pecking order: emergency management, the governor, the governor’s cabinet and others. In practice, it is the governor who uses them the most. For example, he flew to Canton on Tuesday where he was scheduled to speak at the Buckeye Girls State, a citizenship program.

Of 140 passenger flights made between January 2011 and March 2013, the Republican governor was on 114 of the flights at a cost of $133,516. On average, five other passengers travel with him, often his security detail, press handler and others. The state-owned planes allow the governor to pack more into his schedule and to make trips with just a day or so notice.

Most of the flights are in-state where commercial flights would be logistically impractical. Driving would be less expensive but take longer.

Nichols said Kasich is a hands-on governor who uses the planes to maximize the available time in his schedule.

“He is not one who is going to sit around all day in his office at the corner of High and Broad streets. He puts a high priority on getting out and talking to people,” Nichols said. “He can get to a whole lot more places flying.”

Kasich’s department directors used the passenger planes 21 times during that same period, at a cost of $24,582. And Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor made three flights at a cost of $3,250 while House Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, used the plane once on November 16, 2011, to fly back from Pennsylvania for a voting session in Columbus.

Batchelder reimbursed the state $1,038 for his flight and Taylor reimbursed the state $1,039 for the portion of her flights where the plane diverted to the Canton airport, which is more convenient to her home.

DeWine is the only other statewide official to have used the planes but he said, “Let me just say I have absolutely no plans to fly it again. This was my first and probably my last time.”

The Cedarville Republican isn’t swearing off the state plane because of mechanical problems – he’s been through dicey aircraft adventures in Haiti and elsewhere – but he says it’s too costly.

Audit recommendations

For the passenger planes, ODOT charges $440 per flight hour, plus crew time and sometimes overtime pay. But an audit released in September by state Auditor Dave Yost found that ODOT is under billing internal clients such as the governor’s office for the passenger flights. The actual cost is $720 an hour for the King Air C90 and $774 an hour for the King Air 200, the report found.

Yost’s 65-page audit said the charges should be updated to reflect actual costs and flight records should be retained for at least four years – not just current year plus one, which had been ODOT’s practice. The short records retention cycle stymied Yost’s attempt to examine multiple years and has in the past prevented media outlets from comparing use of the passenger aircraft by different governors.

Yost made other recommendations including tracking all the executive air travel expenses in one spot, developing standards for what qualifies as a legitimate flight for state business and selling off underused aircraft.

The audit recommended that ODOT sell or repurpose two underused aircraft: an American Eurocopter which flew just 13.8 hours in 2011 and the King Air C90, which flew only 37.9 hours in all of 2011.

Faulkner said some of Yost’s recommendations are being implemented, such as updating charges and keeping records longer. But there are no plans to sell the second passenger plane or the helicopter. The second passenger plane, for example, is needed in case the larger, newer one is out for maintenance or an overhaul, which can take up to 60 days, Faulkner said.

Use of the passenger planes dipped during the Strickland administration compared with the Taft administration.

Gov. Ted Strickland used the planes 23 times in his first 13 months in office at a cost of $31,849 and 17 times in his last year in office at a cost of $27,188; Republican Gov. Bob Taft made 132 trips in the state planes in his last two years in office at a cost of $147,279 while his lieutenant governor, Bruce Johnson, made 80 trips at a total cost of $82,523 over two years.

Use of the planes has climbed again under the Kasich administration. Between January 2011 and March 2013, Kasich and his team have used the planes 138 times at a cost of $161,348.

Still, Yost argued that Ohio isn’t using the planes enough to merit owning two King Airs. He looked at executive aircraft use in eight other large states and found those states flew an average of 386 hours a year compared with Ohio’s total of 121.5 hours in 2011.

Matt Mayer of Opportunity Ohio, a conservative think tank, said the whole point of having an auditor is to help the state find better ways for spending the public’s money.

“When the auditor’s recommendations are ignored, taxpayers get stuck with the bill,” Mayer said.

States cutting costs

Neighboring states have, in recent years, made wholesale changes to their in-house aviation programs.

After a special audit in 2007 criticized the lack of transparency over the use of the state planes, Pennsylvania now posts online records of flights, destinations, passengers and costs. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation also sold its King Air 200 in 2008 because it was underused. Penn DOT kept a King Air 350 and employs two pilots on staff.

Indiana Department of Transportation sold off passenger planes about eight years ago to cut costs. Operation of the passenger plane is now handled by the state police, which transports state executives and also uses aircraft for law enforcement missions.

After a consolidation study in 2005, Michigan sold five aircraft and decided its transportation department should handle all passenger flights.

When asked if Ohio Department of Transportation had undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of owning and maintaining a passenger fleet, Faulkner pointed to Yost’s audit.

“The planes definitely serve a purpose for us,” Faulkner said. “We are constantly looking for ways the aviation department can be a little bit more efficient in the ways we can maintain our fleet or reduce our fleet if necessary.”