Sen. James M. Inhofe kicked off budget week with a floor speech on the sequel to his “Pilot’s Bill of Rights,” which the Oklahoma Republican acknowledged Monday “is not a big deal to the general public, but it is to anyone who is a pilot.”
That includes the 80-year-old senator, who has been navigating the skies for more than half a century.
It’s been nearly five years since Inhofe “scared the crap out of” construction workers at a south Texas airport as he tried to land his Cessna 340 on a closed runway. But the notoriously stubborn conservative is still railing against the Federal Aviation Administration for trampling on his due process rights during the subsequent probe.
“I was actually cleared to land, and they were hiding the voice recording that cleared me to land. That’s how bad it was of a system, where you are guilty until proven innocent,” Inhofe told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday. Reflecting on the FAA investigation into the October 2010 accident — which ended with the senator forced to take remedial training — still stirs up some anger.
“This is a 10,000-foot runway that they are only working on 2,000 feet [of], so it wasn’t a problem. But nonetheless, I didn’t know for months on end whether or not I would lose my pilot’s license,” Inhofe said. He estimates it took four months. “Now stop and think: I’m a United States Senator and I didn’t know. What about the guys, these thousands and thousands of airline pilots whose lives, their kids, depend on the job that their daddy or mommy has? You know, losing that, knowing that we didn’t do anything wrong.”
Inhofe’s original pilot’s bill of rights — branded the “Inhofe Revenge Bill,” by some Senate watchers in the wake of the Texas incident — gave pilots who are accused of wrongdoing more authority to review the evidence against them. President Barack Obama signed it in 2012. Inhofe said his Monday speech was meant to “serve notice” that supporters of the second bill, introduced Feb. 25, are “ready.”
Asked how many pilots are in the Senate, Inhofe could only name one.
“I went to South Dakota and campaigned for Mike Rounds, and one reason is that he is a pilot,” Inhofe said of the freshman Republican. “When he was governor, he would actually fly the state airplane, and so he’s a well-accomplished pilot. I think he’s the only one. So, it’s not that pilots are a disappearing breed, even though to some extent we are.”
Along with Rounds, the co-chairmen of the Senate General Aviation Caucus, Arkansas Republican John Boozman and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, signed on to the bill. “If you’re an aviator … then it’s very, very important,” Boozman told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday.
Now the pressure is on Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., to take up Inhofe’s pet project for pilots. A spokesman for the committee indicated the pilot’s bill of rights meshes with a series of hearings on issues relevant to the FAA reauthorization.
“As the Commerce Committee moves forward with hearings that will lead to a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, we look forward to working with Sen. Inhofe and the cosponsors of S. 571 on reforms to reduce regulatory burdens on general aviation pilots and ensure the transparent dissemination of critical flight data,” said Frederick Hill, Thune’s communications director on the committee.
That will be a relief to Inhofe, who has experienced at least four emergency landings since he was licensed to fly in the mid-1950s, and considers himself Congress’ primary contact for pilots. “Pilots are single-issue people, most of them,” he said. “They would come to me because I was the only one who understood their language and I was sympathetic and I helped.”
One of his favorite examples is Robert A. Hoover, a World War II fighter pilot and prisoner-of-war, famous for his acrobatic flying feats.
“Bob Hoover arguably may have been the best pilot of his time. He is still flying today. I guess he is in his nineties by now. But about 10, 15 years ago, one inspector didn’t like something he did, and he took away his license,” Inhofe said during his floor speech, marveling at Hoover’s skill. “Anyway, it took an act of Congress that I introduced and passed to get him back into the air. That is why this is so important to a lot of people.”