John and Martha King, owners of King Schools in San Diego, said they were mistakenly detained at gunpoint upon landing at Santa Barbara, Calif., on Aug. 28 by police who thought they had stolen a four-seat Cessna 172S. It had been leased to King Schools by the Cessna Aircraft Co. for instructional videos.
The Kings were on an IFR flight from San Diego to Santa Barbara to see some friends and maintain their proficiency on the aircraft’s Garmin G1000 avionics suite. The Kings teach courses on the Garmin system. According to John King, who was piloting the airplane, upon landing at Santa Barbara, the airplane was directed to a remote part of the airport instead of the FBO where the Kings planned to park. There, four police cruisers were parked. After shutting down the engine, King was ordered out of the aircraft with his hands up and told to back slowly toward the officers, who had guns drawn. After he was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser, Martha was ordered to similarly exit the aircraft. She too was handcuffed and placed in a separate cruiser.
Cessna was issued the N number of N50545 in January 2009 that was previously assigned years ago to a two-seat Cessna 150J, but had been deregistered on Sept. 7, 2005. The Cessna 150J had been registered to a company in McKinney, Texas, called Venus Aviation. No telephone listing could be found for the company Sunday evening.
John King said a report was initiated recently by the McKinney Police Department that the Cessna 150J had been stolen. The McKinney Police Department said they did not have the correct personnel on duty Sunday evening, Aug. 29, to answer questions from AOPA Pilot.
Santa Barbara Police told the Kings that their information on the aircraft came from a “private company,” John King said. It was later learned by John King that the information came from the El Paso Intelligence Center, which was initially created under the Drug and Enforcement Administration to stop drug traffic, but was given additional duties to stop terrorists after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in 2001. It was staffed at first by three federal agencies. It is now staffed by 15 federal agencies and two Texas agencies, one state and one local. It has never been a private company.
Santa Barbara Police and the El Paso Intelligence Center said they did not have officials on duty Sunday evening who could answer questions from the media.
After 20 minutes the couple was released, and King said police told them, “We have to do this,” City officials say the police apologized for the incident.
Still unanswered are the basic questions of how the Cessna 150J came to be stolen, and whether the theft was actually the same theft suffered by the aircraft eight years ago. If it was the earlier theft, officials have not explained how the theft could suddenly surface as a recent event, but nearly a decade later.
“The concerning issue to us, as it should be for all pilots, is that apparently nobody is bothering to remove a registration number from the stolen aircraft list when a registration number has been re-assigned. As a result, completely innocent citizens wind up being detained at gunpoint. It appears that there is no system in place to prevent this from happening repeatedly,” King said.
Also concerned that such an incident could be repeated upon other innocent pilots, AOPA President and CEO Craig Fuller issued a statement on Aug. 30.
“This past weekend, two of the most respected members of the general aviation community were ordered from their aircraft at gunpoint by local police in Santa Barbara,” said Fuller. “Confusion about an aircraft registration number led to John and Martha King being placed in handcuffs and put into the back of police cars until the matter was sorted out. The Kings deserve an apology from senior officials with responsibility over the agencies involved and the general aviation community deserves a full accounting of what went wrong and just how the process will be fixed.
“Simply put, this incident is as outrageous as it is inexplicable and raises serious questions about the coordination of information among federal and local authorities. A $2 app for an iPad and 30 seconds would have discovered sufficient information to raise serious doubt that John and Martha King, who filed an instrument flight plan in a Cessna 172, were instead flying an older stolen Cessna 150 whose N number had long ago been retired and reissued by the FAA.
“We have every right to expect more from our government's security officials than this!
“This morning, I have called upon federal and local officials to review the actions surrounding this incident and report to the general aviation community just what happened and how a process that went seriously wrong will be fixed.”
AOPA will be following up with the agencies involved in this case and will report more later.