GA aircraft targeted by terrorists?

A recently leaked government report indicates that Al Qaeda discussed plans to hijack or charter small airplanes and helicopters for use in terrorist attacks in the United States.

The report, based on November 2001 information and allegedly written as an informational tool for security and intelligence personnel, was not supposed to be released to the press. However, reporters at the New York Times acquired the report. Other media outlets, including network television stations, then picked it up. The media reports played up the vulnerabilities of general aviation to terrorist actions, although the 24-page report had only two paragraphs that applied to general aviation.

According to the government report, terrorists are attracted to “the largely unregulated” area of general aviation because of a perceived lack of security at airports. The report indicated that it is possible that terrorists may try to rent or steal GA aircraft to use in suicide attacks. It specifically mentioned helicopters configured for agricultural operations, noting that they could be used in a biological attack.

The report stated that members of Al Qaeda appear determined to study and test new American security measures to “uncover weaknesses.”

Several aviation advocacy groups were critical of the report, noting that there have been numerous changes in flight training and ramp procedures to increase security at airports since Sept. 11. For example, the report makes no mention of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Airport Watch Program, which encourages airport users to be more vigilant for suspicious activity.

The program has had many successes. Last year a pair of TV reporters posing as terrorists was apprehended by the staff of a helicopter charter business at St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, Ill. The staff of the helicopter business, using the guidelines of the airport watch program, realized the pair, armed with pocketknives and razor blades, was not on the level. While a mechanic disabled the helicopter so it could not be flown, office staff kept the men busy until law enforcement arrived. The reporters, who said they were “testing” airport security, were arrested, questioned and then released.

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