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CBP hid details about near-fatal helicopter crash at secret flight school: whistleblower

US Customs and Border Protection has papered over damning details about a near-fatal helicopter crash during a training exercise in 2021 — and attempted to cover up violations at an “under wraps” flight school that led to it, whistleblower disclosures exclusively obtained by The Post show.

CBP’s Air and Marine Operations division abused its authority and posed “a substantial and specific danger to public safety” by allowing most of its AS350 light helicopter fleet to operate without crash-resistant fuel tanks and permitting pilots to fly with minimal certifications, according to the revelations.

Contemporaneous reports from a local ABC affiliate first described how on May 12, 2021, a CBP pilot in training and an instructor narrowly avoided death while conducting an aerial maneuver that caused their helicopter to crash in a field near a flight training center outside Oklahoma City.

The aircraft “burned down to its frame” and the pair were briefly hospitalized for minor injuries — but the reasons for the crash were never disclosed.

The flight school has been kept by the agency to give pilots with minimal qualifications the opportunity to “pad their logbooks” — but its first student was the trainee who crashed the helicopter, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

“This leads to minimally skilled aviators being selected for very difficult pilot assignments,” the source said, pointing out that half a dozen other mishaps have also occurred due to poor safety precautions.

The Air and Marine Operations division’s congressionally-approved funding is tied to the number of flight hours it regularly records, but those hours are supposed to be focused primarily on operational duties rather than flight training with instructors, according to the source.

An internal aircraft mishap report following the May 2021 crash found that the pilot in training was the “primary causal factor” and had presented an invalid waiver concerning accumulated flight hours before operating the helicopter.

But officials tried to conceal the details of that report.

Robert Blanchard, executive director of CBP’s Air and Marine Operations division, “improperly attempted to remove critical information” about the hiring process and dangerous fuel tanks from the mishap report’s findings in December 2021 “because of the potential for a negative public response and increased legal liability,” according to whistleblower allegations later confirmed by an internal agency investigation.

The CBP division’s former director of training, safety and standards, Joseph Adams, made the protected disclosures about the alleged cover-up to the Office of Special Counsel after having been asked by Blanchard to remove the information from the final report.

Adams, who retired in October after 15 years in the division, also alleged CBP higher-ups retaliated against him and threatened to dismiss him following the disclosures, which the Office of Special Counsel is separately investigating.

Last June, Special Counsel Henry Kerner referred the whistleblower allegations to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who tapped CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility to look into the matter.

Adams, who retired in October after 15 years in the division, also alleged CBP higher-ups retaliated against him and threatened to dismiss him following the disclosures, which the Office of Special Counsel is separately investigating.

That office in May 2023 confirmed that 81 of 97 light helicopters are operating without crash-resistant fuel tanks and that Blanchard tried to remove that fact and information about the hiring process for new pilots from his division’s final mishap report, having told Adams in an email the details were “a litigation hazard.”

Crash-resistant fuel tanks have been required by all CBP light enforcement helicopters since 2006 to reduce the likelihood of fires following an accident.

However, the Office of Professional Responsibility stated in the report that the helicopter fleet was not in violation of Federal Aviation Administration standards, since the requirement does not apply to aircraft designed before 1994.

The Office of Special Counsel approached CBP in August asking whether the report’s findings would prompt disciplinary actions by the agency and whether it intended to retrofit any crash-resistant fuel tanks in the future.

On Sept. 18, CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller responded in a letter that the report would be forwarded to an internal Discipline Review Board for consideration, while noting that Blanchard was slated to retire by the end of the month, according to a copy obtained by The Post.

“CBP has determined not to retrofit the current fleet,” the letter also states, but “has elected to retire and replace the fleet lacking crash worth [sic] fuel tanks.”

The letter makes no mention of changes to policies surrounding the flight school.

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