NEWPORT — Pilots who keep their cool to save the lives of passengers in the most desperate aviation circumstances are sometimes hailed as heroes before getting hung out to dry like Mayor Dean Sawyer!
Sawyer has been singled-out for recall by a Newport attorney who claims the mayor’s flying record is reason enough to eject him. A retired cop in his second term as mayor, Sawyer crash-landed his disabled Cessna 172 on the beach July 7, 2019, expertly side-slipping scores of beachgoers who might otherwise have been crushed before setting down the half-ton airplane in a way that allowed the survival, with injuries, of all three people on board.
Sawyer was hailed by fellow aviators as “levelheaded” and “cool under pressure,” whereas a lesser pilot would have stalled the plane and killed everyone. The general public, which often finds itself flying aboard commuter deathtraps in order to get anywhere, eagerly followed late-breaking reports and photos of the heroic landing.
Months later the National Transportation Safety Board, which did not actually visit the accident site, released an inconclusive opinion faulting Sawyer for probably running out of gas. The Federal Aviation Administration heaped more blame, issuing the aviator seven citations that were the civilian equivalents of a major traffic ticket and some equipment violations. The most serious charge was operating an aircraft “in a manner that resulted in an accident,” earning Sawyer a 200-day suspension of his pilot’s license in 2020. His license has since been reinstated.
The episode was reminiscent of United Airlines Flight 173, a DC-8 from Denver whose four engines quit over Portland, Ore., on Dec. 28, 1978, with my nephew and niece, ages 11 and 9, riding near the tail section. The only surprise of the night was that they were among 179 survivors in an expertly-flown crash landing by Captain Buddy McGroom, hailed in his hospital bed as a hero until he became the heel who ran out of gas.
“Just read the FAA report, it’s all there,” asserted Susan Reese Painter, a busy, Harvard-educated defense attorney who told me her case against Sawyer is to be found entirely in the pages of the FAA investigation. “The report is the reason for the recall.”
It was from that dry but squishy language that Painter concluded Sawyer “lacks the moral compass to be mayor” and “tarnishes the image of lawful respect and friendliness” she claims Newport is famous for, requiring us to overlook a growing mass of disgruntled tourist haters and an epidemic of car clouts. With Victorian indignation, Painter describes Sawyer as “cavalier” — just the kind of stinging political charge that might have sparked a 19th Century duel!
“His flagrant flaunting of federal safety requirements is even more egregious,” she poetically fumes in her petition, “because he is a former law enforcement officer ‘sworn to serve and protect our community.’”
According to election officials, Painter needs 776 signatures and has 90 days to circulate the petition, which would be a deadline of Oct. 5. If the petitioner takes the entire 90 days, the election would be held on Nov. 23. If the Mayor is recalled, there would be a vacancy in the office, and the Council can fill the vacancy by appointment of the majority of the remaining Councilors, making it all very Machiavellian.
Dean Sawyer told me it is a hard time to be mayor of Newport. The city is in serious peril with a dam that could fail, a water system on thin ice, and looming financial problems that he has vowed to fix “regardless of the political resistance or time it takes.” He faces stiff opposition to new taxes and wonders why, at this climactic moment, Painter wants to reopen the case like it was the Kennedy Assassination. He sounds hurt to be characterized as uncaring for defending his actions.
“They think I’m callous but I’m not,” he said. “I surrendered my license and didn’t challenge the suspension, though I had grounds to appeal.”
My theory is that most part-time pilots and their passengers are doomed, anyway, to a set number of flying hours and that fate can be averted only by selling the airplane or bailing out before the uncertain number is up. From hair-singeing experience as a flyer, professional skydiver and aviation writer who was routinely given the keys to new or sometimes dangerously experimental aircraft, I know two things: first, there is no such thing as a perfectly good airplane; and second, if anything happens, you as an adult passenger bear responsibility for crawling aboard an airplane in the first place.
Rather than suffer a recall, Newport residents should be grateful Dean Sawyer and his passengers are alive and on the mend. They have settled this case and moved on with their lives, and I think it would be right if the rest of us did, too.