If you find yourself in a situation similar to that of John and Martha King, with police officers pointing guns at you as you exit your aircraft, just follow their instructions. That is the advice of John King after he and his wife, Martha, were held at gunpoint for about a half-hour Aug. 28 when they landed at Santa Barbara, California.
With the apparent incompetence of some of the government agencies demonstrated by the ordeal of the Kings, this could happen to you.
The Kings, two of the best known names in general aviation for their training courses, were flying a Cessna 172 IFR from El Paso, Texas. When they landed at Santa Barbara, they were ordered to taxi to a far corner of the airport where they were met by four police cars with officers standing behind open car doors, pointing weapons and ordering them to exit the aircraft with hands held high. They were handcuffed, placed in the back of police cars, and held more than 30 minutes.
Santa Barbara police had been tipped off that the aircraft had been stolen and was on the watch list. Initial reports said “a private company” had tipped the police. Later it was learned that the alert came from the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), an amalgamation of several government agencies, originally set up by the Drug Enforcement Agency ostensibly looking for drug traffickers. EPIC said the aircraft was stolen. An aircraft with the same N-number had been stolen eight years before. It was a 1968 Cessna 150. The FAA canceled the registration number in September 2005 and reissued it in 2009 for a Cessna 172. Nobody in government bothered to notify others.
The Kings leased the airplane from Cessna to fly while developing a new training course. They had been flying it for about seven months — many flights on IFR plans listing personal names, route, destinations, arrival time — and never questioned. This would hardly be the data dangerous drug traffickers would give when flying a stolen aircraft, the Kings note.
After a quick check by EPIC with Cessna Aircraft, the Kings were released and left to leave without as much as a “have a nice day.” Photos of Martha King exiting the airplane with hands held high were published in the Santa Barbara News-Press. Some days later both John and Martha King were reliving the ordeal.
Craig Fuller, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), and Ed Bolen, president of National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), immediately called for investigations and a review of registration data. “The Kings deserve an apology from senior officials with responsibility over the agencies involved and the general aviation community deserves a full accounting of what went wrong and just how the process will be fixed,” Fuller said. Bolen said there is an urgent need for an industry-government group that can expeditiously conduct a top-to-bottom investigation of the process to ensure that incidents such as this do not occur in the future.
Until actions are taken to communicate properly between government agencies and until federal and local government officials better understand aviation, pilots are warned by the Kings that something similar — or worse — could happen to them. John King has been quoted as saying that his main concern is the risk such procedures pose to pilots: “When you are pointing a gun at someone over a long period of time, there is a risk — to us.”
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.