Less than a year before the Teterboro crash of a Challenger corporate jet that ran off a runway and hurtled into traffic on a busy 6-lane highway on Feb 2 2005, the company responsible for that crash, Platinum Jet Management of Fort Lauderdale, ran a private jet off a runway at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport in Atlanta.
The Teterboro crash was so spectacular that it led all three evening newscasts. Later, an investigation held in the wake of the crash turned up damning evidence of a pattern of illegal activity on the part of the charter company so egregious the FAA came under rare criticism from another Federal agency, the NTSB.
The charter company's executives, including CEO and chief pilot Michael Brassington, were arrested on felony criminal charges two weeks ago.
That the company's pilots regularly experienced difficulties keeping their airplanes on the runway has not been reported until now.
We pieced together the story after finding a brief Associated Press dispatch about the incident:
"A business jet rolled off the runway at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport in north Atlanta Thursday afternoon," the Associated Press reported on Feb. 26, 2004.
"The Gulfstream 3…was landing on Runway 20 Left when it rolled off the end of the runway. It was registered to a Dallas-based company, 448 Alliance LLC."
We already knew that 448 Alliance, a Dallas outfit whose name will shortly prove important to this investigation, turned over both Gulfstream jets it owned to Platinum Jet.
But there was nothing on the plane marking it as belonging to any company or airline. Platinum Jet's name didn't surface in the Peachtree incident.
Nor did the twin-engine Challenger that crashed during takeoff at Teterboro carry any corporate or airline logo. No name was emblazoned on its tail.
The Man Behind "Loophole Air"
But former inspector general Mary Schiavo of the U.S. Department of Transportation says the airline it was flying for does have a name: She calls it "Loophole Airlines."
Schiavo, an outspoken critic of the nation's aviation regulators, said nobody knows how many other charter companies are doing the same thing that got Platinum into trouble. "The charter outfits don't have to file any reports," she said. "You only see it when there's a crash."
The crash sparked a federal criminal investigation that led to the recent 23-count indictment against Brassington, and four other executives of Platinum Jet Management.
Schiavo told the NJ Star-Ledger that the company that flew the jet was an unqualified charter operator, flying U.S. skies only by circumventing federal regulations.
"This is rampant. It isn't just one operator. This goes on everywhere in every part of the country," she charged. "They are loophole airlines."
If Schiavo is right, then the man keeping Loophole Air airborne is Fort Lauderdale attorney Michael Moulis, a former FAA prosecutor who has represented Guyanese pilot Brassington since the Teterboro Challenger crash four years ago.
30 Days in the hole
Moulis, who has a successful history of keeping shady charter flight operators flying, has something of a checkered past himself… Two years ago he was suspended from practice for 30 days by the Florida Supreme Court.
The Florida Supreme Court said Moulis “committed an act that is unlawful or contrary to honesty and justice, failed to provide competent representation to a client, failed to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client, failed to keep a client reasonably informed and inappropriately withdrew from representing a client.”
Moulis had time to spare, however. No one was in any hurry. A two-year long FAA and NTSB investigations led to toothless sanctions, which Brassington was able to evade through the simple expedient of going out of business as the defunct Platinum Jet, and opening up under any of a number of brass plate front companies like Aviation Management Professionals Inc., which was set up by his brother Paul Brassington a year-and-a-half after the Teterboro crash.
Criminal charges, which weren’t filed until more than four years after the accident, came less than two weeks after the Obama Administration took office, leading to speculation that the indictment had been ‘held up” during the waning years of the Bush Administration.
Throughout this period, Moulis belligerently denied that his client did anything wrong. And he stonewalled the FAA, maintaining that his client Platinum Jet didn’t need to release records being sought by the FAA.
"Man, I need something to drink."
It’s a well-practiced tactic that’s worked for him before, most spectacularly after the crash of a charter plane in the Bahamas that killed teen sensation Aaliyah and eight others in August of 2001 led to a criminal investigation of his client.
The cause of Aaliyah’s crash was an overloaded airplane, the same cause ruled responsible for the Teterboro crash. And, like in the Teterboro crash, investigators found numerous flagrant violations of U.S. law that directly led to the deaths of nine people…
In that crash, the plane lifted off from Marsh Harbour Airport in the Bahamas, rose little more than 40 feet, banked left—then nose-dived into a marsh and burst into flame.
"Bodies were all about," says Marsh Harbour mortician Ernest Scott, who wrapped the deceased in fire blankets, then placed them in canvas body bags. "I've been on some gruesome ones, but this one was bad."
When emergency teams arrived at the muddy scene minutes later, they found Aaliyah some 20 feet from the fuselage, curled on her left side. She and five others had died instantly; Aaliyah's bodyguard Scott Gallin, 41, was barely alive in one of the fuselage remnants. "
"Man, I need something to drink," Gallin told mortician Ernest Scott. He did not survive the night.
FAA inspector who cleared doomed pilot, commits "suicide"
Moulis represented the shady Palm Beach Florida charter operator responsible for the flight.
Gilbert Chacon, the owner of Blackhawk International Airways, wasn’t someone anyone would describe as being above reproach. Chacon had a significant criminal record. He pled guilty in 1993 to bankruptcy fraud involving another charter service, in a $400 million insurance fraud run by a British scam artist from a safe haven in the Caribbean.
Investigation revealed that the pilot of the doomed plane had been busted for possession of crack cocaine, trafficking stolen airplane parts, theft and driving with a suspended license.
Three weeks after the Aaliyah crash, the FAA inspector in Fort Lauderdale who signed the crack-head pilot off as ready to fly committed suicide. The New York Post broke the story, but
oddly neglected to identify the "suicided" FAA inspector.
After the Aaliyah crash, Moulis admitted his client Chacon’s culpability, then offered a “suffered enough” defense.
“My client knows he hired a bad pilot who killed nine people,” Moulis told reporters. “It cost him his career. He can't go to the Bahamas. He is done in aviation – but that's not good enough for the federal government.”
For responsibility in negligence leading directly to the deaths of nine people, attorney Moulis got his client Gilbert Chacon three years….
Three years of probation.
Up in the air without a leg to stand on
In the Teterboro crash, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott McBride said the pilots had not received the training to fly paying passengers, and the company simply ignored the records and safety requirements. "This was a charter company that disregarded all the rules," said McBride.
"They were operating by the seat of their pants, trimming around the edges of safety and regulatory compliance. It clearly rose to the level of fraud. There was a continuous pattern in their efforts to deceive their clients, their brokers and the FAA," said Michael Drewniak of the U.S. Attorney's Office, District of New Jersey.
Platinum flights, including one the day before the accident on Feb. 2, 2005, altered records to make it look as though the jet "was operated within weight and balance limitation when it may not have been."
"Essentially, they were cooking the books," the investigation charged.
"This is a basic airmanship, Flying 101-type of thing," National Transportation Safety Board investigator Steve Demko told the board.
NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker blasted the crew's decision-making as "truly, truly disturbing."
The captain's employment history was sketchy. He last held a full-time flying job eight months before the accident, and he’d been fired twice for poor judgment and decision-making. And although he claimed to have type ratings on six different aircraft types, he couldn't produce a flight log.
The co-pilot was worse. He hadn't completed training to serve as a first officer, and even if he had, as a citizen of Venezuela in the U.S. on a tourist visa, he was ineligible to serve as a commercial pilot.
The crew did not have a passenger manifest. And in violation of U.S. laws barring flights by foreign entities between two U.S. points, chief executive officer Michael Francis Brassington was not a U.S. citizen.
A crash, a witch hunt, and a frenzy
Moulis was unfazed. "Just because we had a crash, they get into this frenzy. They just changed the law because of this accident."
"The F.A.A. has no clue what's going on with respect to this investigation,” Moulis told another newspaper. “And they don't even have the time or decency to talk to the NTSB and now they're on a witch-hunt."
Moulis told reporters, "For those guys to represent to you that that is somehow illegal, they need to go back to aviation school 101. The charges are bogus and part of a ‘witch hunt.’
Brassington was the co-pilot on a Learjet belonging to terror flight school owner Wallace J. Hilliard, when it was surrounded by DEA agents brandishing sub-machine guns on a runway at Orlando Executive Airport in late July of 2000. Onboard, agents found 43 lbs of heroin, an amount known in the drug trade as “heavy weight.”
According to the Orlando Sentinel, it was the biggest heroin bust in Central Florida history.
During the same month as the heroin bust, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi began flying lessons at heroin Lear jet owner Wally Hilliard's flight school in Venice.
The link between Mohamed Atta’s presence at a flight school whose owner’s Learjet flies a drug run to South America and back each week for 39 weeks has never been investigated or explained.
All drugs are bad… Ours a little less so.
Hilliard’s plane was seized, and those aboard busted.
Or, at least, some of them were.
The pilot was let go, to the obvious distaste of the DEA Special Agent who filed the affidavit in court. Even so, his affidavit fails to even mention the co-pilot’s name. Brassington doesn’t even come up.
We first heard the name of the man who had co-piloted the doomed drug flight —Michael Francis Brassington—from aviation executives in Naples FL.
The link between Brassington and the heroin flight was confirmed by a former U.S. Customs Inspector in Fort Lauderdale, who lost his job after a run-in with Brassington.
“Brassington was a pilot that I came into contact with on April 6th, 2004 while working at the General Aviation Facility at the Ft. Lauderdale International Airport as a Customs Inspector,” James Leif Sanders told us.
“He had a ‘lookout’ from the DEA for heroin smuggling, which said he had copiloted a Lear jet (N351WB) on the 25th of July 2000 into Executive Airport in Orlando.”
"But he also had a letter from Customs stating that his record would be modified, so he would no longer receive close scrutiny when going through Customs. This may have been an attempt by Customs to illegally override a DEA lookout.
Why would one Federal agency, Customs, now a part of the Dept. of Homeland Security, want to "illegally override" a "lookout" placed by another, the DEA?