For the next governor of Virginia, a ride through the skies is fast but not luxurious


Former president Bill Clinton and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe leave a jet for the motorcade at the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Aiport in Blacksburg on Oct. 28. (Ryan Stone/For The Washington Post)
November 1, 2013

The next governor of Virginia stoops to conquer, right at the door of a very small plane.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli II must crouch to get inside the four-seater flying machines winging them across the commonwealth in search of votes. There is no room to stand in the cabin — and nothing to get up for, anyway. No bathroom. No place to fix a snack. Some of the planes have tattered upholstery and carpeting.

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.


Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, Republican candidate for Virginia governor, often travels across the vast commonwealth in a tiny airplane owned and flown by a supporter. (Courtesy of the Cuccinelli campaign)

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.

“You can get four passengers in with the pilot,” said Cranwell, a Roanoke lawyer who uses the plane for business and personal needs. “It’s not an upscale airplane, okay? You might call it a puddle jumper.”

Nonetheless, his plane boasts one feature absent from what Cuccinelli, currently the state’s attorney general, often flies: a second engine.

The Republican candidate can rely on what his campaign calls “the Cuccinelli air force,” a team of seven ex-military pilots who, on a moment’s notice, will whisk him around the Old Dominion in each other’s planes. They have three aircraft among them: two four-seaters, one six, all instrument-capable, but all with just one engine.

“It’s like sitting in your slightly cramped living room,” Al Aitken, a Marine fighter pilot for 20 years and an American Airlines pilot for 16, said of the 1989 Beechcraft Bonanza he has used to ferry Cuccinelli around.

“I flew Ken to a variety of places — Norfolk to Southwest and back to home in the Manassas area,” said Aitken, a Republican activist who started flying Cuccinelli four years ago, when the Republican gubernatorial candidate was running for attorney general. “Then the tempo of that operation got to be so much that I couldn’t handle it alone anymore, so I got several of my pilot friends from the Culpeper airport who also owned airplanes.”

The campaign pays the pilots for their fuel, which costs about $6 a gallon and gets guzzled at a rate of 16 to 18 gallons an hour. But the pilot’s time and use of the plane are donated as in-kind gifts, saving the campaign hundreds of dollars an hour.

Even so, not everyone thinks it’s the best way to go.

“Ken has always been comfortable flying around in anything, anything with wings, much to the consternation of his senior staff, who prefer that he only fly in a plane with two engines and two pilots, which is the standard for flying a candidate,” said Chris LaCivita, Cuccinelli’s chief campaign strategist.

Safety is no minor concern, particularly this year, since one candidate for statewide office lost his father in the crash of a small campaign plane. Richard D. Obenshain, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 1978, died near his home in Virginia’s Chesterfield County (a tragedy that led to the long Senate career of Republican John W. Warner).

Obenshain’s son, State Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), a teenager at the time of his father’s death, is running for attorney general this year.

“Most of the airfields in the western part of the state are short runways, with difficult approaches, and are built on cutoff mountaintops,” said John G. Rocovich Jr., a Roanoke tax lawyer and pilot who will fly the entire Republican ticket around the state Monday. “The ones that are not on mountains are in valleys. You have to be very careful and very precise about what you’re doing.”

Rocovich flies his own 10-passenger twin-engine jet, a step up from the planes in the Cuccinelli air force. The smaller planes can reach heights of only about 12,000 feet, but Rocovich’s jet climbs to 45,000 feet — high enough to get out of bad weather. It’s still small enough to take off and land on a short runway, but it’s fast, flying about 500 miles an hour, compared with 170 to 175 miles an hour for smaller ones.

“It does have lovely leather seats and wood grain and all that,” Rocovich said.

Even so, Rocovich said his Cessna is nothing compared with the Gulfstreams, Learjets and Falcons that cart big-time executives to and fro. Those have kitchens, showers, two spacious bathrooms, beds and room enough to stand up straight.

“I’ve got an ice drawer and a place to store soda and a very small bathroom,” he said. “Mine would be thought of as the pickup truck of jets.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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