Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell flew to Abingdon on April 29 to examine tornado damage. (BOB BROWN/RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH)

— In his first 17 months in office, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s travel in and out of Virginia on the state’s fleet of planes and helicopters cost taxpayers more than $200,000 as he flew for government business, occasionally for political events and sometimes with his family.

He has traveled mostly across the state or to the District to speak at conferences or on his monthly call-in radio shows, announce new jobs, attend groundbreakings or hold town hall meetings.

In all, McDonnell (R) used two state-owned planes and four helicopters to travel 140 days, generally several flights a day, at a cost of $228,444 between his Jan. 16, 2010, inauguration and June 9, according to records released by the state in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

McDonnell is one of 39 governors with access to state-owned planes, and one of 24 with available helicopters; Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has both.

And while state aircraft have sometimes made headlines in other states — Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) was criticized after he used a state helicopter to fly to his son’s baseball game — they have been used equally by Democratic and Republican governors in Virginia.

Former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) spent less money on travel than McDonnell only in his last year — $110,704 — when he was on the road traveling commercially or on charters as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, according to records from McDonnell’s office.

In 2008, Kaine’s travel totaled $170,228. In 2007, his travel cost $287,781. In 2006, his first year in office, the cost was $163,846.

According to the records, McDonnell once flew with his family to Martinsville for a NASCAR race, where he served as grand marshal. Another time, he and his sons flew to Winchester, where his daughter Rachel was crowned queen of the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.

In at least a dozen instances, the high-profile Republican governor attended political events or fundraisers, sometimes when he was in the same city at an official event — a common practice for politicians of all stripes — and on a handful of occasions when he made special trips to or from an official event.

In an interview, McDonnell’s staff outlined cost-saving measures to the governor’s travel budget and said traveling any other way regularly in a vast state with two traffic-congested areas and limited commercial flights in some regions would cost more for a man always on the go.

“Being governor is not a desk job,’’ said his spokesman, Tucker Martin. “It takes interaction with constituents statewide and a constant presence during times of celebration and times of mourning.”

McDonnell flew to Charlottesville on March 17, 2010, to speak to Larry Sabato’s political science class at the University of Virginia before heading to the District to attend a St. Patrick’s Day reception at the White House and the Radio and TV Correspondents’ Association dinner. The cost: $2,112.

Eight months later, on Oct. 15, he addressed the Virginia Economic Developers Association in Virginia Beach and a celebration of the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk. The cost: $1,231.

He flew to Abingdon on April 29 to examine the damage in Southwest Virginia after a series of tornadoes led to 10 deaths and more than 100 injuries. The cost: $3,720.

‘Efficient scheduling’

On Aug. 27, McDonnell flew to Washington — accompanied by five staffers, including his top political adviser, Phil Cox — to speak at Americans for Prosperity’s annual Defending the American Dream summit. The event was listed on McDonnell’s political schedule. After dropping off Cox, McDonnell then flew to Birmingham, Ala., for the Southern Governors’ Association annual meeting. Total cost: $6,042.

McDonnell generally uses private planes for political travel. But occasionally he has used state aircraft to attend political events.

Martin repeatedly denied that McDonnell used state planes and helicopters for political travel. But when asked about the Americans for Prosperity speech and other trips made for political events, Martin acknowledged that the governor has used the aircraft for political trips but said it happens only when he is in the region on official business and a political event is taking place nearby.

“That is a matter of efficient scheduling,” said Martin, adding that the governor’s travels often take him to several communities in a day, making it impossible to travel by car or commercial aircraft. “If he is traveling solely for the purpose of attending a political event, he does not use the state helicopter or plane,’’ he said.

In most cases, McDonnell attends political events in the same city where he has official business, the records show. He flew to Boston on July 8, 2010, to attend a fundraiser for the Massachusetts Republican Party and stayed the next day for a National Governors Association meeting. He was dropped off at Dulles International Airport for his father-in-law’s funeral, and the plane returned to Richmond. The cost: $5,383.

Martin said the governor’s PAC reimburses the state for any travel, food and lodging costs associated with troopers protecting him while at political events. Between January 2010 and June, Opportunity Virginia paid the state $1,489, according to the governor’s office.

A call for caution

McDonnell took plane trips on 50 days at a cost of $102,894, according to records released by the Virginia Department of Aviation. Flight manifests include who accompanied him and the cost. Eleven trips included his wife.

McDonnell took helicopter trips on 90 days at a cost of about $125,550, according to Virginia State Police. Flight manifests do not list who traveled with him or the price; costs were calculated using a state $750-an-hour figure.

None of the records list the reasons for travel. The purpose was determined by comparing destinations to McDonnell’s public and political schedules.

“At this time,when people are in a rage about government spending, I would imagine they would be more cautious,” said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. “It all comes down to appearances in public life.”

State guidelines indicate that priority for the planes — a pair of King Air 350, twin-engine turboprops that carry 11 — are given to the governor’s office and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. State police have four Bell 407 helicopters to transport the governor, but they also are used for search-and-rescue operations, surveillance and medical evacuation.

Martin said McDonnell has made every effort to save money by limiting the number of staffers who fly to events; offering vacant seats to staffers so they do not have to pay for other travel; and using corporate jets as in-kind donations.

At least twice, he flew to events that were official business representing the state but that some could perceive as entertainment or family events.

McDonnell flew with his wife, Maureen, four of their five children, and the boyfriend of one of their daughters to Martinsville, where he served as grand marshal of the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 NASCAR race. The cost: $1,675.

McDonnell flew with his twin sons, Sean and Bobby, to Winchester for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, where the governor’s daughter Rachel was crowned the 83rd queen during a coronation ceremony. The cost: $2,744.

McDonnell has occasionally used aircraft for personal travel — to visit his daughter at Virginia Tech when he was traveling in the region and to Northern Virginia to see his ailing father and father-in-law, both of whom have since died.

Martin said much of the governor’s travel, including attending the NASCAR race and the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, is to boost economic development — luring companies and visitors to the state, both of which will provide a return on the investment.

Staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Sue Noftsinger contributed to this report.