Safety Publications/Articles

Securing your airport

On the front lines of safety

What is your job description as a flight instructor? The stock answer undoubtedly would be "to educate and train people in becoming competent, safe pilots." Obviously this statement is accurate, but it's not complete. In addition to molding a pilot's flying skills, a responsible CFI today has one additional duty - helping to ensure the security of general aviation airports.

Pick up any newspaper or magazine and you will see proof that the environment in which we fly is under constant scrutiny. Since September 11, 2001, an increasingly suspicious public has come to view GA aircraft not as cute little "puddle jumpers" but as potential instruments of terrorist activity. Since that terrible day, we have also realized the need to better secure our airports and our aircraft. That security starts with you - the CFI.

When I instructed full-time, I was at the local airport an average of 60 to 70 hours a week (sometimes I thought it would be easier if I just slept on my desk). I wasn't alone; the airport literally was a second home to all the pilots trying to make a living instructing. Chances are your situation isn't much different. Spending so much time operating out of the same airport, you become familiar with all the based aircraft and their operators; likewise, you notice all the operations that aren't routine. This intimate knowledge of your airport makes you and your colleagues a key element in AOPA's Airport Watch program.

AOPA's Airport Watch is modeled after the highly effective neighborhood watch program. Participants in a neighborhood watch know their neighbors' habits, vacation schedule, cars, and routines. Embracing this concept, AOPA's Airport Watch is designed to heighten your awareness of anything that looks out of the ordinary at your airport, and it features a toll-free number for anyone to report suspicious activities - 866/GA-SECURE (866/427-3287). This hotline is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For more information about AOPA's Airport Watch, visit the Web site.

Here are some ways that you can help to secure your airport.

  • Be aware of anything out of the ordinary. Your eyes and ears are the most important tools you have. Recognize anything that doesn't look right; take note and write it down.
  • Know your flight students. CFIs are among the first people encountered by anyone who wants to learn more about flying. Take the time to understand a prospective or new student's motivation - ask questions. Remember, it was a flight school that alerted officials to Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called twentieth hijacker, because of his strange questions about flight training.
  • Control access to the aircraft. Control access to the ignition by holding on to the key, installing a throttle lock, or installing an ignition key different from the airframe key.
  • Greet strangers. Introduce yourself to new faces on the airport. Meeting people is the quickest way to resolve any questions you might have about them. It also helps to promote your airport as a friendly place to fly, and it might bring you new business.
  • Keep your tools handy. Bring a cell phone to the airport and make sure it's charged. Keep a pen and paper handy to jot down a suspicious N number or a description.
  • Stay involved. The more involved you are at your airport, the more informed you will be about airport activities. This will also help to promote AOPA's Airport Watch program.
  • Make security a habit. The post-September 11 environment is not temporary - it's the new reality.

Along with keeping our eyes and ears open, we can teach security. Our primary objective is to teach safe operations. Security is now an essential part of safety.

Here are some warning signs that we can teach our students to look for at any airport.

  • Pilots who appear to be under the control of someone else.
  • Anyone trying to access an aircraft through force - without keys, using a crowbar or screwdriver.
  • Anyone who seems unfamiliar with aviation procedures trying to check out an airplane.
  • Anyone who misuses aviation lingo - or seems too eager to use all the lingo.
  • People or groups who seem determined to keep to themselves.
  • Anyone who appears to be just loitering, with no specific reason for being there.
  • Any out-of-the-ordinary videotaping of aircraft or hangars.
  • Aircraft with unusual or obviously unauthorized modifications.
  • Dangerous cargo - explosives, chemicals, openly displayed weapons - being loaded into an airplane.
  • Anything that looks wrong, out of the ordinary, or just doesn't belong.

Because of the amount of time that flight instructors spend at the airport and how much contact we have with the flying public, CFIs have become the front line of GA security. Taking this new responsibility seriously will help to protect our ability to fly - and continue to pursue the aviation career paths we have chosen.

David Wright is director of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. A former pilot for US Airways Express, he is a CFI with more than 2,000 hours.

By David Wright

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