A former Virginia State Police helicopter maintenance technician was ordered to pay a $100 assessment but was given no additional punishment Wednesday for falsifying a maintenance log last year.
Michael W. Smith, 55, of Chester, pleaded guilty to the felony charge of “making a false writing or document” last December. He admitted falsely attesting in a maintenance log book in April 2019 that he had properly tested the tension of a belt on a helicopter air conditioning system.
No mishap resulted, but failing to perform the test in question could potentially have resulted in a crash, authorities said.
Smith faced up to five years in prison, but sentencing guidelines called for a term ranging from no jail time to up to six months behind bars. Both the government and the defense asked U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney not to impose any jail sentence.
Although Smith was scheduled to be sentenced last month, records show Gibney continued the case until Wednesday, asking for “personal certification from United States Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger that he has reviewed the record in this case and believes that continued prosecution will serve the interests of justice.”
On July 2, Terwilliger’s office responded, writing that while the defendant “has no prior criminal history, he has a history of administrative and employment actions based on his failure to satisfactorily and safely perform aircraft maintenance, including a prior suspension of his mechanic’s certificate after he certified the airworthiness of a helicopter that subsequently crashed and numerous performance issues related to his failure to follow maintenance manuals when servicing VSP helicopters.”
The helicopter crash cited by the U.S. attorney’s office occurred in 1995, prior to Smith working for the state police.
The U.S. attorney’s office added that in the two years prior to the April 2019 incident, the state police “identified several occasions on which defendant had failed to perform maintenance in accordance with technical manuals and manufacturer instructions, causing damage to VSP aircrafts and creating safety risks for VSP crew members and citizens on the ground.”
According to the government, the state police “incurred significant cost, aircraft downtime, and maintenance time and resource backlogs to correct these issues. And defendant’s supervisors repeatedly counseled him on the importance of following maintenance manuals when servicing VSP aircrafts.”
None of the alleged shortcomings in his work cited by the government earlier this month involved the August 2017 crash of a state police helicopter near Charlottesville that killed two state troopers.
Asked for comment on the Smith case, Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said, “Because of the ongoing civil litigation related to the 2017 fatal crash, state police is not able to provide a response to your inquiry.”
Widows of the two troopers have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the state, the state police and the secretary of public safety and homeland security.
The families also filed wrongful death suits last year against the companies that manufactured the helicopter and its engine.
In pleading guilty, Smith admitted that on April 10, 2019, he traveled from Chesterfield County to Abingdon to perform a 50-hour inspection on a state police helicopter. However, he forgot to bring a tool needed to check the tension on an air conditioning compressor belt.
Another employee noted that Smith had failed to bring a tension gauge and told a superior. Smith falsely made an entry into the aircraft’s maintenance log book, a record required by the Federal Aviation Administration, that he had performed the work with the gauge when he had not.
He was confronted the next day by a superior and admitted he had not properly performed the tension check and that he had used his hand to feel the belt’s tension and condition and that it “felt fine.”
Smith was suspended and ultimately fired. Another mechanic redid the inspection properly, and the aircraft was found to be in proper condition, authorities said.
Smith also admitted to the Federal Aviation Administration that he had failed to perform the maintenance he certified that he performed in the maintenance log.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Smith had been a trained aviation maintenance technician for more than 30 years and employed by the Virginia State Police for more than 10 years when the incident happened.
“In short, he had the training and experience to know better. He was in a position to understand the importance of conducting inspections and maintenance in accordance with an aircraft’s maintenance manual and, even more so, the import of a certification as to an aircraft’s airworthiness,” wrote prosecutors in a sentencing memorandum.
Smith, noted the government and his lawyer, is a veteran of the U.S. Army and Army Reserves where he earned several commendations, including an Aircraft Crewman Badge.
Smith’s lawyer, Matt Pinsker, asked Gibney to impose a sentence of probation. Pinsker cited Smith’s military record, his prompt admissions of guilt, the loss of his job and the financial hardship the crime has caused his family.
“Mr. Smith is ashamed and remorseful of his act of making a false statement,” wrote Pinsker in a sentencing memorandum.