Whitaker, who will appear Wednesday before the Senate Commerce Committee to discuss his nomination, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. He called the accident a learning experience during an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association event in 2015. If confirmed, Whitaker would lead an agency grappling with a rash of aviation near-misses and challenges in replenishing its air traffic controller workforce.
In a statement Tuesday responding to POLITICO’s questions about the incident, a White House official urged Whitaker’s “swift confirmation.”
“Mike Whitaker has spoken publicly several times about this event and reported the incident as required,” the official said. “Whitaker has over 30 years of aviation experience, and broad support from labor unions and industry stakeholders.”
Tricia Enright, the spokesperson for Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee vetting his nomination, said Wednesday that Whitaker “knows first-hand how challenging flying can be.” She added that committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) “believes his willingness to learn and share his experience demonstrates his commitment to safety.”
Whitaker’s personal experience inside the cockpit is just one thing that distinguishes him from Biden’s previous FAA nominee, Denver airport CEO Phil Washington, who took a pounding from Republicans over his relatively thin aviation resume.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the May 2015 accident happened when strong winds forced Whitaker to abort his attempt to land his Cessna 172. He landed on the second pass but put his plane down too hard on the runway. Nobody was hurt, but the plane suffered “substantial damage,” the NTSB said in a report on the incident.
The NTSB, an independent agency that investigates transportation accidents, said eyewitness interviews suggested Whitaker had landed “high and fast.”
“The airplane touched down on the main landing gear and subsequently bounced several times before coming to a stop,” read the report, which attributed the incident to pilot error.
Whitaker had only gotten his private pilot’s license in 2014.
“In retrospect that was a bit over my head in that type of a trip at that point,” Whitaker said in 2019 on Aviation News Talk’s podcast. After strong winds forced him to abort his first attempt to land, he said he decided it was time to “put the plane on the runway.”
“And that’s what I did — including the prop, so I had a little porpoising episode down the runway,” he said.
Whitaker’s nomination to lead the agency has so far been received relatively well, with support from Democrats on Capitol Hill and wide swaths of the aviation industry as well as unions, all of which are eager to fill the post which has been vacant since 2022.
Senate Republicans, however, are more of a wild card. Several key GOP senators, including Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Ted Cruz (R-Texas), had opposed Washington over his relative lack of aviation experience.
Cruz also tried to stump Washington with technical questions about how commercial airline pilots might handle an emergency in-flight, and criticized Washington when he couldn’t answer. Washington, who is not a pilot, eventually withdrew his name from consideration.
Cruz could not be immediately reached for comment about Whitaker’s past accident.
Whitaker is a former executive at United Airlines and is now the chief operating officer of Supernal, Hyundai’s electric aircraft subsidiary.