Whistleblower disclosures obtained by the New York Post reveal concerning details about a near-fatal helicopter crash during a 2021 training exercise conducted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
These disclosures indicate an attempt by the agency to conceal violations at a secretive flight school, which contributed to the incident.
The Air and Marine Operations division of CBP is accused of endangering public safety by allowing most of its AS350 light helicopter fleet to fly without crash-resistant fuel tanks and permitting pilots with minimal certifications to operate these aircraft. This situation was described as posing “a substantial and specific danger to public safety.”
A local ABC affiliate initially reported the May 12, 2021, crash near Oklahoma City, involving a trainee pilot and an instructor. Their helicopter crashed during an aerial maneuver, burning down to its frame. Both individuals sustained minor injuries and were briefly hospitalized. However, the reasons behind the crash remained undisclosed.
A source familiar with the investigation disclosed that the flight school, maintained by the agency, allowed pilots with minimal qualifications to “pad their logbooks.” The first student of this program was the trainee involved in the crash. The source highlighted this practice as leading to “minimally skilled aviators being selected for very difficult pilot assignments” and noted that several other mishaps occurred due to inadequate safety measures.
The division’s funding, approved by Congress, is linked to recorded flight hours, which are primarily supposed to focus on operational duties rather than training. An internal report identified the trainee pilot as the “primary causal factor” in the crash and noted an invalid waiver concerning accumulated flight hours.
Robert Blanchard, executive director of the division, allegedly tried to omit crucial information about the hiring process and the lack of safe fuel tanks from the report in December 2021. This action was purportedly due to concerns over negative public reaction and legal liability. These whistleblower allegations were later substantiated by an internal agency investigation.
Joseph Adams, the division’s former director of training, safety and standards, made these disclosures to the Office of Special Counsel. Adams, who retired in October after 15 years, also claimed that he faced retaliation and threats of dismissal from CBP higher-ups following his disclosures. The Office of Special Counsel is separately investigating these claims.
In June, special counsel Henry Kerner referred these allegations to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Subsequently, CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility confirmed in May 2023 that 81 of 97 light helicopters lacked crash-resistant fuel tanks and that Blanchard had attempted to remove this fact from the report. Despite this, the fleet was not in violation of Federal Aviation Administration standards, as the requirement for crash-resistant tanks does not apply to aircraft designed before 1994.
CBP’s Acting Commissioner Troy Miller, in a September letter, stated that the fleet lacking crash-resistant fuel tanks would be retired and replaced, but made no mention of changes to the flight school’s policies. Adams, in a separate letter to the White House, pointed out that other officials aware of the crash’s reasons were allowed to retire quietly without facing disciplinary actions.
The Office of Special Counsel has requested a supplemental report from CBP, with a response expected by November 20. A CBP spokesperson stated that the agency takes allegations seriously and is committed to maintaining high training and proficiency standards for pilots. Some aircraft are being retrofitted for crash-resistant fuel tanks, according to the spokesperson. The Office of Special Counsel did not comment on the matter.
Scroll down to leave a comment and share your thoughts.