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Aviation

Whistleblower wins federal case against Homer air carrier that fired him

A federal judge has sided with an Anchorage pilot who filed a whistleblower claim that Homer-based Bald Mountain Air Service fired him for reporting safety problems.

Brian Bell lost his job in 2012 — two days days after a Federal Aviation Administration inspection at Bald Mountain's Anchorage hangar prompted by Bell's complaint of falsified safety records and gaps in drug and alcohol testing.

An order released last week by the U.S. Department of Labor says Bell is entitled to more than $500,000 in back pay plus $10,000 in damages and attorney fees.

Bell is entitled to interest on lost earnings back to 2012, his attorney said Monday, putting the total award at roughly $750,000.

Bald Mountain also must offer him a line-pilot job once he renews his medical certificate, according to the 72-page order signed by an administrative law judge.

Bell, who is currently working part-time as an Uber driver, hasn't held a job as a pilot since he was fired, his attorney Paul Stockler said.

It's unclear whether Bell wants to go back to work at Bald Mountain — or whether the company wants him back, Stockler said.

"If they're amenable to it, without going down that road, we can discuss some financial arrangements," he said.

The company can appeal the federal decision.

Bald Mountain is reviewing the decision and order, attorney Aaron Sperbeck wrote in an email Monday.

The company plans to file an appeal within 10 days to clarify "certain legal inconsistencies within the decision," Sperbeck said.

The company was "very pleased" to see that the judge agreed with Bald Mountain on several issues, overturning findings in a preliminary report from 2016, he wrote.

Among other things, the judge found no proof that Bald Mountain "blacklisted" Bell within the aviation community.

The order filed last week came more than two years after Bald Mountain appealed a 2016 preliminary report by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration that found Bell had reason to think he was fired over his complaints to the FAA over safety concerns.

Administrative Judge Scott R. Morris heard from witnesses and examined evidence before producing the order, which he signed Wednesday.

Among Bell's claims: Bald Mountain deactivated a malfunctioning fire detection system on a medevac plane; employees were ordered to hide maintenance issues from FAA investigators; and the company forged training records.

A top regional OSHA official at the time called the 2016 finding "significant" given the penalties involved. It was one of just a handful of aviation whistleblower cases in the four-state region.

It triggered an FAA investigation that led to more than $67,000 in civil penalties. The company's operations manager served a suspension and the chief pilot lost his FAA certifications.

Bald Mountain conducts bear-viewing flights, ferries oil workers to the North Slope and once held a medevac contract for Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage.

A Bald Mountain Twin Otter hit a bystander in the head as it took off from a remote sea ice airstrip during a U.S. Navy submarine training exercise in March.

Bald Mountain earned a "Shield" rating in 2015 from the Medallion Foundation, the highest safety award granted by the foundation with a mission of reducing aviation accidents.

The Medallion website this week listed Bald Mountain as having a lower "member" rating. Medallion didn't return a call for comment about the company's apparent drop in safety rating.

Bell started flying in 1974, holds a commercial instrument certificate with instrument and seaplane ratings, and holds an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, according to the order. He served with the National Air Disaster Alliance Foundation and testified in Florida during hearings into the 1996 crash of a ValuJet flight that killed 110 people.

Bald Mountain told the federal administrative judge that Bell was a micro-manager whose abrasive personality prompted the company to start the process of replacing and firing him before he reached out to FAA officials.

The judge found some merit in Bald Mountain's contention that Bell's termination was in the works before he reported safety problems to the FAA.

But, the order states, Bald Mountain operations director Gary Porter's testimony about his motives for suspending and firing Bell "contains several problems that erode its credibility."

Porter also provided "evasive" testimony when asked directly if he backdated and falsified two handwritten safety reports, according to the order.

The judge found Bell established that Porter knew he was the employee who notified the FAA and that played a role in his decision to fire him.

Along with the fines, Bald Mountain was also ordered to expunge Bell's personnel records connected to his complaint and refrain from "retaliating or discriminating" against him for bringing the claim.

Bald Mountain must email copies of the OSHA decision to employees, officers and directors within 21 days of the order. The company must also post an OSHA fact sheet: "Whistleblower Protection for Employees in the Aviation Industry."

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