Sen. Inhofe is not an X-Man

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By Al Kamen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 9:47 AM

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) was flying his twin-engine Cessna 340 down to Port Isabel, Tex., on Thursday, headed to his house on South Padre Island. It's something he's done every so often for the past 50 years.

There were these huge (60 feet long by 10 feet wide) yellow X's on the main runway, which aren't there to mark the landing spot. The big signs were laid out to indicate that the runway was closed. There were workmen painting and doing general maintenance on the runway.

Inhofe, who was traveling with three others, told us Tuesday that he was "getting ready to land, then I saw a big X," and the workers and equipment. So he flew the six-seater over the workers and landed "well off to the side," he said.

Runway closures and other important information are highlighted in what's called a Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM, which all pilots are supposed to read before take-off. Inhofe said he "didn't have a NOTAM."

An airport official - "he hates me, I don't know why," Inhofe said - apparently was none too pleased with the use of a closed runway.

"I called the [Federal Aviation Administration] when I landed to tell them what had happened" and to see whether there was any problem, he said Tuesday. Since there was no accident, there appeared to be no significant problem, he said.

Inhofe, by the way, has been flying GOP candidates around their states to help them campaign.

On Sunday, Inhofe headed back home - but not without incident. Fortunately, he didn't try to take off on the closed runway. Actually, he didn't try to take off on any of the four bi-directional runways at the airport. He chose instead to use a taxiway.

"I really didn't have a choice," he explained, "given the size of the plane. The taxiway is very wide and long, better than the rough runways" at that airport. "There was no alternative," he said. And he notified the airport official that he intended to use the taxiway.

But landing on a closed runway and using a taxiway to take off could be considered major no-nos by the FAA, which can suspend Inhofe's pilot's license if it decides there have been serious infractions. Such a decision would be appealable to the National Transportation Safety Board. The FAA declined to comment.

In practice, though, suspensions are not often imposed, we're told, unless the infractions involved criminal activity - drugs, for example - or injuries or were intentional.

Pilots may voluntarily file a report to explain what happened and that usually suffices to end the matter.

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