Our “Gunpoint-at-the-Airport” Ordeal
By now you have probably heard about our being handcuffed at gunpoint by the police at Santa Barbara Airport. Our registration number had mistakenly shown up on a stolen aircraft list.
Being detained at gunpoint, handcuffed and placed in two separate police cars, left us shaken enough that we had misgivings about flying home that afternoon—especially using the IFR system that had set us up for this ordeal in the first place. Sleeping at night hasn’t been easy either. Our minds keep replaying the events.
This could, of course, have happened to any pilot. The important point is to turn this into a learning opportunity for everyone involved so this doesn’t happen to innocent pilots again.
Chief Sanchez Apologized
I should note that the Chief of Police at Santa Barbara has called to apologize for our “short detainment”. I explained that we neither asked for nor expected an apology, but I was very appreciative. On the other hand, I explained, it wasn’t the detainment that I objected to. It was that so many guns were trained on us. In fact what bothered me most was not the treatment I had received, but seeing Martha have guns being pointed at her and seeing her being handcuffed.
Chief Sanchez explained that police are not trained to do anything else when they detain an airplane but to treat it as a high-risk traffic stop. The problem is that a high-risk traffic stop involves aiming guns. I said that I understood that the officers followed the procedure for a high-risk traffic stop to the letter. My question is whether that procedure should have been used.
Treating It As a High-Risk Traffic Stop Was Not Necessary
In my view it will be very rare when high-risk traffic stop procedures are appropriate for aircraft.
The aircraft are being intercepted because they are in the IFR/flight-following system. The behavior of these aircraft is very predictable. They have announced to the world who they are, how to reach them, and when and where they are going.
Once on the ground at an airport, they will announce on the radio their destination on the airport. They will taxi to the FBO, and if it is a 172, like we were flying, they will usually be directed to a remote parking spot. The pilot then will tie the airplane down, lock the doors, and walk away from the airplane. The police can then simply walk up to the occupants and talk to them without fear of their attempting to flee. Once the airplane is parked, there is no way to go anywhere. They don’t even have access to a car yet. The suspects will have immobilized themselves.
If, on the other hand, the police set up an interception in a remote area instead of at the FBO, any truly guilty suspect would most likely spot the police cars, as we did, before they pulled into the parking area, realize what is happening, and simply take off from the taxiway before the interception took place. This remote interception procedure only results in abusing the compliant innocent while giving the guilty the opportunity to flee.
For an aircraft flying to a remote airport in the middle of the night, it is possible more extreme measures would be required, but it is unlikely that aircraft would have been using the IFR/flight-following system and be reported. So this situation is unlikely to come up.
Making Sure Procedures Are Changed In The Future
Since this incident happened we have learned that it is not uncommon. And we have been given the details of two other recent cases where innocent pilots have been intercepted as a result of the registration number of a stolen aircraft being re-assigned by the FAA. However, in neither one of those cases were guns drawn and aimed at the pilots.
There are several failure points that result in these mistaken aircraft interceptions happening. Each failure point can and should be corrected.
- The FAA should not re-assign numbers of stolen aircraft unless the system is changed to protect the users of the aircraft the number is re-assigned to. The registration number on our aircraft, N50545, had been previously assigned to a 1968 C150 that was stolen. According to the owner, the C150 was never found, but the FAA re-assigned the number to our C172 anyway.
- El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) should check the FAA database before notifying agencies that a stolen aircraft in the IFR system is inbound. Plus, the notifications should distinguish between suspected drug smugglers, terrorists and aircraft thieves. It would have taken only about a minute on www.FAA.gov for them to search the registration number in question to learn that number had been re-assigned to a different aircraft.
- There needs to be a system for correcting the stolen aircraft database and better coordination between agencies. The aircraft we were flying had been intercepted 18 months ago for the same reason, on a trip by a Cessna employee between the Cessna factory and Wichita, KS. Yet nobody bothered to remove the aircraft from the stolen aircraft list.
- Police departments should be given Standard Operating Procedures and training regarding meeting suspicious aircraft. Aircraft are different from cars. Plus, police departments should take the 60 seconds or so required to determine that the suspect aircraft has not had the registration number re-assigned and is the correct make and model.
One thing that still bothers me about this case is that the Santa Barbara Police Department is still treating this case as if it were no big deal. I guess it isn’t a big deal if you are on the aiming end of the gun. And I have to admit that nobody was hurt and we and the police returned to our homes that night. Their reports to the press characterize us as” laughing afterwards” and “completely understanding”. The truth is that we were completely cooperative, and what we understood is that it is never wise to argue with a law enforcement officer. There will always be plenty of time for argument later on if you survive the incident.
We were not insulted or offended personally. We just feel that drawing guns on people is dangerous business—not to be done unless it is absolutely necessary. And it will continue to happen to other pilots unless the system is changed.