Former NASA executive to head Homeland Security aviation unit

Robert Bonner, the outgoing commissioner of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection bureau, on Monday announced that he has selected a permanent leader for the agency's newly created aviation wing, known as CBP Air.

Michael Kostelnik will become assistant commissioner for CBP Air, replacing acting assistant commissioner Charles Stallworth, according to a Nov. 21 e-mail message from Bonner to CBP staff. Kostelnik will step in during what has been a difficult transition for the organization.

Stallworth "will move to the Office of International Affairs, where he will lead an important CBP initiative with our partner nations in the Caribbean," Bonner wrote. At press time, it was unclear what Stallworth's new responsibilities would entail.

Kostelnik, a former Air Force command pilot who retired as a major general in January 2002, was most recently NASA's deputy associate administrator for the International Space Station and the space shuttle, where he served as the program executive officer for human space flight operational programs. Homeland Security created CBP Air earlier this year in a merger of aviation personnel and assets from the Border Patrol and the former Air and Marine Operations office, a legacy Customs unit whose primary mission was to support counternarcotics operations across government. The new organization is focused on border security and gives Border Patrol sector chiefs tactical control of much of the aircraft in CBP's inventory, decisions that have caused considerable angst among personnel formerly with AMO.

"I think it's fair to say the commissioner felt strongly that CBP Air should be led by someone [with no vested interest in the legacy] organizations," said CBP spokeswoman Kristi Clemens. Stallworth, who headed CBP Air in an acting capacity, was the director of AMO prior to the merger.

Kostelnik assumes leadership of CBP Air during a time of uncertainty for many rank and file employees. Personnel and operating policies still are being worked out as agency leaders attempt to incorporate air programs previously managed very differently by the Border Patrol and AMO.

Over the last year as the merger took shape, plans for recapitalizing CBP's aging fleet of aircraft were put on hold, as were plans to hire dozens of pilots, many of whom were offered conditional employment by AMO but now find themselves in bureaucratic limbo.

In his e-mail message, Bonner said Kostelnik is an "exceptional public servant" whose leadership and management experience make him well qualified to oversee the 500 pilots and 250 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in CBP Air.

According to his official Air Force biography, Kostelnik logged more than 3,000 flying hours in more than 40 aircraft types before he retired from service. But it may be his most recent experience at NASA that best prepares him for the turmoil at CBP Air. He left NASA earlier this year, along with more than a dozen other senior leaders, during a major shake-up of senior staff there when Administrator Michael Griffin took over last spring. Bonner officially will step down as CBP commissioner on Nov. 24. Deputy Commissioner Deborah Spero will serve as acting commissioner, Clemens said.

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