A Hawthorne-based air cargo service accused of deliberately violating regulations was ordered Monday by the Federal Aviation Administration to immediately surrender its air carrier operating license.
Citing 35 alleged violations of aircraft maintenance procedures and record-keeping discrepancies, FAA regional counsel DeWitte T. Lawson Jr. issued a relatively rare "emergency order of revocation" intended to ground all eight airplanes operated by Gold Coast Air Inc.
"It's something that we do when we feel that something has to be done right away," said FAA spokesman Russ Park.
FAA investigators contend that the company's personnel "failed to exercise the degree of care, judgment and responsibility" that federal aviation regulations require of all licensed air carriers.
Agency officials said they could not remember the last time that a local air carrier faced so stringent a sanction for non-pilot-related infractions.
Gold's Coast's co-owner and director of operations, Paul Gundersen, declined Monday to comment on the FAA's allegations, saying he had not been provided details in the case.
He said, however, that the company will comply fully "with whatever the FAA wants and try to find out what the problem is so we can get back to normal operations as soon as possible."
He noted that neither Gold Coast nor its sister operation, Hawthorne Aviation, has ever before been cited by the FAA, and he criticized the agency for publicly disclosing information about the case before company officials had been formally apprised.
"There are other air taxi services out there that have thousands of violations pending against them and the feds never do anything to them, but they issue this emergency order against us," Gundersen said bitterly. "Maybe it's because we don't have the political clout that the others do."
The bulk of the allegations facing Gold Coast stem from an incident that occurred on Aug. 22, 1986, when one of the firm's airplanes suffered an engine problem and was forced to make an emergency landing on Interstate 15 outside Las Vegas. The twin-engine Beechcraft TC-45J was on a cargo run for the Los Angeles Times, one of about 10 companies with which Gold Coast does business, Gundersen said.
The engine problem involved a loose fitting to one of the airplane's magnetos and was later corrected by Gundersen. But the FAA alleged that Gundersen was not a licensed aircraft mechanic and that, thus, his actions violated regulations. In addition, agency investigators alleged that the airplane's maintenance records were not properly filled out and that the plane had not been properly inspected.
FAA officials called the violations "deliberate."
Gold Coast also was cited for allegedly making an unauthorized modification to another of its planes. Company mechanics are accused of having installed a "cargo barrier" behind the pilot's seat of a twin-engine Piper Navajo. The modification, FAA officials allege, could have weakened the Navajo's airframe, creating a potential safety problem.
In December, another of Gold Coast's airplanes, a single-engine Piper Cherokee, crashed in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains while on a flight to Bakersfield. The pilot of that plane, John Erick Howerton, suffered burns, and his passenger was killed. The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing to investigate that accident.
Last year, airplanes either operated or serviced by Gold Coast's sister operation, Hawthorne Aviation, were involved in at least three crashes or forced landings.
In the most serious of those incidents, a pedestrian was killed and a motorist seriously injured when both were hit by a plane as it made an emergency landing at the busy intersection of 120th Street and Vermont Avenue. The pilot, Suk Hung Tsang, told investigators that the single-engine Rockwell Commander 112 that he had rented from Hawthorne Aviation lost power while on an approach to Hawthorne Municipal Airport.
However, a source close to the FAA's probe of the incident said that pilot error may have been to blame.