As you may know, the last time Martha and I were at Santa Barbara airport, we were met by the police, held at gunpoint, and placed in two separate police cars with our hands cuffed behind our backs. This time we were met instead by Craig Fuller, President of AOPA, and invited to the Mayor’s office.
There we visited with the Mayor, the City Administrator, the Chief of Police, the Deputy Chief, and the Airport Director. We presented them with a planning guide and law enforcement officer checklist for the interception of an aircraft on an airport. The main idea behind the guide and the checklist is to allow the airplane to go to an FBO rather than sending it to a remote part of the airport. When we were sent to the remote area it tipped us off that something was up. When we spotted all four police cars lined up in wait for us, we knew something interesting was about to happen. Any real culprit in that situation would have simply put the throttle in and taken off. So the technique they used wouldn’t have captured the bad guys.
The use of a remote location came to mind for them because they, like all the rest of us, had seen on TV hijackings handled exactly that way. The technique works for a hijacking because the pilots are in cahoots with the police against the bad guys in back. But when the suspects are the pilots, the technique gives them a tip-off and an opportunity for escape.
Pilots who are instead allowed to go to an FBO won’t be tipped off. When they get into a parking spot, just like all the rest of us, they will get out, and most likely chock or tie down the airplane and lock the doors. They will have immobilized the airplane in anticipation of transferring to ground transportation. This is the time for the police to deal with them. They are on foot and usually inside a fenced area. There is little opportunity for escape and little need for the police to draw weapons.
The result is a procedure that does not tip off the suspects, minimizes the opportunity for escape, and is less risky for everybody. This doesn’t come to mind for law enforcement officers, because in most cases they just don’t know about airplanes. They don’t know such key things as the pilot will very predictably go to an FBO after landing and then immobilize the airplane, and that if you want to keep a piston airplane from going anywhere all you have to do is pull in front of it, because it can’t back up.
The planning guide deals with the need for law enforcement agencies to, in advance, recruit folks with aviation knowledge to assist them. In our case the subject airplane was actually a Cessna 150. We were flying a Cessna 172. The police wouldn’t know the difference, but nearly every pilot would. The police had thought they had covered this detail when they asked the tower, “Is this a Cessna?” The tower replied that it was. The problem with that exchange is that Cessna has built over half of all the single-engine airplanes in the world. The police hadn’t narrowed it down much, because they just didn’t know the right questions to ask.
This is where you come in. Print out the card with a color printer, have it laminated and take it to the law enforcement agencies that have jurisdiction over your airport. This card has practical recommendations developed by people who know both law enforcement and aviation, including police chiefs and past and current members of the board of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The other aspect to our interception is that it was the result of a multi-agency governmental mix-up that resulted in the Santa Barbara Police Department being falsely notified that our airplane was stolen.
The FAA is, for unimaginable reasons, re-issuing to different aircraft the registration numbers of aircraft that have been stolen. Then the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is listing the registration numbers as belonging to a stolen aircraft even though they are now attached to a completely different aircraft. Finally, the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) is sending alerts out to police departments like the Santa Barbara Police Department when they spot an aircraft on the list in the IFR system headed their way. EPIC does this without even bothering to check the status of the registration number in the FAA’s registry. This takes about 30 seconds on the first page of the FAA’s website.