It’s been more than a year since one of the most attention getting moments in the history of aviation and law enforcement took place. John and Martha King famously ended up in handcuffs and were stuffed into the back of police cars for the devious criminal exploit of landing a privately owned airplane at a public use airport. It all turned out to be a paperwork problem that was entirely beyond the control of the Kings — yet there they were being held at gunpoint as if this cheerful, compliant, nationally known couple were as threateningly dangerous as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in their prime.
The capture of the Kings was entertainment for some, it was serious business to others. Often, an individual’s reaction to the situation depended on which side of the blue line of law enforcement they stood on. Because of that unfortunate reality, I think it’s worth revisiting that incident, and the core causes of it in the hopes that we can prevent such a thing from happening again in the future.
Police have a unique perspective that can be difficult to understand for those of us who are not involved in their line of work. They have that in common with pilots, frankly. We’re both minority groups when compared to the larger community, we both take our work very seriously, and we both have to deal with the reality that people who view what we do from the outside often don’t understand what we’re doing at any given moment, or why we do it.
The overzealous use of intimidation and potential force is no joke. When armed law enforcement officers draw their weapons and point them in your direction, bad things can happen. Even if the bad thing is a mistake, it can’t be taken back. There are no do-overs when you shoot someone, whether it’s intentional or not.
To say the police over-reacted when dealing with the Kings would be a gross understatement. But to say they did it maliciously would be to misunderstand the situation.
Pilots are trained to be on guard for mistakes we can make ourselves, because those mistakes can result in a potentially life-threatening accident. Police are trained to be on guard for aggressive behavior from others because those encounters may escalate, resulting in the injury or death of themselves, or others.
Basically, the unfortunate incident that saw the King’s being surrounded and corralled by the law came about due to two industries, aviation and law enforcement, that don’t communicate very well.
We can fix that. More accurately stated — you can fix that. Yep, I’m talking to you. This is your issue as much as it’s mine, or John and Martha’s. I’m using the word “we” in the literal sense. We can fix this!
John and Martha displayed tremendous grace and restraint in the aftermath of their very public experience with law enforcement. I respected them before their short-term incarceration, but I respect them even more for the way they handled themselves afterward. They didn’t scream and yell and wave their arms. They didn’t sue. They did the most noble and selfless thing they could — they turned a near tragedy into a teachable moment that both sides can benefit from.
Any one of us can do that same thing, if we choose to.
I got together with my city manager and police chief after the original incident happened to discuss how we might avoid similar occurrences here in our town. To be honest there wasn’t much interest. To the bulk of the population it appeared to be an isolated incident that would be unlikely to see a repeat performance. Certainly it was unlikely the same sort of issue would pop up here in Winter Haven, Fla. So the issue lay dormant for many months. What’s the rush, right?
Unlike the Kings, I haven’t yet felt the embrace of steel on my wrists or been tossed in the back of a paddy wagon. I am a dangerous desperado, however. So are you. Because we are aviation enthusiasts who dare to pass through the chain link and barbed wire fences that surround our airports. We saunter onto the ramp and move freely among the aircraft tied down there. We fly.
To many of our neighbors that’s unsettling activity. In fact many of the law enforcement professionals in our communities share the concern of our non-aviation enthusiast neighbors – not because they’re paranoid, or evil, or have a deeply hidden desire to control every aspect of our lives. The problem is much more basic than that. They’re worried about our airport activities and access because they simply don’t understand the airport. They don’t know how it works, they don’t know the difference between a normal operation and truly suspicious activity, and they don’t know how to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
We can fix that. Actually, we can fix that fairly easily.
On Monday this week I was once again in a meeting with my city manager and our police chief. Using a large aerial photo of our airport as a guide, we engaged in a conversation about where the access points to the airport are, who was allowed to pass through those access points, and what constituted normal areas of aircraft movement, pedestrian movement, and vehicular traffic.
That’s just a formal way of saying that we talked about who can go to the airport, how they get onto the grounds, and how they should behave when they’re there. It’s a start. This is a teaching opportunity. And the more we know about each other, the less likely we are to have trust issues, misunderstandings, or unnecessarily drawn weapons.
I offered myself up as an educational provider to the chief and his troops. I told him that I would be happy to get together with our airport director to gain access to the field so that we can teach the police force how the airport works, and how they can work more effectively with the people they find at a general aviation airport.
You can do the same thing in your town, I assure you. There’s nothing special about me that allows me to interact with people at all levels of city government.
Imagine you’re a police officer who takes his or her job seriously. You’re the kind of cop who really tries to make the community safer for its residents. Then one day you get a dispatch call that someone at the airport is acting suspiciously, so you motor on out to the field and follow-up.
All you know is that a white middle aged male is near the airport fence, acting suspiciously. And so you try to fulfill your duty as a cop to secure the airport, protect the community, and prevent any criminal activity from taking place.
That’s a tough situation to be in if you’re a really good cop who has no idea how a general aviation airport works. Is it legal for an airplane watcher to be taking photos of airplanes through the fence? Some might consider that suspicious activity. Others would consider it an enjoyable hobby. It could be seen as a peaceful individual standing on public property doing something that is legal in all 50 states. Then again, it could be seen as a precursor to a violent act.
Perspective is everything at the airport — especially when you’re not entirely sure what you’re dealing with.
As the cop gazes through the fence he or she may see multiple people walking across the ramp, approaching airplanes, climbing on them and under them, opening hatches, removing covers, climbing inside, draining fluids — all of which are normal activities for those of us who fly — and all of which are suspicious to someone who has no familiarity with aircraft or pilots.
Let’s dedicate ourselves to meeting law enforcement half way. I’m going to encourage you — nay, challenge you — to approach your police chief, your airport manager, or your local civic leadership to offer a solution to the problem before it truly becomes a problem. Why not invite the police and firefighters out to the airport in groups to experience the facility in person? What could be the harm in designating the entry points to the airport clearly and specifically so that everyone involved knows where pedestrians and traffic can enter and leave the field? Why not make sure the folks we need most in an emergency get to know our faces and names so that we’re not all getting acquainted for the first time in the midst of an unfolding crisis situation?
We can do this. It will require some effort, but virtually no expense. And it will be worth your effort, because our communities, both aviation and non-aviation, will be well served by the relationships we establish by embarking on this mission.
We don’t have to be viewed as desperadoes on the loose. All we have to do is start a conversation, and keep it up. What could be easier and more worthwhile than that?
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. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.