Part 2: Hundreds of aircraft mechanics improperly licensed
10:54 PM CDT on Friday, April 24, 2009
By BYRON HARRIS / WFAA-TV
VIDEOApril 24th, 2009 Byron Harris reports. >More WFAA Latest News video View largerE-mail clipMore videoRelated links:News 8 Investigates
Federal Aviation Administration
Hundreds of aircraft mechanics improperly licensed
Is aircraft safety for sale?
A News 8 investigation reveals thousands of aircraft mechanics may have been improperly licensed in Texas since the early 1990s.
They have been scattered throughout the state and the country.
They may even have worked on the airplanes on which you or your family have flown.
The FAA issues the certificates that permit mechanics to fix the airplanes Texans fly on.
But we've learned that some of those licenses have been for sale.
"My opinion is that the FAA and the Southwest region is corrupt."
These are the words of Gene Bland, a former FAA inspector.
His harsh judgment of his former employer comes in part from a case he worked on in San Antonio 16 years ago.
Examiners, approved by the FAA, were selling certificates to mechanics.
"Those people know that the FAA is not waiting there to catch them," he said.
Some 250 mechanics had to be re-tested by the FAA, because the FAA-deputized examiners were cheating, giving mechanics the license to repair planes, when they weren't necessarily qualified to do the job. That was in 1993.
Now a building at the San Antonio airport is the focus of a similar scandal.
It was home to Tobias Aerospace, where 1,300 mechanics have been tested - mechanics who work on aircraft flying in Texas.
What may have happened here is what some experts call a "shake and bake" school - where improperly-certified mechanics got certificates to do business.
The testing facility was headed by Brian Tobias, an approved Designated Mechanic Examiner, known as a DME. DMEs administer a two-part test to mechanics, for what's known as an A&P certificate.
The first part - called the written test - is given on a computer.
The second is a grueling oral and practical exam between one examiner and one mechanic. The test can take as long as ten hours - the mechanic pays the examiner, usually $600 to take it. In theory, the more tests an examiner gives, the more money he makes.
Hundreds of mechanics appear to have been tested correctly. But for the last eight months, FAA investigators have been probing the operation.
"They have told me the charges against Mr. Tobias involves several governmental organizations, including the VA, for defrauding because VA paid for my A&P license," an anonymous source said.
The ramifications spread far beyond Texas, all the way to Boeing in Seattle, because Tobias tested mechanics from all over the world, including dozens from Boeing, who could command higher wages, once they passed the test. Now the FAA is holding all those legitimate candidates in limbo.
"They have kinda been stonewalling me," said a source.
"I think it is a horrible situation as far as many mechanics are being affected by it. We're looking at thousands of mechanics having their A&P revoked or never issued and not being issued," a source said.
Documents, e-mails and interviews indicate that at some point, Tobias Aerospace may have turned into a "shake and bake" operation.
The facility allegedly gave tests to applicants from foreign countries, in Spanish, through a translator, a direct violation of FAA rules.
"She was reading the questions in Spanish and translating it A,B, C," a source said.
"There would be a van full of guys from South America. And these guys would go on in and start testing. They did not speak English," another source said.
The FAA declined an on camera interview. The agency denies tests were given in Spanish.
But these mechanics, like many we talked to for this story, asked that we keep their identity secret.
That's because the FAA has a history of punishing critics. Gene Bland was one.
"The people that have been whistleblowers in the FAA have paid dearly," he said.
Tobias Aerospace was shut down by the FAA last year. Its rooms are empty now.
We called Bryan Tobias and he did not respond.
Then we stopped to see him.
We asked him how many people he tested last year. Was that figure 700?
"It wasn't that many. You'll have to leave my property," he said.
One unanswered question is how much the FAA knew about the Tobias operation.
Mechanics must visit the FAA office before they're even allowed to take an exam. They must be interviewed as part of Form 8610.
Those who couldn't speak English, as required, should not have been allowed to take the test.
This all leads to questions of corruption.
Have FAA individuals been getting kickbacks?
"Yes, some of them have. They had to have because you can't inspect these people. It could not have gone through the FAA office," a source said.
A year ago the FAA was the subject of a congressional investigation for the way it inspected airliners.
Texas was the focus.
Now the issue is mechanics.
Texas is still the focus.
At stake again is safety.
This time, for a problem the agency hasn't solved for 16 years.