In a state as congested and wide as Virginia — sprawling from the Atlantic to west of Detroit — an airplane can be a candidate’s ticket to the governor’s mansion. But it is by no means a first-class ticket. This is travel that makes flying coach in the era of baggage and pillow fees feel like Concorde-style coddling.
“My pilot was kidding me today, ‘A lot of the pilots wouldn’t even fly that thing,’ ” said C. Richard Cranwell, a former Democratic state delegate who has let McAuliffe use his Piper Aztec at least four times since spring.
With no commercial air service to some corners of the commonwealth, candidates must rely on private planes, particularly as they barnstorm the state in the final few days before Election Day on Tuesday. That presents an opportunity for donors — and a potential risk for candidates.
Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. got chummy with Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and first lady Maureen McDonnell by offering them his plane. That opened the door to more than $160,000 in personal gifts and money, some of it characterized as loans to the McDonnell family. The gifts are now the subject of ongoing state and federal investigations.
In a state that allows unlimited campaign donations, there is no shortage of companies willing to lend a future governor their posh corporate jets. But those tend to be too large for the short runways at Virginia’s smaller airports, so the candidates often take flight in less-than-gubernatorial style, relying on small, borrowed planes and volunteer pilots, enduring white-knuckle takeoffs and landings.
“One jet owner in southwest Virginia who shall remain nameless, he routinely flies candidates and is very generous with his aircraft, except he flies his Cessna Citation like he drives a Porsche — fast and low to the ground,” said one Republican operative who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly. “I don’t want to come across as ungrateful, but for the love of God, you know, sometimes it’s all you can do to make it to a political rally.”
McAuliffe had a posh ride for much of the past week, when he and former president Bill Clinton flew in and out of some of the state’s larger airports in a 14-seat, twin-engine Falcon 2000 owned by Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television. The plane has a roomy cabin, seats that can unfold flat for naps and a lounge area. Cuccinelli quipped that the craft had “two left wings.”
The Democrat doesn’t always fly in such style. The four-seat plane Cranwell flies McAuliffe around in was brand-new when he bought it — during the administration of A. Linwood Holton Jr., 10 governors ago, when McAuliffe was a teenager and Cuccinelli in kindergarten. The interior needs reupholstering, and the carpeting is ripped.