Rehberg Still Up In the Air

Posted January 23, 2007 at 6:40pm

In the normally close-knit fraternity of Congressional pilots, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) found himself all alone in the early days of 2007.

As fellow aviators like Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and others were figuring out whether the new Democratic rules package would prevent them from flying their private airplanes, Rehberg was kicking dust on the sidelines.

“I was actually left out of the ethics debate,” he said.

No, the three-term lawmaker hadn’t been shunned from the group. Nor had he lost his moxie and decided to fly commercial. Far from it, in fact.

Rather, unlike his fixed-wing brethren, Rehberg flies a helicopter — one mode of aerial transport left entirely untouched by the House ethics re-writes. So far, at least, he’ll still be able to fly himself around Montana in his chopper, even as his colleagues’ ability to take to the skies is being sorted out.

In the Senate’s ethics package passed last week, all Members of Congress would be required to repay the full charter rate for rides they catch on all non-commercial “aircraft,” a seemingly catch-all designation that would include airplanes, helicopters and, for that matter, a flying unicorn or UFO.

Under current law, Senators are required typically to pay for an equivalent first-class ticket, which usually runs into the thousands of dollars. After passage, some say a similar journey for Senators could cost $15,000 or more, putting it out of the reach of most lawmakers.

In the House rules change, however, jaunts on all non-commercial, non-government “airplanes” were technically banned in a blunder involving who and what the Federal Aviation Administration licenses. The mix-up drew grumbles from Issa and some other House Republican pilots — and some passengers, who called the measure sloppily written and ill-researched, and they used the opportunity to pounce on the new Democratic House leadership.

“This conspicuous error is the result of the hasty, secretive manner in which you have assembled this legislation,” Issa wrote in a Jan. 4 letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Democrats responded by clarifying on the House floor that the ban does not apply to Members’ personal aircraft, which would, of course, include Rehberg’s whirley-bird and his ultralight, a fixed-winged, propeller-driven glider of sorts that he purchased in a drug-seizure auction but does not fly.

Rehberg’s helicopter is a Sikorsky Schweizer 300 CBI, which was designed during the Vietnam era by Hughes Helicopter. It can seat three people and can fly 100 miles per hour for around three hours at a time. The model works well, he said, for meeting with his roughly 900,000 constituents scattered around his 56-county, at-large district that takes up all of Montana.

“It gives me an opportunity if I’m in a hurry to jump in and jump out,” Rehberg said. “I have a district that spans the distance from Washington, D.C., to Chicago.”

After years of ranching, Rehberg said, getting a helicopter had always occurred to him. Still, he did not get around to obtaining a license until 2002, when the practical implications for constituent work became obvious. Although most helicopter pilots either cut their teeth in the military or flew airplanes first, Rehberg did neither. He said his musical background, however, made up part of the difference.

“I’ve been a drummer all my life, so I can do four things at once,” he said. “And talking on the radio … [is] the fifth.”

Rehberg’s ranch, roamed by cattle and cashmere goats, is now tended by a neighbor who prefers terra-based transport, such as horses and motorbikes. So for Rehberg, the helicopter is used now only for House business, cutting travel times in half and allowing him to survey forest fire damage.

“I made the determination that [the helicopter] would be another item in the arsenal to help me get around Montana,” Rehberg said.

Although Rehberg said “we don’t joke about things like that,” a running joke in his office combines good ol’ fashioned partisan politics and the reality of flying exotic aircraft.

“Well, our new governor is now Gov. Schweitzer,” Rehberg, a Republican, said of Montana’s Democratic chief executive. “My staff always jokingly says that one day they’ll pick up the paper and read: ‘Rehberg Killed by Schweitzer.’”