AOPA encourages everyone in the general aviation industry to be vigilant for suspicious activity at their airports and to review current security guidelines and recommendations, intercept procedures, and other resources.
A naturalized Canadian citizen from Turkey, Adam Leon, stole a Cessna 172 on April 6 from the Ontario flight school where he was a student. He then penetrated U.S. airspace, flying south to Missouri before landing on a dirt road later that night.
F-16 fighter jets were dispatched immediately and escorted the stolen aircraft shortly after it crossed the Canada-U.S. border. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft also followed the Skyhawk. North American Aerospace Defense Command monitored the situation and determined that the student pilot did not show hostile intent, precluding the use of lethal force.
“We commend U.S. and Canadian security and defense officials for bringing a conclusion to the rare and unusual event involving a stolen aircraft,” said AOPA President Craig Fuller in a statement issued after the incident’s safe conclusion late Monday night. “The aircraft was detected immediately and the authorities took the appropriate actions. While there remains more to learn, the handling of this incident demonstrates the effectiveness of today's security procedures.”
While all of the layered security measures in place worked seamlessly and flawlessly, these rare incidents—only six aircraft were stolen in 2006, compared to 1.2 million vehicles that year—paint general aviation in a negative light.
Leon, who was enrolled in Confederation College's aviation flight management program, stole the Skyhawk from the college at Thunder Bay. According to the college, Leon was "a good student" and had reached the solo cross-country portion of his flight training. News reports have indicated that the keys had been left inside the aircraft. College officials have told the media that it was a common practice for keys to be left in their unlocked training aircraft. Flight schools in the United States follow strict security guidelines that would have prevented such an incident from occurring here.
“This incident highlights the need for U.S. schools to follow the flight school security guidelines and for pilots to participate in the joint TSA-AOPA Airport Watch Program,” said Craig Spence, AOPA vice president of regulatory affairs. “Airport Watch reminds pilots to lock their aircraft and look for and report suspicious activity at their airports.”
Airport Watch has a toll-free hotline (866/GA-SECUR[E]) for pilots to report suspicious activity or people. The program has been hailed by Congress and has proven effective in the U.S.
“This situation could easily have been prevented by following Airport Watch guidelines,” Spence reiterated, “and it should prompt every GA pilot, airport, and flight school to review their security procedures and make sure they are voluntarily doing their part to keep our airports and aircraft secure.”