Tag: airport security

The Threat to Our Airport

Our local airport (MYF) is under threat—not by the neighbors, not by criminals, but by the very operators of our airport.  They are well intentioned.  We have had “incidents”.  These incidents aren’t security hazards; they are taxiway and runway incursions.  Not one has resulted in a risk of collision with an aircraft.  These “incidents” get reported, analyzed and scrutinized.   The FAA can always threaten our airport funding if this is not fixed.   As a result, the operators are rushing to create a solution that could greatly impair our access and change a key component of our lives.

There has been no collaboration.  There have not been meetings, there has not been a request to explore alternate solutions, instead there is an edict.  We will have an access card system.

The problem is that most of the “incidents” have been caused by people who would have access under a card system.  What the card system does is provide the opportunity to require mandatory training for card-holders and it provides the opportunity to threaten taking away the card.  What the card system also does is make it much more burdensome for us—and particularly our passengers—to have access to our aircraft.

“The reason the lack of collaboration is so problematic, is that there was no opportunity to explore other, equally effective, less burdensome solutions.”

The reason the lack of collaboration is so problematic, is that there was no opportunity to explore other, equally effective, less burdensome solutions.  For instance, if the goal is to have airport users block entrance to others until the gate closes, the set-up for it should make it practical.  At MYF, once you go far enough from the gate to get it to close that there is room for another car behind you, there is no practical way to block non-compliant entrance without the risk of a physical altercation.  We have had people drive around us and through the gate while we were waiting for the gate to close.  In order to make prevention of tailgating practical and safe, gates and corridors should be designed to allow only one vehicle to pass at a time—even when the leading vehicle has pulled forward to allow the gate to close.  This would allow the design of the system to provide the enforcement rather than transferring the burden and risk of enforcement to the user.

The delay for gate closure should be minimized.    It is not practical to expect users to accept inordinate delays while waiting for the gate to close.  Unnecessarily long waits tempt even the most conscientious users.  Let’s get a practical gate system that not just saints would comply with.  And the extended delay increases the risk of an altercation with an annoyed driver behind you.

“it…should not be the role of the airport user to intercept and have an altercation with people…”

The signs should request that airport users monitor for non-compliant entrance and report it rather than accosting the non-compliant entrant.  The signs should give us a local number to call to report incidents—after all we all have cell phones.   But let’s be practical, it would be of no use for us to call the national 800 number for that kind of incident.

Additionally, it is not and should not be the role of the airport user to intercept and have an altercation with people who do not follow the rules.  Our role should be to report the behavior and it should be made practical for us to do it.

We all want a safe, yet accessible airport.  Implementing a gate card system without implementing training, and improving the gate operation and signage, won’t work.  If we do these things first, we won’t need the gate card system. If we all cooperate we can have reasonable airport security and reasonable access at the same time.

No guns, no cuffs this time at SBA

Pictured are Left to right: Karen Ramsdell, Airport Director, Martha King, Jim Armstrong, City Administrator, John King, Camino Sanchez Chief of Police, Helene Schneider, Mayor.

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.

So AOPA, NBAA, and other organizations as well as our local congressman, Brian Bilbray, are working to resolve those issues. Let’s hope they are successful.

Related Links

Good Comes From Our “Run-in With The Law” – Your Checklist

Checklist: Aircraft Interception On An Airport

Our incident in Santa Barbara certainly could have ended with a tragic headline.  Instead, it has turned into a real opportunity to positively impact General Aviation.  We’ll be following up with details on a recent meeting we had with the Santa Barbara mayor, police chief, airport director and other officials and suggested changes to reduce misunderstanding between GA pilots and law enforcement in the future.

You can help!  We’ve created the following checklist: Aircraft Interception On An Airport.  It gives Law Enforcement Officers tools to better prepare for dealing with pilots and aircraft and alternatives for more effective and safer interceptions. Pass a copy along to your local law enforcement officials and to your local airport authorities. And forward it to fellow pilots so they can deliver it to their local authorities also.

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Our “Gunpoint-at-the-Airport” Ordeal

John and Martha with N50545

Less stressful times with N50545

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.