Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plane makes emergency landing near St. Petersburg

"Everyone is safe on the ground," spokesman Dave Vasquez said, but questions persist about the state's fleet.
Law enforcement officers are seen at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport after the plane carrying Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made an emergency landing Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 in Clearwater. No injuries were reported. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Law enforcement officers are seen at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport after the plane carrying Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made an emergency landing Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 in Clearwater. No injuries were reported. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jan. 11, 2019|Updated Jan. 11, 2019

LARGO — A mechanical problem forced a state airplane carrying Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to make an emergency landing in Largo on Friday afternoon.

DeSantis, who was on the way to Fort Lauderdale for a news conference, and everyone else on board, were unharmed.

Dave Vasquez, DeSantis' spokesman, could not say what went wrong with the plane, which landed at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. The plane is operated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which referred questions to the governor's office.

Attorney General Ashley Moody, DeSantis' chief of staff, Shane Strum, and three members of his executive staff were on board.

The emergency stop was the latest reminder that DeSantis, who took office on Tuesday, is living with his predecessor's legacy.

Former Gov. Rick Scott sold the state's fleet of airplanes shortly after taking office in 2010, which has left DeSantis to criss-cross the state this week using a Beechcraft King Air seized by state police in a drug raid.

But there appears to be interest in bringing back the state fleet, or some sort of alternative. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried expressed interest Friday, and House Speaker Jose Oliva hinted that he would support it.

"Today's incident, combined with the sheer size of our state, starkly reminds us that we need a safe and reliable means of transportation for the chief executive," Oliva said in a statement. "The House stands ready to work with the Governor's office to ensure such transportation is obtained."

Details on the small, twin-turbo prop plane DeSantis has been using have been hard to come by. An FDLE spokeswoman could not, or would not, say this week where or when the King Air was seized, or what state police have been using it for.

But records show FDLE has spent about $600,000 overhauling the plane's engines and interior since 2016.

And it's equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment, including a rotating camera module commonly found on drones and military planes, state records show. According to the camera's manufacturer, the device is "ideal for … medium-altitude covert intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance."

Because details on the plane are scarce, it's unclear how old it is or how many people it seats.

But it's not unlike one of the planes Florida's top officials used to have.

Until Scott took office, Florida's governor, lieutenant governor and Cabinet members had access to three small planes to get around the state, including a King Air.

Scott, a multi-millionaire, used his own jet while governor, and his decision to sell the planes within days of taking office forced the state's attorney general, agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer to use commercial planes and cars to get around Florida. It also led to the firing of 11 pilots and staff.

But use of the planes for nonofficial business was a source of frequent controversy, and during his campaign, Scott used the issue against his Republican and Democratic opponents in television ads.

Former state officials still say having a state fleet is important to get around the nation's third most-populous state. If you were to drive from Pensacola to Key West, that would be an 830-mile trip.

Former Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, who served between 2001 and 2010, said Friday that he considered having access to planes essential to the job. (Between July 2004 and the end of 2010, Bronson used the plane 578 times on trips, at an estimated cost of $310,000.)

Bronson said he used it to get to emergency situations, like wildfires and agriculture blights. And they were especially convenient since Tallahassee's airport has limited and expensive flights.

"I always felt that a plane was almost essential at times," Bronson said.
It was always a source of controversy, however.

"I can tell you, as a senator (in the 1990s), I sat on appropriations, and there would be a group of people just adamant about getting rid of the state planes," he said. "Those planes can be argued until the cows come home."

The sentiment was echoed by former Gov. Bob Martinez, who told the News Service of Florida in October that state aircraft for the governor and other top officials is a must.

"I know it may be controversial in the minds of people, but when you're up here almost in Georgia and you've got go down to Miami, you're looking at almost 700, 800 miles, you're just not going to drive it," Martinez said. "It's just not going to happen."

DeSantis said on Monday that FDLE lawyers and his own lawyers agree that since state police provide him round-the-clock protection, he can use the department's plane.

Yet FDLE does not provide that kind of protection for Cabinet members, so they can't use it.

"It's their opinion and I think it's our opinion in terms of being legal, that that is something because they have the responsibility to protect and transport the governor, that that can be used for my transportation," DeSantis said. "Now, that's not going to be like the old state planes where the Cabinet and other people could do it. It flows from their responsibility to protect me."

Fried, who also took office Tuesday, said the state should have "an efficient method of air transportation."

"As statewide public servants in one of the largest states in the nation, an efficient method of air transportation is prudent to best serve our constituents, conduct state business, and carry out the duties of our offices," she said in a statement Friday. "Cost-effective and responsible use of state aircraft would enhance our situational response and our availability to the people of Florida."

A spokeswoman for CFO Jimmy Patronis did not directly address the question.

A spokeswoman for Moody provided a statement: "Florida is an extremely large state and it is essential to continually meet with constituents in every corner of it. Any state air travel conducted should be in accordance with the law and with respect for the taxpayers."