WRAL Investigates

NC's flight fleet expensive, underused, critics say

Posted May 12, 2011

WRAL Investigates

— Whether she's touring tornado damage or the dredging in the Oregon Inlet on the coast, Gov. Bev Perdue sometimes travels by state helicopter to get there.

For business trips to Washington, D.C., for example, she may take the state Cessna Citation Bravo, a fixed-wing passenger jet. However, most of the year, aircraft owned by the state departments of Transportation and Commerce sit in a leased hangar at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The WRAL Investigates team focused on passenger aircraft owned by the DOT and DOC and asked whether the private sector could fly state leaders for less.

North Carolina has 58 state-owned aircraft –14 fewer than a year ago. Reports by the Program Evaluation Division of the General Assembly led to the reduction.

Many planes are mission-specific for various departments within North Carolina government.

As aviation director for the DOT, Richard Walls says he's trying to ground inefficiencies in the state-owned air fleet. Commerce and DOT already merged their operations and sold two planes to save money.

“I don't think we're done yet. I think there's more we can do,” Walls said.

The fiscal year 2010-11 budget for everything from the hangar to insurance to staff is $1,857,589, which includes seven full-time pilots, three mechanics and a scheduler – two pilots are always on board each flight for safety purposes. Yet, a look at the flight hours for the four aircraft in the hangar shows limited use.

“Usually, you need to fly that aircraft 200 to 250 hours to reach a break-even point,” said Bill Graef, president of Aviation Management Group, a company that charters flights and provides centralized air fleet service.

A company like Graef’s stands to gain from picking up state business. He estimates private management could save DOT $600,000 to $1 million a year in operational costs and still offer the same level of safety and service.

Graef's company provides private management for WRAL's Sky 5 helicopter.

“Clearly, they should make the change because we'd all benefit. There's no reason to spend an extra million dollars just to hold an operation in place if you're not going to utilize it,” Graef said.

The state’s S-76 helicopter flew nearly 47 hours last fiscal year, which breaks down to less than an hour a week. The state’s Cessna Citation Bravo flew 176.5 hours last year.

The state’s King C90 Turbo Prop is packed with photography equipment for mapping and aerial data gathering. The rest of the fleet is for passenger travel, primarily economic development and shuttling around business people interested in locating in North Carolina.

On average last fiscal year, each aircraft flew about 120 hours.

“You gotta have the tools and resources you need to get the job done when needed,” Walls said, when asked to justify the cost.

Walls admits that selling state aircraft could bring in millions, but he warns against a knee-jerk reaction. Flight hours on existing planes continue to climb with consolidation. He's now waiting for more thorough analysis from the legislature's Program Evaluation Division, which released a report on aircraft under-utilization last year.

“Wherever that data takes us is what we do. Whether that's (to) sell more aircraft, then we do that. If it's (to) merge more flight departments, we do that. If it's a privatization model, we do that,” Walls said.

NC DOT - Flight Department


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  • chevybelair57sd May 13, 2011

    The state government has been wasting our tax dollars for so long now, they can't recognize a way of feasible governing. We the voter have let special interests high jack our state and now they'll demand tax increases to continue their free ride and if history is any indicater, we'll get what we deserve!!

  • weasel2 May 13, 2011

    The last thing I had read, the Air National Guard unit in Charlotte is equipped and trained to fight fires with their C-130. How come the Gov hasn't called upon them . Oh ya she doesn't have any house or property on a federal reserve!!!!

  • more cowbell May 13, 2011

    State government should at least resemble a similar financial structure as the residents of the state represented. Examples: I am not alloweed to write checks greater than my account balance. If I own more toys than my income can afford, the IRS is going to be asking lots of questions I can't answer. I don't need a Porsche to drive 5 miles to get to work just because my plastic suergon says it's the only make of car that protects my latest nose job. If I go on a business trip, I can't go first class because someone else is paying for it so why can't government freeloaders fly commercial? etc. etc.

  • mpheels May 13, 2011

    ambergail1 - the scoop plane needed more repairs than it was worth. It stinks that the wildfire started so soon after the plane was sold (no pun intended), but the plane was not functional enough to be used to fight the current fire anyway.

  • Keepin_it_real_in_NC May 13, 2011

    We can thank the Democrats for this one.

  • bburwell46 May 13, 2011

    Regardless of the claims by the DOC or DOT or whomever in the state's employ their answers are self serving and protecting their fiefdom at best. There is no reason for the State to be in the aircraft ownership game. Wht a waste of hard earned tax dollars. As far as giving this money to the Dept. of Educ, first we need to get rid of the "FAT" in that big FIEFDOM so we can really see the benefit of this possible windfall infusion.

  • FromClayton May 13, 2011

    all i know is the state just sold the one that scoops up water and dumps it on forest fires...about 2 months before that big forest fire down East. I think they should have hung on to that.

  • Arapaloosa May 13, 2011

    This is exactly the kind of waste that needs to be eliminated, especially before cutting teachers and TAs.

  • Alert5 May 13, 2011

    Gove Bev:

    How did you "crack" administration miss this possible line items to consider for budget reduection, in lieu of education?

    Seems to me that you and your administration care about your convenience to fly more than education???????

  • westernwake1 May 13, 2011

    It is time to sell most of these aircraft which are a waste of money and lease private aircraft for any state mission-critical flights.