Inmate claims he was used to test safety of state airplane: Problem Solvers investigation

CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Dennis Rowe says he will never forget the words "guinea pig" when he was flown in the governor's airplane Jan. 10.  At the time, Rowe was a Jefferson County inmate being transported to Prowers County in southeast Colorado to face charges related to an outstanding warrant for traffic infractions.

"I knew something was wrong. I knew the word 'guinea pig.' That was a red flag in my head," said Rowe.

A pair of Colorado State Patrol troopers escorted Rowe from the Jefferson County jail in Golden to Centennial Airport. He was flying to Lamar, Colorado on a government plane which CSP operates to fly the governor, state dignitaries and sometimes, inmates.

"Cool, I get to fly on an airplane. That's cool. Oh cool, it's the governor's plane, that's really cool. Wait a second. You said, 'guinea pig,'" is the reaction Rowe remembers he had when troopers told him the plane needed to be tested to make sure it was safe for Gov. Jared Polis.

"They said I was kind of a guinea pig and I said, 'kind of a guinea pig?' And he says, 'yeah, we need to make sure the plane is going to pressurize above 18,000 feet before the governor rides on the plane.'"

The plane ride happened two days after Polis was inaugurated on Jan. 8. It turns out pilots had noticed pressure issues with the governor's airplane since November. Out of 35 flights, nine have had what troopers call "pressurization abnormalities."

"We've known about this problem before this. It's not something that impacts airworthiness of aircraft in any capacity," insisted Major Tim Keeton with CSP.

Keeton acknowledges the plane had a camera  installed to record if valves were working properly and flight records obtained by the Problem Solvers show the plane was flown at about 18,000 feet to monitor pressure readings. But Major Keeton says there was never any danger to Rowe, the two state troopers on board or the pilot.

"I think a lot people don't understand aviation. And if they hear of any problem, they think the plane will fall out of the sky. And of course that's not the case with this," explained Keeton.

Furthermore, Keeton says troopers never used the very words that caused Rowe much anxiety.

"Our troopers are very adamant that they did not at any point in time call him a guinea pig, that they were explaining to him what they were doing on the airplane and he drew that conclusion on his own," Keeton said.

It's not unheard of for state troopers to use the governor's airplane to transport inmates if circumstances warrant it. In 2018, CSP flew six inmates in the plane.

So far in 2019, Dennis Rowe is one of two inmates to be flown.

But Rowe says if the plane needed need to be tested or monitored -- even for minor abnormalities -- it shouldn't be done with a person on board who has no say in the matter.

"I don't want to die in a plane crash. That's not something I want to do," said Rowe.

But Keeton says the only thing that went wrong was Rowe's perception.

"Sounds dangerous, but in fact, it never was," said Keeton. "We would of course never put a citizen in jeopardy, but also don't have any state troopers with a death wish who want to go risk their own lives. So I think it's important to make that distinction that every human being on that aircraft has the same jeopardy if the airplane crashes and we would not absolutely expose anybody to that risk."

Troopers determined that on Rowe's flight there were no pressure issues. Keeton says CSP will conduct an internal investigation to review how Rowe was treated but remains confident his flight was no different than others involving inmates.

As for the plane, CSP sent it back to the manufacturer Beechcraft in Wichita, Kansas but experts were not able to replicate the pressurization issues.

CSP has since determined the plane is 100 percent safe to fly.

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