SAN FRANCISCO — A former California news helicopter pilot charged with lying to federal aviation officials and flying under a false name may have exploited a crack in the system by changing his name after a previous conviction nearly 20 years ago, experts said Wednesday.
John Michael Dial, 57, who worked under the name Thomas R. Cuni while making hundreds of flights in the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento between 2009 and last year, was arrested Monday in Skaneateles, N.Y., on a warrant out of Sacramento, authorities said.
Dial appeared before a U.S. magistrate judge in Syracuse, N.Y., on Monday and was ordered held without bail and transported to Sacramento. He was represented by a federal public defender whose name was not immediately available.
The arrest came nearly 20 years after Dial was convicted of providing false information to the Federal Aviation Administration and sentenced to two years in prison and a year of supervised release.
He also has theft and forgery convictions as well as misdemeanor convictions relating to bad checks dating as far back as the late 1970s, an FBI affidavit states.
Authorities said Dial has used 24 other names and aliases during the past 12 years as well as six Social Security numbers and 10 dates of birth.
Aviation experts said Dial might have flown under the FAA's radar by changing his identity after the 1994 case.
"It's not surprising that the FAA didn't find this guy because they're not looking for him," said Justin Green, a New York attorney and former attack helicopter pilot in the Marines. "This guy created a character and apparently has been living a lie for many years."
Thomas Anthony, director of the University of Southern California's Aviation Safety and Security Program, believes Dial would not have gotten a license if he had stuck with his true name.
However, "this issue definitely deserves some studying," he said.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor declined to comment on the charges against Dial.
However, he explained that generally people who apply for pilot certificates must present a government-issued photo ID. The FAA does not do criminal background checks on most applicants, but their names are run through the National Driver Registry to see if they have any drug or alcohol-related arrests, Gregor said.
In addition, as part of a law established after 9/11, foreign students must register with the Transportation Security Administration and undergo a criminal background check if they plan to attend a flight school and potentially seek a pilot's license in the U.S.
The current grand jury indictment in California was unsealed on Tuesday. It charges Dial with two counts of making a false statement to Federal Aviation Administration officials and one count of operating an aircraft without a pilot's license.
He could face up to five years in prison if convicted.
An FBI affidavit says Dial provided false information to FAA officials for years to work as a pilot for an air ambulance service in Susanville and as a news helicopter pilot in the Sacramento and San Francisco areas.
He is accused of using his alias while supplying the air ambulance service with information that included an FAA temporary airman certificate, an FAA medical second class certificate, a Vermont driver's license bearing his picture, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot qualification card and an Army discharge from active duty.
The FBI affidavit said Dial got his FAA certification using an alias but his last recorded flights were under his real name.
According to the complaint, Dial told law enforcement in Idaho in April 2012 that he used the name Thomas R. Cuni in order to avoid apprehension for two outstanding felony warrants in Washington state.