Who imagined that small airplanes would ever be feared as "weapons of mass destruction?" Did anyone ever foresee the day when would-be pilots would learn the rudiments of flying using a computer-based flight-training program and be emboldened enough to head for a local airport, break into a light airplane and take off on a joyride?
In years past, airport lore described less strenuous times when devil-may-care fellows "borrowed" a friend's airplane as a lark—and there was even a day in the past when a crop duster pilot "moved" a company airplane until his paycheck cleared the bank—but times have changed, and this small-airplane-as-weapon business is a song of a different beat. Airplane security—and airport security—is much more important now than it has ever been. Despite the fact that more than six years have passed since September 11, 2001, when the word terrorism took on a whole new meaning in the United States, regulatory agencies are still looking to pilots to self-police security matters at many general aviation airports. This simply means that our job as owners, operators, and airplane users is to be proactive to make sure that GA airplanes never appear on the nightly news as part of a security breach.
Ensuring that each GA airplane remains a time-saving traveling machine instead of a flying bomb or border-crossing drug hauler is a lot easier and less taxing to the owner than it first sounds. One common security measure at most GA airports consists of locking airplanes in a hangar. If that isn't an option, pilots can choose from a variety of relatively inexpensive security products ranging from pick-resistant door locks to toughened-steel propeller locking collars to portable wheel locks that fit almost any size and model airplane. Any one of these products provides more security than the original equipment installed on most GA aircraft.
The majority of light aircraft door locksets were chosen by the aircraft manufacturer more for their low cost than for their quality—and now most of them are pretty well worn, which means the quality hasn't improved during the intervening years. Replacing cabin and baggage door locksets is one of the easiest ways to keep your airplane secure. Improved door locks reduce the likelihood of both aircraft theft and avionics theft.
Aircraft Security and Alert Systems of Dallas, Texas, sells Medeco locksets for many popular aircraft. AOPA has installed these locksets on a number of airplanes featured in its annual sweepstakes. According to company owner Jim Jetton, Medeco locksets provide much better protection than the original sets because of much stronger construction and "double cross-cut bi-directional" keys that can be duplicated only at the provider. Medeco locksets cannot be opened without the proper key. Installation of these locksets is a minor alteration. Individual locksets cost from $100 to $150 for a single-engine airplane. For more information visit the Web site.
Pilots looking for portable security devices haven't been left out in the cold. Many pilots need or want a portable security device for many reasons, such as changing airplanes often (those who rent or who ferry airplanes for a living), occasionally parking airplanes at an unfamiliar airport, or flying across an international border. Three types of devices—throttle locks, propeller locks, and wheel locks—are portable enough to be toted from airplane to airplane. Throttle locks are the smallest and lightest.
There are several manufacturers of throttle locks for push-pull-type throttles and for quadrant-type throttles. The push-pull types prevent the throttle knob in the cockpit from being moved by "capturing" the knob and shaft in a metal cage secured with a tough, high-quality padlock. The first one is the Skylock. The Skylock is very light, is made of cadium-plated steel, and is advertised for use on Cessna single-engine airplanes, but it appears as if the Skylock would work on many other airplanes with push-pull throttles. A padlock (not included) locks the steel sleeve in position after it's been placed over the throttle shaft. Installation greatly restricts throttle movement. The cost is less than $15.
A heftier device, simply called the Throttle Lock, is available for less than $75. This locking device is a steel tube that completely covers the knob and throttle shaft, preventing thieves from accessing the knob, removing it, and then sliding off the lock. The Throttle Lock comes in either bright orange or dark gray finishes and is sold to fit either vernier or non-vernier type throttles. A heavy duty lock is included.
There's also a throttle lock system that fits Piper throttle quadrants for less than $90. All the above lock systems are available from major aircraft parts supply houses such as Aircraft Spruce & Specialty.
Another portable security device is referred to as a "prop lock." The least complex prop lock is a tempered and toughened steel chain or a flexible steel cable inside an abrasion-resistant sleeve or tube. These locks are wrapped around the propeller blades near the hub and secured with a padlock or lock. Prop locks are portable and are easy to see, designed to act as a deterrent for would-be thieves. One chain-type prop lock listed online looks strong enough to pick up a house, and the Abus padlock included is as big as a man's hand. The device retails for just more than $200.
A second type of prop lock is what the manufacturer calls a Prop Club. This bright red device consists of two half-oval-shaped hardened-steel halves that are connected on one side by a hinge. This hinging feature enables the installer to open the halves wide enough to go around one prop blade at the hub. Once in place, the two halves are closed and locked, forming a collar-like steel circle around one blade of the propeller. Any engine rotation will immediately result in a severe imbalance. Prop Clubs weigh less than three pounds, come in two sizes, and sell for less than $200.
The last category of portable security devices is the wheel lock. These devices weigh more than any of the other devices but are advertised to fit any size wheel from an ultralight to a large turbine-powered people mover. The Alpha Lock 2000 has two steel fingers that clasp each side of the wheel during installation. Each finger is welded to a square steel tube section. The two square tubes are sized so that the tube from one side slides into the one on the opposite side, which draws the fingers together until the wheel is captured. After the fingers are in position to capture the wheel, a lock secures the square tubes in position. One of the square steel tube halves has a projecting steel bar that prevents attempts to rotate the wheel. The Alpha Lock 2000 sells for less than $130.
The other wheel lock is the Pit Bull Tire Lock by the Pit Bull Tire Lock Corporation. This bright yellow device locks onto any tire from two inches to 16 inches in width. Constructed of aluminum alloy reinforced with half-inch case-hardened steel rebar, the Pit Bull Tire Lock weighs less than 10 pounds and can be locked on any wheel in seconds. The lock consists of two caliper-like curved arms that are attached at one end to a single pivot point. When unlocked, both arms open and close like the points on a set of old-fashioned ice tongs. Installation consists of closing the arms around the inner and outer side of any landing gear wheel and locking the cylinder-type push key. Pit Bull Tire Locks are used by law enforcement and other government agencies to secure automobiles. Cost is $270.
Airport security is everyone's business. In addition to installing one or more of the security enhancers discussed here, every AOPA member must always do his or her part in protecting airplanes and airports from the bad guys. This is as easy as taking a few minutes to stop and introduce yourself to other pilots and owners on your airport and keeping your eyes open for any unusual activity. If the activities of others seem fishy, call the toll-free AOPA Airport Watch hotline (866-GA-SECURE). If we all jump on the airport security bandwagon to make sure that our airports are safe and that our airplanes are secure, we've done our part to thwart potential terrorists and to keep GA out of the headlines.
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AOPA will debut a full-length online course " General Aviation Security" in mid-November.