- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

RICHMOND (AP) — The state-owned jet used by Gov. Mark Warner and other officials needs $1.2 million in repairs and safety improvements, the director of the Virginia Department of Aviation said.

Charles Macfarlane’s interest in modernizing the 15-year-old Citation II aircraft was heightened by a midair incident March 9 over Florida with a member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors onboard. A door seal deflated, causing an alarm to sound and oxygen masks to drop. The pilots made a rapid descent and emergency landing in Tampa. No one was injured.

The seal was repaired, and the twin-engine aircraft, known as N1VA, was put back in service in late March, according to state reports.

“If we’re going to continue to fly, I think it should be upgraded,” Mr. Macfarlane said.

The problem is finding the money. The department’s budget this year has been slashed 45 percent, nearly $9 million, and it failed to obtain extra funding from the legislature in March.

The jet has made more than 8,000 takeoffs and landings, and flown 4,800 hours, which puts it at the “back end of its usable life,” Mr. Macfarlane said. It is slated for a $250,000 engine overhaul in June, but it also needs $1 million worth of navigation, computer and collision-avoidance systems installed.

Michael Mills, manager of the Aviation Department’s flight operations and safety division, was one of the two pilots who made the emergency landing in March.

“I didn’t consider it a real serious issue,” he said. “We needed to leave that altitude and get to a much lower altitude” where everyone could breathe without the aid of oxygen masks.

Mr. Mills said, however, that the Citation needs improved onboard systems, especially for flights in the busy air corridors of the Northeast.

“We really need collision avoidance because there’s so much chatter on the radio that an air traffic controller might fail to point out traffic to you,” he said.

N1VA could also use a “terrain-awareness and warning system” to provide alerts when the aircraft is approaching a mountain or any other hazard on the ground, Mr. Mills said.

Several years ago, plans were under way to replace the Citation, said Mr. Mills and Mr. Macfarlane. Funds dried up, however, when the administration of Gov. James S. Gilmore III had its own budget problems.

Aviation officials are working with Mr. Warner’s staff to establish funding mechanisms to regularly replace or upgrade the state’s fleet, which includes a 1980 King Air, a twin-engine turboprop airplane that is also in need of major technology upgrades.

“I can assure you the Department of Aviation and its pilots do everything to make sure the planes are safe and travel-worthy before they leave the ground,” said David Hallock, assistant to the governor.

He said state officials might have to trade in its aging planes. Mr. Macfarlane said a new Citation Encore, which is comparable to N1VA, would cost at least $7.5 million.

Part of the problem, Mr. Macfarlane said, is that “no governor wants to be seen purchasing a new aircraft for his administration.”

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