Charter pilot Martin Campanella said he thought he was doing the right thing when he refused to fly a plane he believed was unsafe.
The Forest Hill resident said he was fired after he made an emergency landing with several passengers aboard a 10-seat corporate jet and then refused to fly the damaged aircraft to the charter company's headquarters. After getting fired, he said, he nearly lost his house and struggled with mounting anxiety and family tension.
Now an administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Labor decided the employer violated a federal law that prevents employment-related retaliation against air carrier employees acting in the interest of safety. Last month, the agency ordered Manassas, Va.,-based Metropolitan Aviation LLC to reinstate Campanella and pay him three years of back pay and damages totaling nearly $219,000.
Three years after he filed his grievance with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Campanella feels vindicated.
"I stood my ground, and I paid the price," said Campanella, 48, a professional pilot for 25 years and a licensed mechanic. "After three long years, we've managed to prevail."
Metropolitan is appealing the July 22 order. A separate investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration found no safety violations, the charter company said.
"We have an obligation to maintain a crew that keeps our fellow employees and our clients in the utmost safe conditions," said Jacquie Dalton, Metropolitan's chief operating officer.
She said Campanella's firing "wasn't due to that individual flight. It was a number of issues, and I'm looking forward to taking it to court."
OSHA documents show that Metropolitan's founder and CEO, Alan Cook, denied ordering Campanella to fly the plane back to Manassas Regional Airport, where the company is based, so mechanics could inspect it.
Cook told investigators that Campanella had a history of errors and lapses in judgment and failed to keep passengers and crew informed during the emergency. And he said Campanella lived too far from Manassas to make unscheduled flights departing on short notice.
But in its order, the Labor Department found Campanella was fired for "engaging in the protected activity," or refusing to fly a plane he believed was not airworthy. It said Metropolitan failed to show it would have fired him regardless of the incident.
Campanella's case appears unusual. Between 2010 and 2012, pilots filed 190 claims with OSHA under the statute that covers air carrier employees. Of those claims, 134 were dismissed, and four were found to have merit.
Under FAA regulations, a pilot is responsible for and has final authority over an aircraft's operations. During in-flight emergencies, pilots are permitted to deviate from FAA rules to handle the situation.
Campanella's case stemmed from a June 17, 2010, flight when he was piloting a Hawker 800 aircraft from Manassas to Detroit with a stop in Teterboro, N.J.
On board were four passengers, a flight attendant and a co-pilot. About 20 minutes after takeoff from Teterboro, the master warning light flashed in the cockpit, accompanied by a vibration and noise that sounded like rushing air.
Campanella, who was flying the plane, says he heard a loud bang. The plane shook and its rear bay overheat warning light came on.
"There was a chain of events which lead to the rear bay overheating, which could indicate a tail fire," he said.
Campanella declared an emergency and landed safely at a State College, Pa., airport.
After the passengers got another flight, Campanella said, the company ordered the plane flown back to Manassas for repair.
"Obviously, you couldn't fly this airplane because of significant damage," he said. "They ordered me to fly. I refused."
Three days later, the company's chief pilot told Campanella he was fired effective June 17, the Labor Department found.
Witnesses told OSHA investigators that Cook "was upset with [Campanella's] decision to make the emergency landing. … These statements suggest that the emergency landing was a source of anger for Mr. Cook and motivated — at least in part — the decision to fire complainant."
Officials from Metropolitan, a growing, 6-year-old company with 45 employees, have a different account.
"We're dealing with a disgruntled employee," Dalton said. "The claim that he refused to fly an airplane is not true. Nobody ever told him to fly the airplane."
Such a scenario "could never happen," she said. "Once an aircraft lands after having an emergency landing declared, there is a regulatory process that has to be followed [before] that plane is allowed off the ground."
Dalton also disputed the Labor Department's finding that Campanella was fired effective the day of the emergency flight. She says he was fired one to two weeks later, with pay and benefits.
Metropolitan's appeal means OSHA's order is not final.