AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University President Steven Leath caused “substantial damage” to a university airplane he was piloting when it made a hard landing at an Illinois airport last year — a costly incident kept quiet for 14 months.
Reports obtained by The Associated Press show both wings suffered damage after Leath failed to navigate windy conditions and hit the runway at the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, Illinois. Experts said the accident appears to have involved a relatively inexperienced pilot making an error.
The university confirmed the incident Friday after AP inquiries, saying it paid for $12,000 in repairs itself rather than file an insurance claim. It also confirmed that Leath, a certified pilot, is allowed to fly himself on university and personal business although the university employs three professional pilots.
Leath and his wife, Janet, were returning from Ashe County, North Carolina, where their family owns a home. Leath, who did not return a message seeking comment, hasn’t explained any business reason for the trip. Any personal trips could violate school policies and state law barring the private use of government property.
Iowa State said Leath has reimbursed the school $4,600 for four trips on which he flew the plane for personal use. A spokesman said he didn’t know whether the July 14, 2015, incident was one.
The university vice president who oversaw the school’s flight program said he was never told about the incident, which came three weeks before its governing board voted to extend Leath’s contract through 2020.
In a statement to the Federal Aviation Administration, Leath explained that as he was trying to land the Cirrus SR22 single engine plane, he “encountered an extremely strong gust that lifted me and I quickly added power but still dropped hard hitting the right wingtip.” He said he was turned off the runway and that as he came back onto it, his “left wing flap caught the top of a runway light.”
An airport inspection found “substantial damage to both wings,” debris on the runway from the broken light and skid marks.
University pilots were sent to pick up Leath and his wife with the school’s second airplane. The roundtrip flight cost more than $2,200 and was charged to the “Greater University Fund.” Leath controls that pot of unrestricted donations, which Iowa State says pays for its “most critical needs.”
Leath has been at Iowa State since 2012, overseeing rapid university enrollment growth. His contract includes a $1,500 monthly car stipend but doesn’t mention use of university planes.
A spokesman for the president of the Iowa board of regents, Bruce Rastetter, said Friday that he was aware of Leath’s flying and hard landing.
Iowa State’s planes, which are often used for fundraising and athletic recruiting, have seen costly upgrades and increased usage under Leath. The FAA issued him a pilot certificate in January 2015 allowing him to fly single engine planes with instruments. The university acquired the Cirrus SR22 five months earlier.
Leath isn’t credentialed to fly the university’s other plane, a larger King Air acquired in 2014. Both planes were paid for using donations from the university foundation.
Iowa State policy says travel must have a business purpose, be cost-efficient and done “in a manner that excludes consideration of personal gain.” It also warns that removing university property for personal use violates state law.
Warren Madden, a recently retired senior vice president who oversaw the flight program, said that policy would bar personal use of university planes and that he was never aware of any. Madden also insisted the school would never let Leath “fly by himself one of our planes because of the insurance and liability issues” before AP informed him Leath had done that.
Patrick Smith, an expert pilot who reviewed the incident at AP’s request, said it appeared to be “another pretty clear-cut example of a comparatively inexperienced pilot messing up.”
“The winds on the report were well within the typical capabilities of even the most below-average pilot,” he said.
Pilot Kerry Riley landed his plane shortly before Leath without incident. The Champaign, Illinois, man said the weather was changing and there were strong gusts, but “I wouldn’t call it extraordinary.”
The university called the conditions “a localized downdraft within a thunderstorm” and noted the incident didn’t meet the FAA’s technical definition for an accident. It said Leath has flown for 10 years.
Asked why Leath didn’t cover repairs, university spokesman John McCarroll said: “We had the money to pay for it. In terms of aircraft damage, that’s a relatively small amount of money.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the incident happened three weeks before Leath’s contract was voted on, instead of two weeks after.