A week after his death, Philip Castronova’s family and friends are still stunned that the 70-year-old pilot did not have an active license to fly an aircraft. Even more, residents living in the vicinity of the airport emailed local officials indicating they couldn’t believe Castronova hadn’t been caught.
But pilots — both local and afar — aren’t surprised.
No one is regularly checking, they say.
The Federal Aviation Administration has two ways of knowing whether a pilot in the cockpit has an active license and the required medical certificate — or not. One is if someone alerts the agency. The other is if the FAA happens upon that pilot at the airport during a ramp check — the random checks the FAA conducts that check pilots’ documents, including licenses.
The FAA said it is the pilot’s responsibility to maintain his or her license and medical certificate.
“The FAA would not be able to notify every pilot when they needed to update their license and medical certificate,” a spokeswoman said, adding that in 2017 there were 609,306 registered pilots in the country.
That position was echoed by area pilots this week.
“When I go to take off no one in the control tower ever asks, ‘What’s your name, what’s your license number?’” said pilot Art Kamm who lives in Deerfield Beach. “I can take off from any airport and not even tell them where I’m going.”
Pilot Michael Collegio, a former owner of a flight school at Palm Beach County Park Airport in Lantana, added: “It’s not their job.”
Kamm said flying abroad is different. Pilots have to go through customs and are asked to hand over their license, medical certificate and registration, he said.
But flying domestically from airport to airport in the country, Kamm said, “it’s a little dangerous. Anybody could take an airplane up into the skies and use it as a weapon.”
Kamm and fellow pilots contacted for this story said they see a need for more security and regulation of licenses. But the specifics and logistics of how those checks would be carried out left them without answers.
“When I go to jump in my airplane and fly somewhere I certainly don’t want to be hassled, ‘Can I see your license? What’s your license number?’ I’m usually in a hurry,” he said. But he added: “I think they could provide some better regulations.”
Said Collegio: “There is no real way to police this, especially when it comes to owner-operator.”
He suggested air traffic control be required to ask for license information.
“If they want to fix the problem, they can. But it’s going to take Congress to do it,” he said.
The Palm Beach Post reached out to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who sits on the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who serve on the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. None returned a request for comment.
Castronova and his wife Mandy Castronova were in their twin-engine Cessna 335 Sunday morning when it crashed into John Prince Park in suburban Lake Worth. The plane was just a mile from landing at the Lantana airport. The Castronovas, who spent the weekend in Key West, died in the crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board has not said who was at the controls of the plane at the time of the wreck. The panel is expected to release a preliminary report in the next several days.
Despite the assertions of the local pilots, the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said Castronova’s story is rare.
“It almost defies belief,” said Richard McSpadden, the executive director of AOPA’s Air Safety Institute.
He said the overwhelming majority of pilots are responsible and abide by the requirements, usually going above and beyond. And the industry has worked hard to keep their accident rate down to a record low for the fourth consecutive year. He said a fatal accident happens every .8 of every 100,000 flight hours. Most pilots fly about 75 hours per year on average, he said.
“That’s why you see all of us had such a reaction to this kind of accident because it reflects so poorly and so unfairly on the way most general aviation pilots and the whole industry operates,” he said. “It’s just incredible, if all of that’s true, that somebody was doing that on that level and somehow was able to escape and get away with it.”
Pilots who flew with Castronova said they didn’t know he didn’t have a license, but said he was good at his craft. The FAA revoked Castronova’s license in 1997 after he made a “fraudulent or intentionally false statement” on his application for a medical certificate.
Palm Beach County Commissioner David Kerner, who is a pilot, had landed at the Lantana airport just hours before the Castronovas crashed.
Kerner said he knew Castronova in passing, and years ago considered hiring Castronova’s company, Nova Aviation, to fly him to Tallahassee. He said he was “taken a back by the level of indifference” Castronova showed to the federal government and licensing authority.
Two residents wrote to Kerner after learning Castronova had flown without a license , and questioned how that was allowed.
Kerner told The Post that licensing of pilots is heavily regulated, but there isn’t robust supervision once the license is issued.
“There’s not FAA inspectors constantly at these airports checking licenses,” he said. “A lot of it’s based on trust and the professional conduct of pilots.”
Kerner, who has an active license, said there’s just no way to check everyone.
“I would support larger amounts of inspections, on spot inspections, but this particular incident is so unique, so egregious, that I can’t think of another scenario like that,” he said.
The FAA does conduct ramp checks, either randomly or as part of a scheduled activity with the pilot. In a ramp check, a pilot has to show required certificates, identification and documents. The random checks are determined by the FAA based on historical factors regarding incidents, accidents and occurrences at the airport or by the operator.
Operating a plane without a valid license or medical certificate could result in enforcement action ranging from a letter of warning to suspension or revocation of his pilot license and/or medical certificate, according to the FAA.
As far as insurance, the FAA doesn’t have any requirements that pilots carry it, an agency spokesperson said.
Kamm, the Deerfield pilot, said when a pilot rents a hangar, owners typically want to see proof of insurance.
The pilots compared flying to driving, and pointed out that when it comes to automobiles, agencies communicate.
Pilot Robert Katz of Dallas, Texas, noted that when a driver gets their license revoked there is still not a process preventing them from getting behind the wheel. No one is checking if every single driver on every single road has a valid license or registration, he said.
“I think the FAA could do more but ultimately there’s a limit,” he said. “You’re just not going to stop someone who has resources to an airplane.”
He called on the FAA to be more proactive instead of reactive, but said the agency could get pushback.
“You’re going to get all kinds of people who will say ‘government is too big already, the FAA is too big already and we don’t need this, it’s a few bad apples’,” he said. “The FAA is not a gatekeeper. I don’t think the taxpayer would stand for the cost of mandating that FAA act like a gatekeeper to verify credentials before somebody climbs on board an airplane, to test for substance abuse before climbing on board an airplane.”
But something should be done, he insisted.
“The FAA shows up after the incident occurs. The history of the individual comes to light after the incident occurs, after the damage is done,” Katz said.
Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.