Here's the proof that GA airports really are small communities and that the "residents" know when something is amiss. Yesterday, alert folks at a general aviation airport contacted authorities who nabbed two suspicious characters before they could cause trouble.
"This incident demonstrates the validity of the Airport Watch concept," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Vigilant pilots and airport workers make the best security force because they know who does and doesn't belong at the airport. They can easily spot the things that just don't seem right."
But there's more to this story, including a twist worthy of Paul Harvey.
The story begins as a man telephones an FBO at St. Louis Downtown Airport (CPS), not far from the Gateway Arch, and asks about chartering a helicopter. About an hour later, two men of Middle Eastern appearance walk into the FBO, pull out cash to pay for the flight, and present driver's licenses from two different states as ID. Office staff notices their car is registered in a third state.
"Things just didn't smell right," said St. Louis Downtown Airport Director Bob McDaniel, "so the mechanic took them into the hangar to see the aircraft, while the office person called the FBI and local police." (Airport Watch guidance says to call local police or the FBI if you suspect an immediate threat to life or property.)
The helicopter was blocked by other aircraft, and the mechanic used that as an excuse to stall the two suspects, who began unloading backpacks and odd-shaped luggage from their car.
Local police arrived shortly and hauled the suspects off to jail in handcuffs. Police discovered box cutters and other potential weapons hidden in the bags.
And now (with apologies to Paul Harvey), the rest of the story.
After a little time behind bars, the two "terrorists" confessed that they were NBC employees from New York. Their assignment: A story on how "easy" it was to get information and directions to a helicopter and then hijack it. St. Louis was their first attempt; the network reportedly planned similar tries to penetrate security at airports around the country.
"Kudos to the folks in St. Louis for using the Airport Watch concept to thwart this 'terrorist' attempt," said Boyer. "Praise, too, to the local police for responding quickly and appropriately.
"And to NBC: We appreciate that you accurately reported these misguided escapades on tonight's network news. And we hope this gives you - and the other media who make a living by generating unnecessary fear - ample reason to stop making GA a security scapegoat."
August 12, 2004