Do you feel lucky?


Pilots dread ramp checks. It’s a lot like a prostate exam in a flight physical — you don’t want one, but sooner or later you’re going to get one.

No matter that it’s a part of an FAA inspector’s job to periodically audit any aircraft he or she chooses, the pilot’s perception is always the same: “Lord, why me” or “What have I done now?”

Americans don’t like surprise inspections, be it the bank, highway patrol, IRS, county tax assessor, or potential mother-in-law.

GuestEditorialSteveBillHanshewWe don’t like the once over. The implication is that we’ve done something wrong. Why would they be looking me over in the first place?

It doesn’t matter that all of your papers are in order; it’s the nature of the event that causes consternation, bringing on the sweats, shakes, and stuttering.

The mere phrase “Are your papers in order?” seems like a line out of “Casablanca” as ominous Nazis confront you outside of Rick’s Café Américain intent on rounding up the usual suspects. Hopefully, your papers are in order…or else!

But as pilots we know that a spot check is part of the game and our responsibility to ensure that we’re legal doing what we’re doing, reliant on a miniscule force of inspectors tasked to monitor and, on occasion, corral the largest general aviation population on planet earth.

The actual likelihood of a GA pilot being ramped by a fed probably ranks up there with winning the big Mega-Ball money — possible, but not likely.

And that’s the way it should be. We don’t need an expansive division of enforcers desperately seeking job justification via how many pilots they bust for any number of infractions.

Let’s face it, a pilot’s license is one of the few government-issued documents that absolutely requires a sound understanding of the rules, executed through any number of written and oral exams. As pilots we know the onus is on us to make sure we conduct our flying activity according to Hoyle, seen as a license not to do stupid stuff.

We also know that barring a major incident, such as buzzing down Main Street during the Shriner’s parade — which is unequivocally categorized as stupid stuff — the FAA will largely stay out of our business. For minor infractions, most feds prefer one-on-one counseling in lieu of corrective action through filings that generate mounds of paper and loads of extra work. Like us, they don’t want to make more work for themselves than they have to.

Federal aviation watchdogs are one thing. They go with the territory. Other government entities have a say so in our flying and we know that too. Fly to and from the Caribbean, Mexico, or Canada and you’ve got to clear Customs. No ifs, ands or buts; you fly cross-border, you will have to write out a declaration and may be inspected.

But when the Department of Homeland Security through the Customs people unexpectedly pop us on the ramp, and without suitable provocation, loaded for bear — packing .40 caliber Smith and Wessons — we should get concerned, especially when they’re showing up at non-traditional border checkpoints such as Iowa City. This ain’t El Paso, Texas; it’s IOWA, not known as a drug or terrorist pipeline of preference.

What gives? The alert sent out by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association about the increase in random searches of aircraft should raise the alarm — and with good reason.

In light of recent events regarding renegade federal officials, pilots have a right to know just what it is the government is after. At least with the FAA, all they did was issue them a Dirty Harry badge to intimidate me and not a .44 Magnum, “the most powerful handgun in the world and could blow your head clean off.”

And at least dealing with the FAA, this is one punk who feels relatively lucky, which is not the case when being interrogated by a well-armed DEA or DHS agent. They shoot pilots don’t they? Say, why did they buy up all of that ammo anyway?

AOPA officials have demanded an answer and — you know what? — we all need an answer.

Seat belt license laws are what they are. Most states won’t allow cops to pull you over just because you’re not wearing your seatbelt. If they pop you for a burned-out tail light, different matter. They can cite you for the light and, adding insult to injury, for not wearing a belt.

Just the same, the police have to have provocation. Jack Webb (God rest his soul) can’t just cast a Dragnet and hope to catch a few rotten fish.

Getting ramped for no good reason by somebody other than the FAA is stretching the letter of the law to the elasticity of Kim Kardashian in spandex. It assumes the pilot is guilty of something. They, being the DHS, just have to look hard enough to find it. And, as you know, look hard enough and you’ll find something.

As an American, I don’t like that. In fact, I don’t like it one bit. As a law-abiding citizen I don’t have to prove anything and I resent it when the government in the name of sanctimonious security and safety makes me a target of opportunity.

I used to have a modicum of trust that the government, as a whole, was somewhat respectful of what the founders so carefully elucidated in that brilliant piece of providential paper known as the Constitution.

In the wake of recent headlines, that confidence has been shaken…greatly. In a nutshell, we’ve got too many three-letter agencies populated by agenda-driven drones running roughshod over the American citizen, and it’s got to stop.


Hanshew has worked in aviation for more than 35 years, including his current stint in the flight standards department of an airline. His wife, Donna, is a CFII and a professor of aviation technologies at a large community college in Dayton, Ohio. Together they have owned numerous aircraft. They currently own a Nanchang CJ-6A (The Green Dragon) based at their home strip of Donner Field.


  1. Kimberly Bush says

    Prostrate exam? What if one doesn’t have a prostrate and was, in fact, born without one?
    This is NOT covered in anything I have read.
    (Yes, THAT is a joke)

  2. Jeff says

    What makes you think this intrusion by the government is anything new? The only difference is we are hearing about it because of the fast spread of information and because there are so many willing to report.
    From when Lincoln suspended one’s rights during the Civil War, to the internment camps of WW II, the spying on citizens during the McCarthy era to Nixon’s secret list, this type of behavior is nothing new.
    We are just a new segment being targeted. The noose on all our collective necks has been tightening, particularly since 9-11.
    Doesn’t make it right, just the “freedoms” you thought you had, never really existed.

    • Sam says

      Wasn’t it Ben Franklin that said about the Constitution, “It’s a republic, if you can keep it.”

  3. Sam says

    Agreed. We are a nation of laws, and our laws are subservient to the Constitution. Most in charge of governing, and too many of the governed, have forgotten or conveniently ignore the second part of that, while the SCOTUS actively subverts it.

    The most fearful thing is a fearful nation, and we are bursting at the seams.

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