Sunday 24 September 2023

How safe are the state planes?

Pilots warn of risks in state planes during trips of the president, first lady and minister

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QCOSTARICA – On May 17, 2018, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada, traveled to Pérez Zeledón in a Ministry of Public Security (MSP) airplane that had expired the weight and balance certificate.

Two pilots denounced in writing that a flight put the president’s safety at risk by transferring him on the MSP-003 aircraft, which had expired the weight and balance certificate. Photo: Roberto Carlos Sánchez / La Nacion

Months earlier, in February 2018, then-President Luis Guillermo Solís had to take a commercial flight back to Costa Rica because the MSP plane he and the first lady had flown to Panama in, developed a fuel leak and was grounded in the neighboring country for weeks.

According to the pilots of the Air Surveillance Service, Gustavo Abarca Amador, and Miguel Jiménez Morales, they “endangered the lives of all the occupants” of the aircraft.

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Abarca and Jiménez expressed this in a letter sent ten days later after the May 2018 incident to the new Minister of Public Security, Michael Soto.

“The reason for this is to inform you that said aircraft (MSP-003) did not have the weight and balance certificate up to date, a procedure that is essential in our aircraft to be operable,” said Abarca and Jiménez in the document.

The inspection manuals of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation establish that the weight and balance of airplanes must be reviewed at least every 36 months, to guarantee flight safety.

According to the two pilots, the MSP did not reply to the note, nor did it give them an opportunity to explain the problem.

In the case of the Solís incident, it remained secret until La Nación reviewed hundreds of flight logs from the last four years to verify the status of the planes of the Ministry of Public Security.

“Yes, I remember that trip well. Once we completed the outbound flight and were on the ground, the pilots told me that there was a ‘fuel leak’ in one of the tanks and that it needed to be repaired.

Former President Luis Guillermo Solis and the former first lady
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“For that reason, I decided to take a commercial flight and returned (to Costa Rica) as scheduled. I then asked my head of security if the issue had been resolved, and his answer was yes. That is all I knew of the matter because I interpreted that it had been a minor flaw,” Solís told the newspaper as part of their journalistic investigation.

Despite the event, Juan Luis Vargas, director of the Air Surveillance Service, did not consider it necessary to prepare a report to specify why the tank exploded.

“It was not an explosion, the refueling was carried out, the gases in the tanks expand due to the heat of the ambient temperature, this generates an expansion of the same and also a series of bursts that end up causing the fuel spill, therefore which was inoperable,” explained the MSP by email on June 25.

The research also revealed that the last comprehensive review of MSP-020 was carried out in November 201.

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In the last three years, according to pilots who asked not to reveal their names, incidents also occurred in trips with the current first lady, Claudia Dobles, and the MOPT Minister, Rodolfo Méndez Mata.

The aircraft that suffered the accident during President Luis Guillermo Solís’ visit to Panama is the Beechcraft King Air F90 manufactured in 1980. This aircraft is frequently used for the transfer of high ranking government officials. Photo La Nacion

In the case of Dobles, the crew alerted, at the time of boarding, that one of the landing gear tires had exposed wires.

With Méndez, they faced problems with the landing gear, they had to operate it manually and abort the transfer to Limón, returning after takeoff to land and verify the damage.

Vargas admitted the facts but downplayed their seriousness.

“The president’s (Solís) life was in danger because, according to them, they were not weighed and balanced. I repeat: if (the maintenance department) approves the plane to leave, that plane is airworthy,” said Vargas.

Regarding the event with the first lady, Vargas rejected the bad condition of the tire.

“It was not in wires, that is what the pilot says, but it was not in wires (…) Maintenance gave it good condition, but the pilot was told: ‘Okay, we are going to change it so that it is safe’, but it was operable”.

Regarding the mishap with Méndez, he stated the following:

“According to the report that I have, the minister (Méndez Mata) takes off, the pilot makes takeoff maneuvers and when he puts the landing gear in, he has three lights that tell him if he secured the train or not. One of the lights did not turn on, the pilot determines, because it is his discretion, to return for inspection; that’s what happened.

“They returned without any problem, did all the emergency protocol, what the manual says and they put it in maintenance and made repairs.”

Servicio de Vigilancia Aérea (SVA) – Air Surveillance Service – did not specify the date of those events.

La Nacion revealed this Monday that state planes operate despite multiple reports of failures by pilots.

In addition, a mechanic dared to report, in writing, in June 2020, alleging irregularities in the maintenance and repair processes.

Casa Presidencial confirmed that the President traveled on May 17, 2018, on a state plane. Since he took office on May 8, 2019, Alvarado has flown 59 times on state aircraft. By his side, his wife, Claudia Dobles, has done it 34 times.


The aircraft that transferred the president to Pérez Zeledón in May 2018 (with the outdated weight and balance certificate) remains unused since February of this year.

MSP-003 sits in the MSP hangar at the Tobías Bolaños airport in Pavas. It is too costly to maintain and Air Surveillance does not have the budget and will never fly again

It is a Piper PA-31-350 manufactured in 1983. Air Surveillance Service made the decision to ground the plane due to cuts in the maintenance budget. In 2016, that budget was ¢937 million colones, but in 2020 it was barely ¢111 million.

“We have made the decision, unfortunately, to ground planes. For example, the MSP-003 since February no longer flies, nor will it fly. Why? Because it is an airplane that is commercially expiring, an airplane with the limit of hours that is already coming to an end, that every time it leaves generates reports, it makes maintenance very expensive and there is no money to be repairing it,” said Vargas.

Currently, MSP-003 remains in a hangar at Tobías Bolaños airport, in Pavas, along with other equipment in poor condition

Of the 17 SVA aircraft, eight have been inoperable or under repair for several months; that means that 47% of the equipment is out of service.

Most of these assets (aircraft) were seized during operations against drug trafficking gangs.


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