The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump wanted his personal pilot to head the FAA. The critical job is still vacant amid Boeing fallout.

Pilots John Dunkin, left, and Jay Galpin after flying Donald Trump's private jet. (Andrew Milligan/PA Images)

As a private citizen, Donald Trump winged through the air in the trusted hands of his personal pilot, whose job it was to “make sure that everything happens seamlessly behind the scenes for Mr. Trump.”

That’s how easy air travel used to be for the businessman, thanks to John Dunkin, who explained his role in a segment of the “Mighty Planes” series, broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel before Trump’s presidential liftoff in 2016.

“Everything’s good, John?” Trump asked his trim, gray-haired pilot in the segment, whose producers couldn’t have found a more convincing aeronaut if they had handpicked one from “central casting,” as the president likes to say.

“Everything’s perfect, Mr. Trump,” replied Dunkin, whose work with the real estate tycoon dates to 1989.

Now that he occupies the Oval Office and Air Force One, rather than a private jet with enough gold to plate the outside of a Greyhound bus, President Trump is learning that aerospace is not so simple, especially without the aid of a full director of the Federal Aviation Administration, the multibillion-dollar agency responsible for overseeing all civil aviation in the United States. The role has been filled on an acting basis since the five-year term of Michael Huerta, an appointee of President Barack Obama, ended in January 2018.

The president has yet to name a replacement, one year after reportedly pushing for Dunkin to assume the role. The intermingling of a president’s private life with the federal bureaucracy would have been uncommon for the aviation authority. Yet the move would have been in line with Trump’s insistence on personal loyalty, highlighted recently by revelations that he pressured his staff to grant security clearances to his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.

The expertise required of FAA leadership was underscored on Wednesday as American regulators were forced to reverse themselves and ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, following a deadly crash in Ethiopia on Sunday and another several months ago in Indonesia. Earlier in the week, as the rest of the world moved to take the jetliner out of the sky, administration officials resisted bipartisan calls to do the same, insisting that the airplanes exhibited “no systemic performance issues.” New tracking data and evidence from Sunday’s crash revealed parallels to the disaster in Indonesia, causing them to change their minds.

President Trump announced the immediate grounding of all Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft on March 13. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump declared the about-face at a previously scheduled immigration event on Wednesday, surprising federal aviation officials who thought the announcement would be entrusted to them, as The Washington Post reported.

In meetings earlier that day, the president had scorned the Boeing 737 Max, saying the jetliners “sucked.” He said he preferred the 757, the model of his private jet, known as Trump Force One.

Dunkin shared Trump’s assessment of the private jet, reportedly purchased for $100 million in 2010. In the Smithsonian segment, the pilot rhapsodized about its virtues, calling it the “Ferrari of airplanes.”

Measuring 155 feet long, with a wing span of 125 feet, it boasts twin Rolls-Royce engines that can propel the plane to 41,000 feet in 20 minutes, Dunkin said. “It takes turbulence very, very well,” he noted. A smooth journey meant that Trump could enjoy watching television on a 57-inch screen. The aircraft also includes two bedrooms and a shower.

“Any man who flies for Donald Trump is no ordinary pilot,” the narrator of the segment proclaimed. “John Dunkin has aviation in his blood.”

His father, who was a military pilot, began teaching Dunkin to fly when he was 15, he said. He learned to steer a plane before he learned to drive. “It’s just something that always fascinated me,” he said.

When he came under consideration for the top FAA job, Dunkin met at least one key criteria, as a Bloomberg News report observed at the time: “loyalty.” Axios reported that Trump had personally recommended Dunkin, who most recently ushered him to campaign events during his bid for the White House.

In the Smithsonian segment, Trump sang his personal pilot’s praises.

“You need somebody with great integrity,” he said. “There’s tremendous amounts of money at stake.”

Trump added, “John Dunkin really epitomizes to me what that’s all about.”

Not everyone was as impressed with Dunkin’s credentials. Writing in Forbes last year, Christine Negroni, an aviation and travel journalist, wrote that “being a pilot, even a great pilot, as Trump proclaims Dunkin to be, is not enough to lead the FAA.” More important, she wrote, was knowledge of regulation and safety.

Trump was unbowed.

“John Dunkin isn’t just a pilot,” an administration official told Axios. “He’s managed airline and corporate flight departments, certified airlines from start-up under FAA regulations, and oversaw the Trump presidential campaign’s air fleet, which included managing all aviation transportation for travel to 203 cities in 43 states over the course of 21 months.”

Following an inquiry this week from The Post, the White House declined to say whether the president still viewed Dunkin as suitable for the role, or whether he had plans to nominate someone in light of the pressure facing the agency.

In the meantime, Trump has left the work of overseeing the “safety and efficiency of the largest aerospace system in the world,” as the authority’s website defines the mandate of the job, to an acting administrator, Daniel K. Elwell, who was named to the agency’s deputy role in June 2017. All three spots in the office of the administrator are currently filled on an acting basis.

FAA administrator is one of nearly 150 positions requiring Senate confirmation for which Trump has not put forward a nominee, according to data compiled by The Post and the Partnership for Public Service.

But the uncertainty at the top of the FAA has been especially notable this week, as the agency grappled with the fate of the Boeing aircraft and as Trump mused on Twitter about the complexity of modern airplane technology.

Chris Lu, former deputy secretary of labor under President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter that Trump was ill-equipped to address the fallout so long as the “critical position” at the FAA’s helm went unfilled.

The man he wanted for the job was someone whom the president “trusts with his life,” as the narrator of the Smithsonian segment described Dunkin. Addressing reporters on Wednesday, Trump signaled that his concerns had broadened.

“The safety of the American people and all people is our paramount concern,” he said.

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