Calling himself a veteran of "all kinds of weather" who has "all kinds of gray hair to show for it," Gov. John N. Dalton has upset some members of the state's aviation establishment with a speech that recalled the deaths of public figures in small planes.
Dalton also suggested he would feel safer if the state replaced his 10-year-old aircraft.
Speaking earlier this week to the fifth annual Virginia Aviation Conference in Williamsburg, Dalton called the Aug. 2 death of Republican U.S. Senate Candidate Richard D. Obenshain in a small plane crash "a vivid reminder that there can never be too many precautions where flying is concerned."
He also ticked off a list of air crash deaths of other public figures, going back as far as Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and comedian Will Rogers. "Life expectancy in small planes is even more hazardous for political figures," he said, and then he named four officeholders and candidates other than Obenshain who have died in air crashes around the country.
Dalton's recital of small plane tragedies was not the usual fare that aviation promoters expect in a banquet speech, and Willard G. Plantl, Virginia's aviation director, acknowledged in an interview that the governor's remarks caused some ripples.
"Some people in aviation were upset because of the safety points he made," Plentl said, "but I certainly did not read it as a criticism of the way we operate the state's planes."
Plentl said that the 10-year-old Beech Aircraft King Air used to fly Dalton, other state officials and industry officials looking for plant sites in Virginia is "as safe as you can make it," but said a new plane would be even safer.
"We replace the mechanical parts according to scheduled maintenance requirements," he said, "but the wiring and micro-switches are getting old."
Plentl said that twice during the last administration of former Gov. Mills E. Gowdin, micro-switches that signal the successful lowering of the landing gear malfunctioned while Godwin was a passenger.
"When that happens, you have to pull back up into the weather and then make another pass so that someone on the ground can visually confirm that the landing gear is down. You don't like to subject a governor or a group of industrial prospects to that kind of experience," he said.
Dalton expressed confidence in the state's pilots but said, "There have been times when I though I was coming in on the proverbial wing and a prayer." Referring to his official and campaign flying, he said, "I have flown in all kinds of weather, into all kinds of airports and I have all kinds of gray hairs to show for it."
Dalton said he may recommend a new plane acquisition, but not until he proposes the next two-year state budget in 1980.
Virginia bought its King Air in 1968 for $484,000 and Plentl says the plane now has a market value of about $350,000. A new King Air or comparable plane made by another manufacturer would cost more than $1 million.
The state also owns an 18-year-old Beech Twin Bonanza, which it uses as a backup executive aircraft, and a single engine Cessna 206 that is used to test state maintained navigational equipment.
Annual operating costs for the two-passenger planes are budgeted at $142,500, all of it billed to the agencies using the craft. The division of aeronautics, an agency within the State Corporation Commission, has 11 pilots and two mechanics who fly and service the planes.