Suicide by Small Plane

We’re heard the term before – suicide-by-cop. This is where someone threatens the police with a gun to get the police to kill the individual. On February 18, we witnessed suicide-by-small-plane.

We did not witness a terrorist attack. We barely witnessed an attack on a government building. Had Stack intended on causing mass casualties, he certainly did not pick an effective tool for the job.

He did manage to start a pretty good fire and cause damage to the structure, but a good question to ask here is, what does this say about general aviation security? People throughout the country are asking themselves if they should be worried about threats from small aircraft. Will they become a tool for terrorist attacks?

Let’s answer that by comparing the goals of terrorism and whether they match up with what we saw in Austin?

1. Mass casualties… no.

2. Destruction to an element of the infrastructure, or symbolic or economic target… not really. He hit the IRS building and while it caught fire, this isn’t a symbolic target like the Statue of Liberty, nor does it cause great damage to our nation’s infrastructure. If the target had been the Statue of Liberty, or a large office building on Wall Street. . . well, we can fix the Statue, and firefighters and sprinkler systems can put out a fire of the size we saw yesterday. This was not a Boeing 757 jet.

3. Instill fear in the public… depends on how much fear we want to add.

4. Gain widespread media attention…yes. But then again, Hollywood celebs going through rehab manage to do that all the time. We can decide how much attention we want to give to this.

5. Erode our liberties, change our way of life and cause us to mistrust that our government can protect us. This is where the rubber meets the road. We will have to wait and see whether this type of attack would achieve this objective. Fortunately, whether this objective is achieved is up to us, not the bad guys. The ball is back in our court.

Already Representative Michael McCaul, a Republican from Austin who is on the House Homeland Security Committee is saying that small airplane threats are “…weakness we hope terrorists don’t exploit…this has been on the radar of al-Qaeda and others…it can be done and they may attempt to do the same thing…”

However, the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general last year stated that: private aviation “does not present a serious homeland security vulnerability…” a conclusion that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano disputes.

Whether we see further erosions of our civil liberties as a result of this is up to our elected officials. I’ve read numerous DHS IG reports and feel they are very well informed and have a good perspective on this issue, despite what Napolitano or Congressman McCaul feel. I don’t believe there is a plan on the terrorist books to use numerous numbers of small general aviation aircraft in some sort of massive attack on the United States.

Let’s keep this in perspective. A guy who was unhappy with life, took his private plane and committed suicide. While tragic, certainly, this type of attack does not achieve the objectives of terrorism, unless we let it.

So what is the solution?

Most people will not like the solution because it is not a simple fix. Nor does the solution lie primarily in aviation security.

In every one of these incidents, whether they are school shootings, business shootings, or what have you, there are pre-incident indicators. In the coming weeks, information will surely come forth from friends, business associates and possibly family members about the problems Stack was having. The pre-incident indicators will manifest and everyone will start putting the pieces together. Hindsight will become 20/20 and many people will start to wonder why he wasn’t red flagged before.

As I told a reporter today, general aviation security is not new. We were teaching airport operators back in the 1980s and 1990s to watch for signs of aircraft being used in drug smuggling. In fact, I still have my old drug investigators guide — the only thing that’s really changed is the threat. Rather than drug smuggling airport operators, airport employees and tenants need to be trained to recognize suspicious activity. But this may still not stop the next suicide-by-plane, or even a potential attack from a GA airport. Keep in mind that there are many small airports throughout the U.S. that are not regularly staffed with any sort of airport manager. Many of these smaller airports are operated by cities and counties and may have a public works employee assigned to occasionally drop by to make sure things are okay.

So, we get back to pre-incident indicators. Basic workplace violence recognition training just may well be the solution to this “threat.” There are always signs. There are always pre-incident indicators. There are always opportunities to identify the threat ahead of time and report it to authorities.

Is this the 100% perfect solution? No. Of course not. But it’s better than throwing billions of dollars into small aircraft security measures that ultimately are not only ineffective but help fulfill the goals of terrorism.


8 Responses to Suicide by Small Plane

  1. It is true the small general aviation aircraft like C172’s and Piper Arrows are not a huge threat to cause a lot of casualties if they get flown into a larger building by a mad-man. We saw the proof of that last week. Sure, a lot of damage was done to the IRS building, but lives weren’t lost. What I am concerned with though is that a privately owned business jet has the same security protocols as a small aircraft like those mentioned above. If you get an individual that just lost his fortunes what is stopping him from taking his business jet and flying it into a landmark or building. If that occurs, the possibility for innocent lives to be lost greatly increases.

  2. The problem isn’t all small GA aircraft. But one that might be a big problem is agricultural planes and helicopters. As you mentioned in your book, it was considered an idea by the al-Qaeda. Pumping a anthrax mixture into the air over major cities will be devastating and will hit any country hard. But that brings up the question. What do we do to stop that from happening? You cannot control these planes or track them all the time. Most of them I assume doesn’t eve have transponders installed and never files a flight plan. They always fly VFR.

  3. Unfortunatly there are sick people out there in this world that decide to take there own lives. There are crazy enough ones who decide to do it in different types of ways and some even chose to fly there small personally owned aircrafts to kill themselves and some even aim to take out others will crashing there plane. For instance, that man in Austin Texas who decided to fly his plane into the IRS building as he felt the government was taking to much of his money away from a hard working man such as himself. He decided to take his life and tried to take out a bunch of innocent people who were working that day just to make a point.

  4. Its unfortunate that people feel the need to go out with a bang to get a point across that only they themselves feel our pertinent to everyone. I do however agree that it is not a huge enought threat to worry about every pilot in the GA field. Training is where we need to invest our money in because security measures are just that. They are to see at what level a security threat people are, but there is no machine strong enough to know that John Doe’s wife left him, and that he just got fired from his job, and never set up a savings for retirement.

  5. This is a topic that really is interesting general aviation might not be a terrorist target point but It could defiantly be someone’s suicide idea. This last week there was a man that went to is old place of work looking for is ex-wife at a business in Albuquerque NM and shot his self , his ex-wife, and several others. It is hard to think that there are people that are willing to do these kind of acts of violence, but in general aviation there really isn’t all that much security and if you wanted to you could steel a small air plain very easily and fly it in to someone’s house or a business in a suicide scenario.

  6. Well, it is true that one of the goals of terrorism will be to have the U.S. to invest billions of dollars into security that will still have flaws. In the GA case, I think that it will be smart to focus on investing money in security where they terrorists’ objective would be to leave a mark on us. With GA, I think that would be to increase security for charter and business jets, because of the amount of damage they can do.

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