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Governor's Death Is Reminder of the Perils of Political Travel

Tragedy: Candidates hop plane after plane to speed to another eager crowd in yet another town. They seldom question the flying risks.

October 23, 2000|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — In Michigan, a candidate quietly curses yet another terrifying landing by the same pilot, but flies on. In Virginia, another candidate emerges from the wreckage of one small plane and within hours is airborne in another. In Chicago, reporters refuse to fly in a campaign plane after two emergencies in as many days. The plane takes off without them.

In each case, precious campaign funds already had been spent. People were waiting. Political careers were at stake.

Last Monday, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan was carrying out a common practice when he boarded a twin-engine Cessna 335 in St. Louis. Locked in a tight race for the Senate, Carnahan--who had flown from Jefferson City, Mo., in the same plane earlier that day--was headed to his second fund-raiser of the evening, one 164 miles away in New Madrid, Mo., one he never could have hoped to make without flying.

The 66-year-old was keeping with other campaign traditions by flying with a private pilot--in this case his son, Roger--and by using a private plane. And when the airplane crashed in driving rain after reporting trouble with a navigational instrument--killing the governor, his son and campaign advisor Chris Sifford--the tragedy served as the latest grim reminder of the dangers of political travel.

Like rock stars on the road, candidates are endlessly hopping another plane to speed to another eager crowd in yet another town. Sometimes the weather is marginal, seldom is the maintenance history of the plane questioned, and always, people are waiting.

'The Pressure Is Huge'

For every Buddy Holly, who died in a 1959 crash, there is a Thaddeus C. Sweet, a congressman from New York who died in 1928--beginning a string of more than two-dozen high-profile politicians or candidates to die in aircraft crashes.

"In the midst of a campaign, you have to go here, here, here, here," said Sue Wagner, a former lieutenant governor of Nevada. "You can't not do it, because your opponent is going to do it. The pressure is huge."

Having lost her husband in a small-plane crash a decade prior, Wagner was well aware of the risks when, on the eve of the 1990 primary, she boarded a twin-engine Cessna 411 in Fallon, Nev., bound for Carson City. At the controls was a candidate for state treasurer.

When the plane crashed shortly after takeoff, the pilot's wife was killed. Wagner suffered a broken back and a broken neck.

Even with the growth of television and mass mailings as campaign tools, candidates know there is no better way to secure a vote than with a personal appearance--or better yet, a good, old-fashioned handshake.

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have hit as many as six states in a single day in their bids for the White House. Campaigning on a state level is certainly less travel-intensive; but in some states, especially in the West, that are larger than many European countries, flying can be a daily chore.

In Alaska, candidates for state office must crisscross a territory of 571,000 square miles in an attempt to reach its 473,000 voters. And the state has seen several campaign-plane crashes--including a 1972 accident that claimed two congressmen, Nicholas Begich of Alaska and Hale Boggs of Louisiana, and a 1986 crash that killed two campaign workers.

Leading presidential contenders frequently charter large jets to haul around staff members and reporters at a cost of $8,000 an hour or more for even an older 727, but few smaller campaigns have that kind of money. And regardless, many candidates spend a good deal of their time making relatively short trips to relatively small towns. So smaller, propeller-driven aircraft offer certain benefits, including the ability to land at small airstrips like those in Fallon and New Madrid.

They also can pose additional problems.

Few small planes have the redundant safety systems and on-board weather radars of commercial airliners. They frequently cannot fly high enough or fast enough to dodge a coming storm, leaving candidates and pilots to weigh the risk of flying against the political and monetary costs of missing an event. And the smallest aircraft have but one engine.

Still, chartering even the most inexpensive craft means dipping relatively deeply into campaign coffers. Personal or corporate friends of a candidate often find their most valuable donation can be the use of an aircraft.

"It's expensive . . . and you have a lot of friends who want to let you use their plane or charter their plane," said Sean Walsh, a longtime Republican political consultant and spokesman for numerous California politicians, as well as for former President Bush. "You just show up at the airport and some days you get a pretty cool-looking jet--and some days you get a small Cessna or King Air."

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