WASHINGTON — The first sign of trouble with the Drug Enforcement Administration's new surveillance planes surfaced almost immediately. On the way from the manufacturer to the agency's aviation headquarters, one of them veered off a runway during a fuel stop.
The malfunction last spring was only the beginning. A month later, the windshield unlatched in mid-flight and smashed into the engine. Then, in a third incident on the same plane, a connection between the propeller and the engine came loose and forced an emergency landing.
In January, after less than 10 months of operation, the cascade of mechanical problems forced the DEA to ground the planes.
The planes recently were scheduled to be "cannibalized" so the DEA could sell the parts and recover as much of its money as possible.
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The story behind why the DEA sought out the three planes, only to become the second federal agency to give them up, illustrates the pitfalls of "black," or classified, budgeting in which Congress approves tens of billions of dollars for intelligence agencies outside the public's view.
The twin-engine planes, manufactured by Schweizer Aircraft, likely came out of an even more shadowy funding provision known as "black earmarks," according to government officials with knowledge of the contract. The officials asked to remain anonymous because the planes, known as "Shadowhawks," received funding secretly.
Lawmakers often earmark projects to score sought-after contracts for companies back home.
The idea is to encourage cutting-edge research and development that wouldn't otherwise get approval during the ordinary budgeting process. During the regular and more transparent budgeting process, earmarks can sometimes pay for worthwhile projects, experts said.
Black earmarks, however, receive almost no scrutiny. Even worse, there's little accountability when the technology doesn't work.
The lack of transparency has led to some staggering boondoggles. In 1991, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney canceled the troubled A-12 Avenger II after the secret aircraft program consumed nearly $3 billion of taxpayers' money.
In one of the most notorious cases, former California Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is serving just over eight years in prison for taking bribes in exchange for secretly steering classified contracts to favored companies. A congressional report concluded that the contracts totaled $70 million.
Despite calls to end it, lawmakers have continued the practice.
In this case, Schweizer received $13.5 million from Congress for the now-defunct planes and could be paid an additional $1.75 million by the DEA for retrofitting them.
Where the DEA got the planes is unclear. William Brown, the special agent in charge of the aviation division in Fort Worth, Texas, said he was under the impression that the funding for the planes was earmarked for the State Department, but officials with knowledge of the transaction said the planes had been intended for another agency for intelligence purposes. The officials couldn't be named because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of defense conglomerate United Technologies, bought Schweizer in 2004.
Schweizer officials said they didn't know where the original funding came from because Schweizer got the contract before Sikorsky bought the family-owned company. Schweizer, founded in 1937 and based in Elmira, N.Y., specializes in light helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Critics say the DEA's decision to acquire the planes not only raises questions about the secrecy of intelligence budgets, but also about the leadership of the DEA's aviation division.
Last month, McClatchy reported on a separate controversy sparked by Brown's decision to spend more than $123,000 to charter a private jet to fly Acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart to Bogota, Colombia, in October.
Government watchdogs called the charter excessive, considering the DEA could've rescheduled the flight on one of the agency's 106 planes.
Brown also sought out the Schweizer planes. He said he first heard about them during a sales pitch by then-President Paul Schweizer, who couldn't be reached for comment.
"I thought it was good fortune for us because we were thinking of buying similar planes anyway," Brown said, "Paul told us that it looked like this other agency doesn't want them anymore, but they might work out well for you. That sounded like a good deal to us."
There was one problem: The planes were untested. They represented the first three of the model, which was handcrafted instead of mass produced. As a result, they were listed with the Federal Aviation Administration as "experimental."
DEA officials with knowledge of the malfunctioning planes said that pilots feared flying them, especially in high-elevation areas. "Anybody who flew the aircraft was a test pilot," said one of the officials. The officials didn't want to be identified because they disagreed with the DEA's official stance on the aircraft.
Brown, however, said he didn't cancel the program because of safety problems, but decided the planes were simply too difficult to repair because the manufacturer didn't have spare parts on hand.
He said the problems were not surprising considering the planes were new. "When you have a first of anything — whether it's a Chevy or a Ford or a plane you expect they will need to be tweaked."
Officials with Schweizer also said the planes were safe.
"From a safety standpoint, our record is perfect," said David Horton, the president and general manager of Schweizer Aircraft Corporation. "We have not had anybody hurt."
Horton said the DEA "loved the planes," which were designed to fly long distances quietly. "There's really no any other airplane in the world that can do what these airplanes can do."
While Brown said he thought the DEA wouldn't have to pay Schweizer the remainder of the contract, company officials said those details were still being worked out. Schweizer already received more than $583,000 for retrofitting work on the planes, which the DEA is unlikely to recover.
"We've agreed between the two parties that we're not going to operate the (Shadowhawk) planes anymore," Horton said. "Anything beyond that has not been decided."
Jim Henderson, a retired DEA agent and pilot who hasn't flown the planes, but was given details about them by McClatchy, said the agency should've realized the planes hadn't been adequately tested.
To insure the quality of its planes, Henderson said the DEA usually puts out a request for bids or proposals in a much more formalized process. Even when the DEA acquires planes after seizing them from drug traffickers, the planes undergo rigorous tests before they're scheduled for flyovers.
Henderson, who worked for the aviation division for 26 years, said if one of the two engines had failed, the Schweizer plane might not be left with enough power to fly out of a high elevation area such as Guatemala City. Initially, one plane was flown into Guatemala, but pilots complained, and Brown decided to fly it in the Caribbean.
DEA flyovers can be risky. Since the aviation division's inception in the early 1970s, 16 pilots on DEA missions have died in plane or helicopter crashes, including four DEA agents during a reconnaissance mission in Peru, according to the agency's Web site.
"The DEA should have known better," said Henderson, who's a former member of the DEA's safety council. "It was irresponsible and unsafe to put pilots in these planes. I wouldn't have flown them."
Schweizer has no plans to give up on the planes anytime soon. Congress, led by Kentucky Republican Rep. Hal Rogers, appropriated $48 million for the company to manufacture the next generation of the planes for the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection. Company officials said the new version would have a more powerful engine than the planes the DEA rejected. "We've learned a lot," Horton said.
Coast Guard officials said they planned extensive testing before they fly the planes on missions.
The Coast Guard has had its own bad experience with earmark projects, including a $4.65 million patrol boat. The Coast Guard couldn't use the 85-foot craft, manufactured by Guardian Marine of Edmonds, Wash., for several reasons, including the vessel's fiberglass hull. Usually, Coast Guard boats are made of sturdier aluminum or steel, but the agency hadn't requested the funding for the fiberglass boat.
At a loss over what to do with it, the Coast Guard allowed other law-enforcement agencies to bid on it. The Alameda County Sheriff's Department in California bought it for $1.
Meanwhile, the Schweizer planes, originally scheduled to be completed this year, have been delayed until 2012. Asked whether such delays were common with such projects, Capt. Michael Emerson, the chief of the Coast Guard's office of Aviation Forces, responded, "It seems to be."
"Unfortunately, with developmental projects like this, it's not unusual for them to 'slip to the right' as they say," he said. "It's not desirable but there is an acknowledgement that you don't want them to turn out badly."
(Halimah Abdullah and Tish Wells contributed to this article.)
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