The governor’s new plane, coming soon

WJHG screenshot

Following mechanical problems, an emergency landing, rides on private planes, and questions about the governor’s whereabouts in the sky, Gov. Ron DeSantis appears actively in the market for a fully functioning executive jet.

Before adjourning the 2019 legislative session in May, the House and Senate approved $3.8-million-and-change in Florida’s appropriations act for “aviation services.” That has freed the governor to go shopping.

“The governor’s office would work through brokers to determine what’s available – what the best option for taxpayers would be,” state Sen. Jeff Brandes said in a recent telephone interview. Brandes, who represents part of Pinellas County, is one of the lawmakers who helped secure the money.

The governor’s people “had aircraft that they were looking at the last time I spoke to them a couple of weeks ago. They were both jets,” Brandes said.

The governor’s press office has not answered requests by the Florida Phoenix for more details.

It is early, of course – the Legislature hasn’t yet sent the governor the state budget, SB 2500, which contains the $3.8 million.

“I’d be shocked if they vetoed that, since it was one of their requests,” Brandes said of the governor’s office.

Seven budget line items (1250 A through G) cover the lease-purchase arrangement, which falls under the aegis of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The money includes nearly $525,000 for salaries and benefits for pilots and support staff, plus money for maintenance, fuel, and other expenses.

“We probably overestimated this year a little bit, just because we need the start-up costs that go along with owning a new aircraft,” Brandes said.

“This is historically what governors have had access to – although Gov. [Rick] Scott, obviously, sold the aircraft because he had his own. We would expect the governor of the third largest state to effectively get around,” Brandes said.

The state will keep the plane the governor’s been using since assuming office – a King Air B300 manufactured by the Raytheon Aircraft Co., a multiple engine turbo-prop first declared flight-worthy in 2012. Federal aviation records show it is registered to the FDLE. The budget contains around $1.2 million to operate it.

Presumably for security reasons, the plane is exempt from tail-number tracking services that allow the public to view travel by most aircraft – “per request from the owner/operator.”

The state bought the plane at a surplus sale for $10,000 in 2016 and used it mostly for law enforcement until DeSantis took office. This was the aircraft forced to make an emergency landing when smoke filled its cabin in January as DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and aides headed to Fort Lauderdale.

For a longer trip to New York Monday, DeSantis and his party used a leased aircraft belonging to NetJets – a company that lets members buy leases or individual shares in executive jets, according to his communications office. The Phoenix has asked for details of that transaction, too, but they have not been forthcoming.

On a previous New York City trip, DeSantis rode aboard a private plane belonging to South Florida billionaire Jeffrey Sofer, as the South Florida Sun Sentinel was first to report. The Republican Party of Florida paid expenses, but Softer went along for the ride, prompting the government watchdog Integrity Florida to question whether the arrangement was strictly ethical.

“It’s a way for these wealthy interests to get access to the governor,” the organization’s Ben Wilcox told the Phoenix at the time. “They have interests that are regulated by the state, and they want to cultivate those relationships. It looks terrible to the public.”

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