Fasten Your Seat Belts

updated 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AT 9, MARY SCHIAVO TOOK HER first plane ride, a gift from her father, in a single-engine Cessna. Looking down on the farmlands around Pioneer, Ohio, Mary could hardly wait to get at the controls. "I wasn't scared at all," she says. "I thought, 'This is the greatest thing in the world.' "

But in 1990, when Schiavo was appointed to her dream job—inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation—her view of aviation grew considerably dimmer. During her tenure as the agency's in-house watchdog, she became an outspoken critic of unsafe airline practices and of coverups by DOT's Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates and monitors the industry. Now in her book Flying Blind, Flying Safe, Schiavo elaborates on her claim that the FA A habitually puts the interests of the airline industry ahead of passenger safety. "I'm making trouble about things that are horribly wrong," says Schiavo, 41. Though critics decry her as a shameless self-promoter who recklessly stokes public fears—"I am aghast at her wild and irresponsible rhetoric," says Jim Burnley, a Reagan-era Secretary of Transportation who is now a lawyer for American Airlines—Schiavo, who resigned last July, remains convinced the nation's aviation system is on a collision course with disaster. "I am a troublemaker," she admits.

Her disillusionment with the FAA set in quickly. By the end of her first month on the job, then-DOT Secretary Samuel Skinner had asked her to look into a federal judge's charge that the FAA was hindering a case against Eastern Airlines for its alleged falsification of maintenance records. Schiavo concluded that the accusation was well-founded and that a too-cozy relationship existed between the FAA and the airline. Then, while investigating haphazard FAA aircraft inspections, she nearly died from a burst blood vessel in her abdomen. While recovering, in November 1992, she reexamined her life. "I thought, 'Well, you can check out any time. You better do it right,' " she says.

On her return she intensified investigations into the use of counterfeit airline parts, racking up more than 100 convictions over the next four years. But on May 11, 1996, Valujet Flight 592 crashed in the Everglades, killing all 110 passengers—three months after she had sent investigators to talk to FAA officials in Atlanta about a spate of runway overshoots, collapsed landing gears and engine explosions on Valujet planes. "They seemed genuinely surprised at the numbers," she says. Just weeks before the crash, the FAA field office had recommended grounding the three-year-old discount airline. Yet the day after the disaster, then-Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena said the airline was safe to fly. "I was angry," Schiavo says. "I said, 'They're not going to lie about this thing.' People saw it coming."

That's when Schiavo went public, disagreeing with her boss and declaring bluntly, "I would not fly Valujet." She says, "I knew there'd be a lot of fallout, but at that point I just didn't care." Frustrated at the FAA's refusal to acknowledge any problems, she resigned two months later.

Born Mary Fackler, Schiavo is the second of four daughters of Air Force veteran Harland "Barney" Fackler and his wife, Nina. Growing up on the family's 341-acre farm in Pioneer, her main chore was watering 500 hogs. In 1974 she received her pilot's license after completing training at Ohio State University's School of Aviation. Because she was too nearsighted to fly commercially, she transferred to Harvard, graduating in 1976. By 1982, after receiving her law degree from New York University, Schiavo was working as an assistant U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., where her toughness as a prosecutor earned her the nickname Maximum Mary.

By then she was married to law school sweetheart Ed Sterling, later Jackson County (Mo.) Republican chairman, and immersed in politics. (They divorced in 1990.) After Schiavo headed the 1988 Bush-Quayle campaign in Missouri, former Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole brought her to Washington to investigate the misuse of union funds, and her appointment as inspector general soon followed.

Since resigning, Schiavo lives in Columbus, Ohio, caring for her children Larissa, 2, and Alex, 7 months, and teaching government ethics at OSU's School of Public Administration. Her Brazilian-born husband, Alex Schiavo, 54, whom she married in 1992, commutes to Washington to his job at the Inter-American Defense Board. As for gripes that her book is alarmist, Schiavo shrugs. "I don't need to scare the public," she says. "The public already knows there's something wrong."

BRUCE FRANKEL
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Pioneer and LINDA KRAMER in Washington

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