Airport security: It’s in your court now

The news is bad. When two of the nicest, friendliest, most competent people on the planet (and yes, I speak of John and Martha King) find themselves victimized by law enforcement based on sloppy investigative practices, you have no choice but to ask, “Who is safe from this sort of short-sighted, narrow-minded, over-zealous security that has so obviously run amok?” Sadly, the obvious answer is, nobody. But that’s not the burning question at this point. The real issue is, what are you gonna do about it?

“Who, me?” you ask. “Yes, you,” I respond.

If the pilot community cannot stand up and speak in support of our own, we have failed. That’s the long and the short of it. The high profile capture of the notorious John and Martha should spur every one of us to action. It’s time that we gave up on being compliant door mats for the rest of society, which alternately fears or holds us in disdain – even as they depend on us for so many of their high-speed needs, and our proven history of altruism.

Always one to take my own advice, I spent time in my city manager’s office this morning making my case. Because the solution to this travesty of justice lies with me, every bit as much as it lies with you. The Kings have done their part by leaping into the fray and announcing that they will develop course materials to prevent a similar fate from befalling other, less high profile pilots, who might have just a tad more difficulty slipping off their handcuffs and obtaining a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card. I am at risk every bit as much as you are at risk, every bit as much as the Kings were at risk and then lost their roll of the dice when they filed and flew in U. S. airspace – following every rule in the book in the process.

Here was my recommendation to our city manager. I would urge you to find the appropriate person in your city (or county) government and make similar recommendations. At the very least, we may start chipping away at the wall of ignorance that currently exists between airport people and non-airport people.

Suggestion 1: Encourage the Chief of Police to establish a line of communication with the local pilot’s association, EAA Chapter, and AOPA representative. If nothing else, this provides the chief with the opportunity to develop relationships that may turn into valuable resources for specialized information in the future.

Suggestion 2: Urge law enforcement professionals to become familiar with security issues as seen from the pilot perspective. One option is Gleim’s Flight School Security Awareness Online Course. It’s free, it’s available right now, and it has the ability to help fill the void that currently exists.

In the interest of full disclosure I should make it clear that I have a professional relationship with Gleim Publications. I continue to answer e-mail questions and develop course content for them. Having said that, I think it’s fair to point out that flight instructors are mandated to review security procedures on an annual basis. It stands to reason that if the FAA expects flight instructors to be involved in security at the airport, local law enforcement should at least make an effort to be sure they are on the same page.

That’s it, a two step simple suggestion that just might create a better understanding between law enforcement and airport users, for the mutual benefit of all concerned.

Now understand, I have no expectation that stolen aircraft will be flocking to my local airport in the near future. In fact, I suggested to the city manager that the situation the Kings were subjected to would more than likely never happen here. But that low probability does not relieve those of us in a position of responsibility from correcting deficiencies as we find them. And there can be little doubt that a police department that can’t use the information contained in an instrument flight plan to verify aircraft ownership and whether or not that aircraft is truly stolen without drawing a gun and scaring the bejeezus out of some poor grandpa and his passenger – well, that’s a problem.

We can certainly do better – and by we, I mean you and me. Because we are two of the people referenced in, We the People…If it is not up to us to speak out, offer our support, and work toward solutions – then who do you suppose that role would fall to?

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.

Comments

  1. Not to be argumentative, Jeff – but my role as a city commission puts me in regular contact with our police force, and our police chief. I can respect your position, but I can strongly disagree with it, too. The role of law enforcement is to maintain order in a situation like this. That can be accomplished by drawing a weapon. But the ramifications include scaring the tar out of people and at least a possibility that a mistake could lead to a serious injury or death. That’s irresponsible, by any measure – regardless of what your job title might be.

    Unlike a traditional traffic stop, the airplane on an IFR flight plan is under positive control from engine start to engine shut down. Every aspect of that flight was controllable from the ground – a luxury that police are no doubt unfamiliar with if they have limited exposure to the workings of aviation.

    Consider these alternatives –

    1: “Tower, get that airplane to hold for 15 minutes before landing.” During that 15 minute window law-enforcement could confirm the validity of the theft charge.

    2: “Ground control – taxi that airplane to the far end of the ramp, away from all buildings and other aircraft, and instruct them to shut-down and wait outside the aircraft.” The police would then have time to observe the suspects while checking their facts. They would also have the opportunity to roll-up on suspects who have no opportunity for a ready escape from the area.

    3: “Tower, we’re sending an officer to the tower. We need you to put the officer in contact with the aircraft after it has been directed to its tie-down spot.” The officer could then instruct the suspects to shut-down, exit the airplane, and lie on the ground in a way the officers could more easily and safely approach.

    There are a multitude of options that are safe for the officers, safe for the suspects, can be trained for without the need for expensive equipment, and will not give the community a public-relations black eye that could easily have been avoided.

    I stand by my original statement, drawing a weapon is not an appropriate first option in a situation that allows for the complete control of the suspects without personal contact.

    I’m encouraged that this discussion is continuing however. The solution to this sort of incident is to discuss, identify an appropriate solution, and put that plan into action. We’re on the right track here. Good for us.

  2. Jamie,

    I understand your response and like most people you appear to have had very little contact with law enforcement in the past and that makes you unfamilar with police work.

    But the point here is “The police don’t know who these people are”. The police have to put there own lives and safety first to do the job. How many countless times have law enforcement personnel lost there lives needlessly ?

    Also, what alot of people don’t quite understand is that you are dealing with different agencies and each has there own way of doing things.

    If our country just had one big police force we would be a whole different country.

    Jeff

  3. Jeff;

    With all due respect to law enforcement officers and the critically important work they do, I can tell you that nothing degrades the respect we have for them like the unnecessary drawing of a weapon. While I was certainly not on site, I find it incomprehensible that an aircraft on an IFR flight plan, under the control of ATC, was allowed to be moved into a position where the local police thought drawing their weapons was warranted.

    As the Kings themselves have suggested, it would have made far more sense to instruct the airplane to taxi to an unoccupied section of ramp, then instruct the pilot to shut down and exit the aircraft.

    There is no situation I can imagine where a paperwork issue, (and this situation was never more than a paperwork issue – even if there had been a theft as was suspected) would necessitate the drawing of a weapon and the handcuffing of people who are fully compliant, clearly unarmed, and making no effort to escape or elude.

    Like the Kings, I have had the unfortunate experience of two police officers pointing loaded weapons at me. It was unwarranted, scared the heck out of me, and is an incident I will never again excuse as, “appropriate.”

  4. Jeff Aryan says:

    To All,

    As a full time sworn Law Enforcement officer in the So- Cal area I believe the Santa Barbara P.D. acted appropiately with the information that was givin to them.

    What I have a problem is with the U.S govt’s actions about the incident.

    First, as I have read the write ups and watched the video reports. The govt agency calling themselves “EPIC” is monitoring aircraft activity and that is ok. But, when they get a Hit on suspected criminal activity they then have the obligation to begin the investigation and not drop the ball by passing it on to the local police agency by which they did.

    The people at EPIC should have first done a check of the registration themselves then call Santa Barbara P.D. if further assistance was needed. I also can’t buy an excuse that they didn’t have access to the data base. If EPIC can track and monitor an aircraft then they can find out the who it belongs to.

    Respectfully,

    Jeff Aryan

  5. Micke, you make an excellent point about the mainstream media ignoring this story because they see it as foreign to their readership/viewers. I wonder if a strongly worded letter to the editor from you would change their view of the matter. I would be interested in what happens if you were to follow-up on that option.

    Larry, you’re absolutely right. Fear is a powerful motivator to change people’s behavior – and not necessarily for the better. In the interest of absolute security (which is not possible under even the best of circumstances) the American public is allowing a disturbing level of invasion into their personal lives, and a subtle but inexorable change to the way government does business that I suspect is not in our best interest in the long term.

    Greg, I will agree with you, too. The fix is not for state and local law enforcement to retrain – however, it may be of real benefit for those local law enforcement folks to develop a relationship with their friends and neighbors who are pilots – which may start them re-thinking the information they get from far-off places that may be erroneous, even if it is well intentioned.

    I’m thrilled that this incident has sparked a debate that needs to happen. If it starts in the pilot community and spreads outward, I’m fine with that. As long as it spreads and the discussion remains focused on solutions, I’ll be pleased. I imagine that will be the goal John and Martha shoot for. And since they are very much an extension of the GA community as a whole, we absolutely have a dog in this fight. This sad occurrence is a great example that we can all stand up for individually and be heard on, for the benefit of all concerned. And make no mistake, we are all concerned, pilot and non-pilot, alike.

  6. Mark Smith says:

    With the “re-registration” of tail numbers there are going to be a lot of new numbers on the market. There are bound to be dozens of new aircraft that re-use numbers from aircraft reported stolen (ever get a used phone number and get hounded by bill collectors?).

  7. Greg Goodknight says:

    A poor use of old databases by Federal authorities caused that tail number to be identified as a stolen aircraft. Twice. The second time resulted in the King stop.

    I’d wager that 99.9999% of police and sheriffs will never deal with a stolen aircraft matter that wasn’t a real matter of a stolen aircraft. The fix shouldn’t be to now train all state and local law enforcement personnel to be more aware of the issues when the Feds give them a bogus lead. The fix is at the Federal level.

  8. Be advised that this is not something that is happening only to pilots, or only at airports. We seem to be living in fear lately, fear that is debilitating us.

    Two of my family members have moved this year, and had to cart wheelbarrows of documentation down to the DMV to prove that they exist, in order to just make an address change. This just to make an address change. And it’s happening not just in one state. Another family member is in limbo because she moved across the country and now has to produce her adoption papers in order to get a driver’s license in that state. But the state where the adoption took place won’t release her adoption papers!

    Why is all this happening? The answer is simple. “Homeland Security.” The very phrase sends shivers up my spine.

    As Ben Franklin said, “Those who would sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.” Every day, it looks like we’re giving up more freedom for the illusion that we can be protected.

  9. Jamie. Thank you for your article. You are correct. We all have to stand up. This is a typical loss of freedom/rights incroachment issue, not just specific to aviation. It will require those that have been passive to become non-passive. This can’t happen to me type of attitude.

    Unfortunately, the SB police have defended their actions as correct undr the circumstances. I read this on AOPA’s ebrief.

    We will be speaking to Craig Fuller at AOPA’s Summit in November. Everyone should be outraged at this and speak up loud!

  10. I just made a quick search on Google “John and Marta King held at gunpoint”…..
    and the search reveals that is only written up in Aviation magazines….No “big” NewsPaper,
    no big deal !.. except to the aviation community…in my opinion here lies the problem.

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