Safety Publications/Articles

You are the key

A letter to flight instructors

Dear Instructor,
If you've read the papers lately you know that general aviation is being threatened. And the truth is, it doesn't have to be. The fact is, there are a few people in the GA community who are making it very difficult for the vast majority of law-abiding, regulation-following, safety- and security-conscious pilots. What's hurting us doesn't have to happen. And you are an important key in stopping the threat to GA.

So I'm asking for your help.

You know, I pound my desk in frustration over those few stupid pilot tricks that make the news and then give the politicians a sound-bite issue and an opportunity to threaten us with onerous regulations. And believe me, they will take every opportunity they can. There is an almost irrational fear of small aircraft out there, and hysteria about what a terrorist might be able to do with one. Of course, we all know that a half-ton pickup truck can carry much greater destructive power than a tiny Cessna. But we have to deal with perceptions, not reality.

Consider what is driving perceptions right now.

It was bad enough when a 14-year-old-kid in Alabama, mad at his parents, stole a Cessna 150 and took it for a joy flight. It was even worse that he found the keys on a clipboard--inside the unlocked aircraft! "We've never had a problem before with planes being stolen, so I guess we have been a little lax in our security," the FBO owner admitted. The story made national news.

Then an allegedly drunk 20-year-old student pilot and two of his teenage buddies stole a Cessna 172 in Connecticut for a five-hour excursion around New York. After first scattering a construction crew with a low pass, they "landed" on a closed taxiway at the White Plains airport a little after 4 in the morning. That made even bigger news.

This is an area that is, not surprisingly, very sensitive to national security. Several members of Congress have asked if more security is needed; they are calling for an investigation into the possibility of general aviation aircraft being used for criminal or terrorist acts. Meanwhile, Connecticut's governor has ordered a "security audit" of all state airports; Alabama is about to do the same, and other states are likely not far behind.

What can we do about it? Secure your aircraft. And make sure your students, your employer, and the pilots around you are all doing everything they can to prevent aircraft theft.

Imagine this: The local "Eyewitness News" crew sticks a TV camera in your face and says, "Isn't it true that nothing would prevent a terrorist from stealing an airplane from this airport?" I can assure you, this has happened, and it will continue to happen at airports.

Think about how much better it will play on the news--and, more importantly, in public perception--if you can say, "We keep the aircraft keys in a locked area and only release them to authorized pilots. We put a throttle lock (or prop chain, or tie-down lock) on all parked aircraft. We ensure that all our tenants keep their hangar doors locked. We work with the local police and get regular patrols.

"We train every new pilot to be security-conscious. We've implemented AOPA's Airport Watch program, and we encourage every pilot here to look for suspicious activity and report it to the TSA's toll-free GA security hotline (866/GA-SECURE)." These aren't the only ways to make general aviation more secure, of course. You can see more examples on AOPA Online.

As a flight instructor, you have a special responsibility. Your education efforts now have to extend to security issues, including consistently and constantly reminding your students and all pilots about the importance of always properly securing an aircraft. And if your employer hasn't implemented security procedures, speak up. Safety and security are and will always be the watchwords of our industry. But what's most important is that you take action and can demonstrate that you are taking all practical steps to thwart aircraft theft.

And if we don't get everybody on board? We could be saddled with new requirements--things that would make it more difficult or unpleasant to fly. New rules that could frighten away students or impose requirements that your employer or your airport couldn't afford.

Let's not give them any more ammunition. Ever. Please review your security procedures--now--and take any and all appropriate steps to keep GA safe, secure, and out of the news.

By Phil Boyer

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