How government SNAFU detained Kings at gunpoint and in handcuffs

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.


  1. Larry D. Butler, Ph. D. says

    How government SNAFU detained Kings at gunpoint and in handcuffs
    Posted by Charles Spence · August 31, 2010

    Subject: The King’s experience at KSBA…Welcome to the New USSA (Union of Socialist States of America) where General Aviation is not compatible with total control!

    Dear Editor GAN:

    Having read the above article and the response by Dave Hook, I wish to add some commentary and “additional information” others may not know.

    It isn’t that the King’s are not well known in the “world of aviation”. Quite the contrary! I have known them since they began their aviation training careers as a couple. They are as famous as any Hollywood or Washington celebrity and far more competent than the “denizens” of either! They are “preeminent in the field of aviation training” in this day and age! However, in this situation, that matters not at all, because the “incompetence” of our government these days, is now legendary and what happened to them can “and will” happen to any of us, so engaged in aviation!

    It seems like a long time since Geo. Orwell warned us about this time in “our future”, he saw coming long ago! Well, it’s here and it is now!

    I was quite dubious about the passing of the “Patriot Act”. The citizens of this country simply allowed government officials to pass this act, purportedly to provide for the security of aviation and this nation. In all truth, it “nullified” our Constitution, most specifically, the 4th Amendment. We are now “paying the price” for our “lacadaisical attitude” in this matter of “ensuring our own civil rights” and “trusting to politicians”, who have proved time and again, they cannot be trusted! What the Kings experienced should be a warning to any and all interested in “keeping America a land of freedom and liberty”!

    Now, what we are witnessing at airports, all over this country, is “extreme overkill”, as law enforcement types “over-react, over-reach and over-control”, ostensibly under the “guise” of the above named Act. Nothing could be further from the truth! It is happening at airports in my area every day! People harassed, threatened, detained and abused, even shot at, all purportedly under the auspices of the “Patriot Act”. As in the KSBA incident, so called “authorities” have, “far exceeded their authority”!

    We have in the “inane” personage of the Director of Homeland Security and overseeing the TSA, a “resident evil”, that threatens our very freedoms and liberties. It’s time to put a stop to it right now! Recently incidents have occurred at airports near me, where one man had the tires of his aircraft shot out, while he was trying to taxi away in his own aircraft and he wasn’t on any “watch list” or wanted for any crime, save being an aircraft owner! Nothing has been done to “correct” this type of “Gestapo police action”!

    In another incident, an airport manager took it upon himself to have a man detained, by the county sheriff’s deputy for working on a client airplane, without the “express approval” of the Airport Manager! You see, they have a “little monopoly” at the Montrose Regional Airport in Montrose, Colorado and they don’t want any “through the fence competition” interfering with any of their “approved friends” operations! The area in question was in a “non-air-carrier” (TSA jurisdiction) area of the airport. The “little Hitler” didn’t want anyone infringing on his “approved friends” businesses! Corruption isn’t just confined to Washington, it’s right here in the middle of America and the “Patriot Act” is merely an “excuse or tool to control others”, to thus ensure that “only the right friends” are allowed to work on and profit from aircraft maintenance! This public airport has received multi-millions of tax dollars from the “Airway Users Trust Fund”, but it is operated as the “personal enterprise” of the county and airport manager, with any and all competition stifled and or eliminated (as in being “run off” the airport, because they were not friends of those in charge), in violation of our nations laws, regarding facilities receiving tax funds! The FAA has thus far refused to even look into the many criminal violations and abuses of operators…past operators at this airport!

    This problem is out of control and growing and will only get worse, unless those like GAN, AOPA, NBAA and others engaged in Aviation, “start putting the heat on government” to cease and stop corruption and “over-reaching”!

    What happened to the King’s has nothing to do with “National Security”! It has everything to do with “The control of others” and “feathering their own nest” at local airports! It must be stopped and now!

    Here is why it had nothing to do with the Kings. Yes, the FAA screwed up! Records Division in Oklahoma City, clearly has too many “do nothing, ignorant and indolent shirkers”. I watched, for eight years, as the Clinton Administration filled the ranks of the FAA with unskilled, unqualified and unknowledgeable people! The aviation community has been “paying the price” for many years now, for that egregious action and the fact that this nation has had “unqualified, unskilled and completely ignorant” Administrators for 16 years!

    It now appears that at this moment in time, we finally have a “well qualified and competent” Administrator at the helm of the FAA, but his task is “daunting”, to say the least! He has 16 years of “bad management” at the Agency to “clean up” and it will not happen over night, nor in the next few years!

    It is the mission of this Agency to “ensure” the “health, welfare, security (within bounds) and prosperity of aviation” and what happened to the King’s, doesn’t happen again!

    Now, regarding the information that “landed” the King’s behind the proverbial “eight-ball”. I am infinitely familiar of the inner-workings of the ATC System and EPIC. Regarding Mr. Hook’s comments, I know that every flight plan filed (VFR or IFR) within 100 miles of an International Boundary, is automatically forwarded to a server at EPIC, by the NADIN servers in Salt Lake City and Atlanta! It is information that is “immediately available” to those at EPIC (and many other federal agencies as well). All that was necessary was for those responsible at EPIC, to confirm the information with FAA. Why? Because anyone who worked there, should have had a brain, before they were hired (obviously overlooked in this instance)! EPIC has a “direct computer interface” with FAA records. Therefore, it was a simple matter to examine the aircraft records in this case! An “astute agent ” (anyone with a modicum of intelligence…as in at least a fifth grade education) would have immediately discerned that the aircraft that was in an “alert status”, was not the aircraft the King’s were flying, because it was the “wrong model”. To issue an “alert” without checking the “records status”, was not just simply “an oversight”, it was “gross negligence and incompetence”! However, reflecting upon my remarks above, as to the “quality of personnel” hired during the Clinton years, (many were “completely incompetent”) and were hired simply based upon race or sex alone. Qualification and “skill in the field” was not even a consideration! I am also informed by friends and former associates, that the practice continued into the “W”. Bush years, with the hiring of management personnel who had absolutely no knowledge of aviation, managing of people or ATC or aircraft operations, at any level, what so ever!

    So, you see, the incident, the King’s were involved in, had everything to do with, not only incompetence, but indolent individuals as well!

    The time to “clean up our government…is now!

    Larry D. Butler, Ph. D.

    cc: AOPA, NBAA, King Schools

  2. Stan Stewart says

    Note John and Martha King flew from San Diego, California to Santa Barbara, California, not from El Paso, Texas to Santa Barbara. The flight was probably around one hour in the Cessna 172. The agency that instigated the incident, the El Paso Intellegence Center (EPIC) is in El Paso, Texas. EPIC needs to review and purge its database so future incidents of endangering innocent civilians is avoided. There is a risk of a terrible accident when several law enforcement personnel point loaded guns at innocent people.

  3. CWPerry says

    ….And this is the goverment those people want to trust our health care to?????
    “Government is not a solution to our problem, government IS the problem”, Ronald Reagan.

  4. says

    Here’s a time and space reality check on exactly why the King’s detention at gunpoint is an inexcusable error by federal, state and local law enforcement.

    1. The distance between ELP and SBA is some 694 nm (IFR, GPS direct).

    2. A Cessna 172 takes between 5 and 6 1/2 hours to fly that distance (depending on winds).

    3. The driving distance from the El Paso Intelligence Center (located on Fort Bliss) to the 2 FBOs located on the south side of El Paso International Airport is a little over 5 miles and takes between 10 and 15 minutes to drive.

    4. The quality of EPIC’s actionable intelligence, pushed forward to the Santa Barbara Police Department for action, could have easily been validated by someone getting out from behind their desk…at some point from the time the King’s filed their IFR flight plan to some time shortly before they landed in Santa Barbara…and actually do some good old fashioned gum shoe work to see who was really on board the aircraft. There are only 2 FBOs at KELP, so that narrows down the interview time.

    The Clearinghouse information is just that, information. A human being at EPIC had to make the decision to release the BOLO (Be On the Look Out) report to the SBPD. That person is the cause for concern for the King’s detention, not some faulty database.

    Charles, thanks for another great article.

    Cheers from the Alamo,
    Dave Hook

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