Shortly after 9/11 a 16-year-old boy took a Cessna 172 and flew it into the side of the Bank of America building in Tampa, Florida. Since it was only six months since the terrorist attacks, the hue and cry went up from the largely uneducated (on aviation) public, about what to do about these little planes.
In the words of our president, let me be clear: many people do not know what general aviation (GA) really is, much less why it needs to be secured, or even why we need it. Why can’t we just get rid of all these little planes. Let the corporate fat cats fly commercial like the rest of us slugs – or so goes the argument. Keep in mind that the President of the United States is the one of the largest users of a business jet in the country.
General aviation is loosely defined as all forms of aviation other than commercial and military. But even that does not clearly define the GA industry. General aviation aircraft can also be used for certain commercial operations such as air taxi and air charter. For our definitions here, when you think general aviation think private operated aircraft other then passenger service flights. There are about 450 commercial service airports in the United States. There are over 5000 general aviation airports and an additional 14,000 to 15,000 private airfields.
Private airstrips and nearly all general aviation airports are not regulated by FAA or TSA regulations. The only exceptions are the three GA airports located in the Flight Restriction Zone around Washington DC. While GA airports are not regulated, some general aviation aircraft operations, such as air charters and cargo for-hire are regulated under certain aircraft operator security programs whether they fly into a GA or a commercial service airport.
The question of general aviation security and whether there is a threat is not an easy one to answer. We have to look at general aviation security differently as general aviation aircraft are not typically targets of crime or terrorism. While there are some issues like the so-called barefoot bandit, who taught himself how to fly and then stole general aviation aircraft, these are the incredibly rare exceptions, not the rule. Discussions of GA security are usually about the threat FROM general aviation planes, not the threat too them, nor their airports.
The threats are typically two-fold:
- Using a large general aviation (corporate) aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction
- Using a light GA plane to dispense a chemical or biological agent over an open-air assembly or population
Some TV shows, movies and a research project conducted pre 9/11, have all looked at these possibilities.
Taking a look at the first threat, using a general aviation aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction, there are certainly GA aircraft that are as large as commercial aircraft, including some former passenger aircraft that are now used for private transport, such as Donald Trump’s Boeing 757. While there are not security regulations for these privately operated operations, many corporate flight departments have a vested interest in protecting both the multimillion dollar asset (the airplane), and the individuals on the aircraft, who often targets of hostage taking when traveling abroad.
Maybe corporate and business flight departments take their own security precautions to protect their aircraft and their passengers. Also, insurance companies will frequently provide reduced rates for corporate aircraft that are stored in secure hangers at secure airports. I have seen this personally, when a corporate operator landed a particular airport to offload their passengers and then fly to a different airport has more secure to store the aircraft. Also, conducting any sort of large-scale coordinated attack using GA aircraft as missiles, is made more difficult by the fact that these planes do not operate on any sort of normal schedule. They can be anywhere at anytime.
Smaller aircraft represent a slightly different threat. We have seen the results when a light single-engine aircraft crashed into buildings, such as in Tampa, Florida in 2002 and Austin, Texas in 2010. While no one wants to be standing at the point of impact it is clear that these light planes do not work present the same type of kinetic threat as passenger aircraft did on 9/11. However, there is a risk if the target is an open stadium or if the aircraft is carrying a biological or chemical agent.
Presently, the only real protections against this type of attack are largely external to the airport itself. I am talking about intelligence gathering, investigations and early interdiction, particularly of chemical and biological agent acquisition. Or, somebody happened to see something on a general aviation airport and calls it into a tip line.
I think the question of whether we are safer in general aviation security can possibly be answered by the fact that despite the apparent ease of perhaps taking over the corporate jet or equipping and agricultural aircraft with the deadly nerve agent, nobody has actually carried it out since 9/11 or before. But, the same argument could be made on September 10, 2001: since there had not been as successful hijacking in nearly a decade in the United States the system must be working, right? We know that was not true so I don’t want to lull ourselves and we fall sense of security.
While not regulated, there have been significant initiatives to protect the nation from any threats posed by a GA plane.
- The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association jumped on the security bandwagon early by developing the Airport Watch program. Based on neighborhood watch it features a hotlines for individuals on airports to report suspicious activity, along with videos, training and public awareness programs on an airport.
- In 2004, TSA partnered with industry and published general aviation airport security guidelines and a self audit process, with suggestions to increase security at GA airports. The document is supposed to be updated at some point, but it still hasn’t made it out of the TSA head shed.
- Regulations were promulgated shortly after 9/11 to regulate flight school security, which now includes security awareness training for flight instructors; also, non-US citizens must undergo the fingerprint-based criminal history record check and security threat assessment before being allowed to start flight training.
- The National Business Aviation Association, which represents business flight departments, and other trade organizations have all published security awareness and procedural guidelines for general aviation aircraft and GA airport operations.
I see two large threats myself – first, complacency. There are some airport operators, like Robert Olislagers at Centennial Airport, who are very forward-thinking and proactive when it comes to protecting their airfields. Robert is a Terrorism Liaison Officer and recently briefed industry at the Annual Aviation Security Summit, on the Intermodal Security Training and Exercise Program (I-STEP), where he hosted a security exercise in October 2013. Centennial has also pioneered several security technologies, including the recent deployment of a Liteye CCTV system and the Blighter B400 electronic-scanning ground radar. Then there are other GA airport managers who are either unaware of how to implement affordable and proper security practices, or worse, think its someone else’s problem. I’ve heard some airport managers say that security is an issue for the police and not their concern.
The second threat I see is that if something does happen with a general aviation aircraft, the response from Congress could create such burdensome and restrictive regulations it may bankrupt the industry. The lack of understanding that people generally have about GA, doesn’t end when it gets to Congress. Lawmakers will want to take action which unfortunately only serves their immediate desire (look good and get re-elected) but avoids the long term carnage of their decision-making.
I think we’re safer in the area of GA security than before 9/11, simply because it’s now an issue. When I took over as the director at Jefferson County Airport in Broomfield, Colorado, in 1999, security was the farthest thing from their minds. That honeymoon only lasted a little while longer. At least now its in the conversation.