[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/28/chernoff.pilot.school.art.jpg caption="CNN's Allan Chernoff continues his investigation into pilot training."]
By Allan Chernoff – CNN Sr. Correspondent
Mary Hebig remembers the day three years ago when she knew she had to quit her job as a scheduler with Gulfstream International Airlines because of worries about the airline’s safety. A flight, whose pilots she had scheduled, had lost one of its two engines. It was the second time in two weeks the plane’s engine had failed and Hebig was certain maintenance had not fixed the engine.
“It was 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning and I was praying that everyone got back safe. And I thought if they get back safe I am out of here. I don’t want to do this any longer here,” said Hebig, “I couldn’t sit there night after night, and I had the evening shift, and watch these pilots come in and know that there was an accident waiting to happen.”
Hebig is one of ten former and current Gulfstream employees who have told CNN of serious safety concerns at the Fort Lauderdale-based airline.
Fort Lauderdale-based Gulfstream operates “Continental Connection” flights to nine cities in Florida, 10 destinations in the Bahamas, and between Cleveland and 5 small cities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.
Continental Airlines told CNN, "We expect our partners to adhere to the highest safety standards.”
Yet former Gulfstream pilots say their complaints about aircraft safety were sometimes dismissed by mechanics who were pressured to get planes into the sky.
“We would voice concerns to maintenance about systems that were not testing properly and were told by individuals in maintenance that were Gulfstream mechanics to not worry about it, to just go,” said Ken Edwards, a former Gulfstream pilot. “It happened to me more than once. One time it was a fire indication system that was not going to work properly in the air.”
Dan Brisco, who worked as a mechanic for Gulfstream in 2006 and 2007, claims maintenance standards at Gulfstream were the worst he’s seen in 30-years as a mechanic and pilot.
Related: Florida's "pilot factory"
“I saw engines having to shut down in flight in engine failures and landing gear collapses, all traceable back to maintenance or improperly completed maintenance,” said Brisco.
“I saw the landing gear on one of Gulfstream’s airplanes collapse on the runway in Tampa due to a lack of maintenance. The pilots had been complaining about that problem for a long time and it was just summarily dismissed. They said well it's working now that's good enough.”
In a statement, Gulfstream International Airlines told CNN, “To the extent such events have occurred at Gulfstream they had nothing to do with improperly completed maintenance. We have an outstanding maintenance program.”
Yet, the Federal Aviation Administration has just cited Gulfstream maintenance after an investigation of the airline. The FAA found that Gulfstream used relatively inexpensive automobile air conditioning compressors on its Beech 1900D turbo-prop aircraft. “The automotive air conditioner compressors were not approved for use on aircraft,” charged the FAA.
Gulfstream maintains it used the proper parts, but didn’t install them according to FAA approved procedures.
The airline is also confronting FAA findings that it violated flight rules intended to prevent pilot fatigue.
The FAA has strict limits on pilot flight time— no more than 8 hours-a-day, 34-hours-a-week. But, current and former Gulfstream employees allege the understaffed airline frequently pressured pilots to work past those limits, even when they were clearly tired.
“I saw a number of instances when the hours were changed. It would force a crew member to fly when it would not have been legal to fly,” said Edwards.
As a crew scheduler for Gulfstream Hebig knew when pilots were up against their FAA flight limits- and not supposed to continue flying. But she says dispatchers often would change logs of previous flights- shave pilot hours- to make it appear pilots were “Legal to start, Legal to finish,” in the words of Gulfstream’s Flight Operations Manual.
“They were fudging the books to make it legal,” said Hebig.
Pilots who complained too much, Hebig and other Gulfstream veterans say, were let go, which led other pilots to comply. “They knew if they spoke up they would be fired,” said Hebig.
“It was an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to expedite flights,” said a former Gulfstream pilot.
Gulfstream told CNN, “No pilot has ever, or even could be, pressured to…exceed FAA hour limitations.”
Yet an FAA investigation found multiple cases of pilots flying beyond their legal limit and flight dispatchers working past their 10-hour daily FAA maximum.
For alleged scheduling and maintenance violations the FAA has proposed a $1.3 million fine against Gulfstream- a substantial amount for the small airline.
Gulfstream, which is challenging the FAA’s findings and its proposed fine, told CNN, “Occasional errors can sometimes occur” when flight times are manually entered into computer systems, but none were made intentionally.
Gulfstream has not suffered a fatal accident on any of its commercial flights. But, the company has faced scrutiny in the industry after former Gulfstream pilots were involved in three of the most recent fatal accidents on commercial airlines in the United States.