Protecting Your Plane

What to do before the thief arrives

August 1, 1999

The high-level meeting was interrupted by a knock at the door. A note delivered to Gene Lundquist, vice president of Calcot — a raw-cotton marketing cooperative out of Bakersfield, California — left him incredulous. He stood to address the board: "Our corporate airplane has just been stolen from Sky Harbor's executive terminal. It happened about midnight last night."

Even more insulted was the pilot, Stan Klein, whom one of the thieves had impersonated. Klein had landed the Aero Commander 1000 at Sky Harbor in Phoenix for a series of business meetings. Later that day, one of the thieves pried information from a lineman and was given Stan's name and where he was staying.

Later that evening, the hijacker called the airport, masquerading as Klein, and put in a fuel order. "We'll be in around midnight and pay cash," he said.

At twelve o'clock, two well-dressed gentlemen in three-piece suits entered the terminal with briefcases, paid for the fuel, and flew away in Calcot's newly refurbished airplane.

"The last anybody knew of the plane that night," said a dejected Klein, "was that Sky Harbor's radar tracked it leaving to the south on a VFR flight at 12:37 a.m."

"We had a $25,000 reward up," said Lundquist, "but nothing ever happened. There was a report that the plane was sighted in Florida once, and then finally in Bogota, Colombia."

Then there are the real bold thieves. Ask Darrell Sawyer, the pioneering aviator who's taught thousands to fly at Sawyer Aviation in Phoenix. He's had six aircraft stolen from his FBO, including a Cessna 310 that had been chartered by two men for a golfing weekend in Tucson, Arizona.

"Midway to Tucson," Sawyer recounts, "the pilot looked back to see the barrel of a pistol aimed at him. They had him turn south to Mexico and land at a deserted strip near Nogales."

After landing, the pilot was let go and made it to a nearby road, where he was picked up by Mexican officials. "They threw the guy in jail," said Sawyer. "He had no credentials to be in the country. We got him released soon, but it took a year to get the plane back. That was the only aircraft we ever got back through legal channels."

The weak links

Breaking into an aircraft is embarrassingly easy. Mario Mercier knows the routine. He's the general manager of General Aviation Security Consultants ( www.gascousa.com) and conducts security seminars and investigates aircraft thefts for insurance companies. "These thieves will land and park their plane and time themselves," he says. "I've seen a whole stack of Bendix/King radios removed in a little over 60 seconds. They can steal the radios from five planes in just minutes.

"And if they've come in by ground," Mercier explains, "a thief can look over the fence and know what avionics are in the plane just by the antennas."

Getting in is the easy part. "They go into a Cessna with a flat screwdriver," he warns. "Like on a 172, they separate the plexiglass window from the frame just above the lock, and reach their arm in and open the door. On a Piper, you can jimmy the lock and sometimes they'll pop right open."

Discovering a vandalized aircraft isn't the only shock for an aircraft owner. Many are surprised to see that the FBI never shows up, despite the sign posted at the airport that says, "Tampering with an aircraft or its avionics is a federal offense."

"That's a scarecrow!" says Bob Collins, director of the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute ( www.acpi.org). "The statute that is quoted was written to protect scheduled airliners, not privately used general aviation planes. You would have to fly your aircraft exclusively for business use on a regular schedule to qualify."

"It's a matter of manpower," says a spokesman for the FBI, who asked to remain anonymous. "The bureau has only so many personnel and so much budget that they're not able to respond to every case, even if it's a technical violation of federal law. For burglary and nuisance cases, the FBI is probably not going to investigate." The final decision on whether to file any charges is up to the local U.S. attorney's office.

So who investigates aircraft vandalism? The local police. The same officer who might write you a speeding ticket can show up to gather evidence, dust for fingerprints, and give you a case number to use for insurance claims.

And getting results may not be any more likely than getting household items back after a burglary. "If we get a good fingerprint, we'll put it up on the national AFIS [an automated fingerprint ID system] computer to try and find a match," explains Detective Sgt. Fred McCann of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Arizona. His unit recently investigated the break-in of seven airplanes at a rural airport in central Arizona. No suspects were ever arrested, despite the fact that a number of good fingerprints were lifted. The AFIS check takes about an hour, but for nonpriority cases, the system can be backed up for months.

Theft of avionics

Thieves who find an easy mark can be persistent. A representative of United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG) is aware of "a major problem right now in New Mexico and Southern California." A ring of thieves is suspected of stealing avionics from aircraft, and then snatching them again after they're replaced.

And all of this can affect the unwary pilot who purchases avionics with a dubious history. Many are being resold with counterfeit data plates. "The problem is especially bad for Bendix/King avionics," explains Collins, who had done some investigating on his own. "At Florida's Sun 'n Fun [EAA Fly-In] in 1998, we found 14 pieces for sale that had counterfeit plates. They were so good, it took a Bendix engineer to catch them." When the label is removed, the word void is visible, so different plates had to be attached by the crooks.

Encouraging trends

It's heartening to note that thefts of both aircraft and avionics have decreased this year. Twenty-one aircraft were stolen in 1998, but according to the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute, only five aircraft were stolen in the first five months of 1999. Southern California still has the highest risk of airplane theft, with less pressure today on Florida owners.

"Summer is usually slower for plane rip-offs," says Mercier, "but the season starts in September, with the maturing of the marijuana crop in Mexico. I think San Diego is a main target."

And with the theft this year of several aircraft from San Carlos, Mexico, Collins has noticed a dangerous trend. "I suspect that someone at the point of entry into Mexico is relaying destination information on possible targets." Thefts got so rampant at San Carlos that AOPA warned American pilots to avoid the field. Thieves in one incident there were able to steal an aircraft equipped with both prop and wheel locks.

Targeted aircraft

The Cessna 210 and 206 remain top targets for drug smugglers because of the amount of drugs they can haul. These airplanes are believed to be used as workhorses by the Mexican smugglers, ferrying drugs between supply points — but not as delivery vehicles to get them into the United States. The Aviation Crime Prevention Institute's (ACPI) Web site lists Beech King Airs as the large aircraft of choice, but also targeted are Twin Commander 900, 980, and 1000 models, as well as Piper Cheyenne IIIs and Navajos.

Many stolen aircraft are never flown into the United States again, making chances of recovery minimal. Mercier warns that a frequent ruse is to strip the paint off of a stolen aircraft, repaint it exactly like a legally registered aircraft in the other country — same registration number and all — and then to use the two aircraft away from each other so they are never seen together.

Cessna 150s and 172s are also still stolen, but for different reasons. "I think we are seeing Cessna 150s and 172s boxed and shipped out to other countries — anybody who will buy them," says Collins.

Dealing with insurance

There's a famous story that has circulated for years about an unscrupulous insurance agent who called the owner of a stolen plane to report its discovery. "We found your plane on the ramp down in Guadalajara, Mexico," the conversation goes, without mention of payment. "It's not damaged, but you'll have to go get it." But L.A. Teague, a veteran insurance adjuster with Phoenix Aviation Managers in Dallas, argues that the story has been over-blown and distorted for years. "It's given companies a bad name," he snaps. "Today, prompt payment for a theft is in order. Some policies do have a 60-day waiting period, so the company has a window in which to investigate the theft, but other policies have no waiting period."

Teague explains that once an insurance company gives the owner a check, the company owns that aircraft if it's ever found, and must retrieve it. The claim payment transfers the legal right of ownership to the insurance company. "I've had instances," he laments, "where we've cut a check and found the airplane the next day."

Airport security

So what's a pilot to do when airport security is so abysmal? "Anything to slow the thief down is good," says Mercier. "They don't want to do [prison] time, but short of removing the radios when you leave the plane — which just takes an Allen wrench — at least cover your panel with a blanket, and block your windows with sunshades to keep prying eyes out." Pilots can purchase aluminum avionics stack covers that protect the radios with a bar and lock.

Many insurance companies mandate prop locks for high-risk aircraft. Heavy collars with a tubular lock that clamp over a blade are better than a cable type with a padlock, since the tubular lock requires special tools and more time to pick. A new generation of tough locks is available from companies like Medeco (800/548-8472) and ASSA (800/237-2875) that offer high security and are pick-proof. Using what's called side-bar technology, they are a lock within a lock constructed of case-hardened steel components to prevent drilling. Wheel and throttle locks are other ways to further delay the thief.

"I like the Pit Bull Tire Lock the best," advises Mercier, referring to the hardened caliper-type lock for wheels or props used by armed forces in Bosnia (see " Pilot Products," March Pilot, or call 505/989-3678).

For King Airs and other high-performance airplanes, Raytheon makes the Smart Start kill switch system that reportedly has prevented the theft of at least two King Airs.

Another new product introduced in November 1998 is a satellite tracking system called Secure Wings ( www.securewings.com). Company spokesman Phil Hankston says that the aircraft's location can be transmitted three ways: The pilot can activate the signals; they can also be started by an event, such as illegal entry; or the company can "wake up" the system by satellite with a signal. Secure Wings has done prototype tests, but has not experienced an actual theft yet.

And keep the following advice in mind:

  • Conduct a security evaluation of your airport's procedures. Can security patrols be extended later in the evening when many airports are dark and unattended? What about motion-detecting lights and gates with codes that are changed periodically? How quickly are intruders challenged? Make sure personal information is not divulged to strangers.
  • Don't leave logbooks in the aircraft. They could prove valuable in parting out or reselling the plane.
  • Follow your insurer's advice and write down the serial numbers of all the parts that you can, and be sure the company has a copy. Post any decals in the window announcing that avionics are recorded.
  • Take pictures of the exterior and interior of the aircraft and any unusual identifying marks.

And be vigilant. Airframes are made to fly and not to keep thieves out. Knowing how easily a thief can get in should encourage you to make more trips to the airport to look out for strangers. And get to know the owners of aircraft parked near you so that if somebody unusual is lurking around, they'll catch a ride to jail instead of one in your airplane.


Links to additional information on aircraft security may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links9908.shtml). Preston Westmoreland is an FAA safety counselor who has thwarted the attempted hijacking of his Piper Saratoga by armed gunman while on the ground. More recently, he experienced a break-in and attempted theft of his airplane from a rural airport. The thieves were unable to remove the prop lock — Ed.