Hobson’s Choice?

November 10, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

Wikipedia: ” A Hobson’s choice is a free choice  in which only one option is offered. As a person may refuse to take that option, the choice is therefore between taking the option or not; take it or leave it.”  Too much of life is like that.

Once again, the bad guys are targeting the aviation system.  Package bombs cleverly disguised as printer cartridges made their way on to at least two cargo aircraft a few weeks ago.  I’ve often thought of computers and their peripheral devices (such as printers)  as being nefarious but this raises aviation paranoia to a new level.

GA remains, as ever, under the watchful eye of the security folks and it raises the question of just how reactive and protective we should be. Let’s be honest – the external locks and ignition switches on most light aircraft would slow down a thief about as long as it takes to read this blog. Is GA a target? Does it matter?

On new aircraft,  I’d really like to see the aircraft manufacturers incorporate some smart technology for throttles, controls or ignition to render an aircraft unflyable. This is not rocket science and doesn’t even rise to aeronautical engineering but it’s something that might be considered.

A question:

  • If the government provided your choice of prop lock, throttle lock or wheel boot,  and in exchange, required that it be used whenever the aircraft was left unattended (not a quick turn fuel stop) on other than a secured ramp, would this be a good trade off?

There are two sides to this  – It makes it significantly harder to steal an aircraft, is highly visible and is relatively unobtrusive. It has high value from a public perception perspective and may keep the government from fencing GA airports since locks are far more cost effective. It  may also keep them from implementing other more onerous procedures. Seems like we’re constantly on the defensive

The other side is that it’s  over-reactive and gives up another freedom.  And, are we prepared to deal with a public and political firestorm if a GA aircraft is stolen and used inappropriately?  Hobson’s choice?

Give us your thoughts.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • http://www.somebits.com/weblog/ Nelson Minar

    I don’t understand the premise of your essay. What does concealing bombs in freight packages shipped from Yemen have to do with someone stealing a GA airplane from a field in the United States? They’re entirely different risks.

  • http://www.aopa.org/asf Bruce Landsberg


    The point that perhaps I did not make clearly is that SECURITY and all the attendant issues will be with us for foreseeable future. Every time an event happens – even when not connected directly to GA – there is often an increased ” interest” in GA activity.

    When dealing with asymmetrical warfare, I am told, expect the bad guys to make all sorts of jumps in logic. The purpose of the blog was to get a sense of the community of how willing they might be in by taking a proactive stance vs. reactive. These are reasonable arguments to both

  • Ben

    I’d be more than happy to install a throttle lock or boot on my airplane. Even without a federal mandate, when I eventually move from renter to owner, I plan to take extra steps to secure my aircraft. A prop lock, boot, or throttle/mixture lock is a small price to pay for the good PR and the very tangible added security for your plane.

  • Bill Budinger

    This is very timely and well needed. Many of us dislike the image of frightened Americans cowering behind ever-increasing security measures and feel that by diminishing our freedom, terrorists are achieving one of their objectives. Nonetheless, that’s where we are. GA’s only protection against additional foolish and freedom-limiting “security” measures is to make it blindingly clear that we are no threat. Visibly securing tied-down aircraft is a big step in that direction. Only to have it be successful, ALL aircraft must be visibly secured. That means we need to lobby for a Federal reg (I can’t believe I’m actually saying this!) that mandates we all use such a system. And I think the lock must be visible.

  • John Hey

    I have always used a throtle lock on trips as well as lock the cabin. At home I have a locked hangar. Of course I know locks can quicklly be opened by a determined thief, but as long as there are those who don’t lock their planes near by I am pretty safe since it will be easier to go to their planes rather than fiddle with mine! It would be nice if the feds would just give us a tax credit for any locks we use. Right now though, I consider TSA to be a bigger threat to our nation than Al Quada.



  • Risser

    I have always used a different approach. On cars, boats and aircraft where I felt theft was a real problem I have installed a “secret” switch that prevented starting the engine. For example, on an aircraft this could be on magneto grounds or on the starter circuit. Thus a thief would try to start the engine and would see symptoms that suggested either the battery was dead or the starter was shot. Yes, you can get around that, but you can get around all sorts of anti-theft devices. All of them are vulnerable to failure. (The the “Club” can be dispatched in seconds.) In my case I suspect the thief will simply move on to another task and leave my car, boat or plane alone.

  • Allan

    A principle from physics, “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Homeland Security’s announcement of a “crackdown” on eApis violations makes it clear to some of us that flying to the USA for pleasure has just become riskier and perhaps totally undesirable. When the choice is flying fun versus bullet brained bureaucracy, the decision is clear.

    All of us in GA support efforts to make border crossings more secure and to ensure they are effective against criminals and terrorists.

    Homeland securities “regulations” are for the most part sensible and reasonable.

    However there are some elements that are simply unacceptable and unnecessary and that have nothing whatsoever to do with safety and security. These are: (1) limiting the ability to file and notify by only the internet, (2) requiring a 15 minute arrival window (3) requiring separate and disparate timing to notify Customs via telephone in addition to eApis, and (4) imposing substantial fines related to mistakes in any of these.

    You have no doubt heard endless concerns about these items and I suspect you may have lobbied unsuccessfully to relax or change these.

    Since when does an arrival time variance of even an hour create a “security risk” worthy of a heavy fine? Via eApis all information regarding pilot, passengers, and the aircraft is in Homeland Security’s computer system save perhaps photo ID and a DNA sample.

    Perhaps they would also like RFID ear tags attached to pilots and passengers similar to those used on cows and pets.

    There are some simple asks of Homeland Security, (1) loosen the time window, (2) add telephone and wireless text/email reporting of potential delays, and (3) eliminate the separate and annoying reporting to Customs and Border services. Homeland has arrival information and can report this automatically, after all, aren’t these systems supposed to be linked? If they aren’t then this is a security communications problem that the two organizations need to solve.

    Heavy fines ought to be limited to serious violations such as failures to file, airspace violations, counterfeit information or documents to mention a few.

    COPA has had a number of articles in which pilots have recommended NOT flying to the USA because of your regulations. I have flown to and enjoyed my time in US airspace once past the entry points and their too often arrogant and obnoxious customs agents.

    The announcement of a “crackdown” and “fines” related to the unacceptable procedures put in place by these bureaucrats, having nothing to do with security, is a last straw.

    I for one, will take heed of the warnings in COPA and fly friendlier skies.

  • Dustin

    The goal of federal regulators is absolute safety. The goal can most easily be achieved by totally shutting down GA. For those of us who believe that absolute safety is NOT desirable, it is folly to voluntarily seek more federal mandates on our operations. The feds will gladly rachet this into the system, and then the pressure will be to do still more. And more. And more. Have you learned nothing from the creeping regulations of the past 70 years?

  • Gerard

    Does that government issued wheel lock come with an airplane attached? If so maybe I would interested.

    Once again we are asking the question, “should we supplant our common sense and a bit of community policing with yet more regulation?”

    I do not believe that small GA aircraft can readily be used as an effective threat to our national security. If so every cave in Afghanistan would have a home build project going on in it. The useful load of most singles or light twins really prevents them from being used as a weapon of mass destruction. There are just so many more effective ways terrorist can cause disaster why would they bother with a C172?

    If small planes pose a threat, than automobiles pose a greater threat. Cars have a larger useful load and can often get closer to sensitive targets than any GA aircraft. Cars can readily be made into powerful bombs or used to run down the innocent. Cars have more elaborate locks and alarms than planes, yet they are routinely stolen by the thousands everyday. How many planes get stolen in a year? Should we require all drivers to put wheel locks on their cars when they park them. Where do we draw the line?

    If a terrorist or barefoot teenager really wants to steal a plane, they are not going to be deterred by a wheel lock. Besides why steal a small plane to conduct evil when you could just rent one. The Oklahoma City bombing was committed using a rented truck.

    I think we need to focus on the real threats and light GA aircraft isn’t one of them.

    Hmm, maybe the reason we don’t hear much form Bin Laden these days is he has been so busy in his cave building a Glasair for the next big attack?

  • Vermiculo

    I would be plenty fine with the government giving us locks, with the added burden of being required to use them all the time.

    Fuel, come on, it won’t be to many years before we have to go electric.

    Increased security measures sound excellent as long as it doesn’t require a 35 digit code for every letter typed on the computer (that is obviously an exaggeration).

    I don’t know exactly what Israel does with security, but from what I’ve heard, their security is VERY obvious, even without seeing it, making you very uncomfortable to say the least if you did something against the CFRs.

  • Rick

    Before I moved to a field with reasonable hanger rates, I tied my aircraft down. I used a cover to keep out the rain and prying eyes and a prop lock to at least make the aircraft harder to steal. When I overnight away from my home base, usually on business, I still take and use both the cover and prop lock. I tie down my plane as well, not because of a reg, but because it makes good sense.

    I use the cover and prop lock not to prevent terrorism, or as Barack likes to call it “Man-Caused-Disasterism”, but to prevent theft of my aircraft. If it prevents someone from using my aircraft as a weapon, so much the better.

    I’m certainly not in favor or any more government mandates, but I’m also not going to ignore a good idea just because the government says I must do something. When I was younger, much younger, I spent a little time racing cars and I noticed that wearing a seat belt was to my advantage. I extrapolated this to wearing a seatbelt in my personal car years before Big Brother dictated that I must do so.

    I also have worked in a couple of professions and industries where the writing was on the wall that we would either have to self-regulate or have regulations imposed upon us. The problem with government imposed regulations is that they often emanate from some boob in DC who has no actual experience in the profession or industry for which he or she is issuing regulations. This is very, very clear with the Obama Administration, only 7% of whom have any actual private business experience. These idiots are following a dearly-held ideology which has been proven time and again not to work while in the real world where I live, we’re trying to figure out how to make a buck while not going to jail.

    So, if is comes down to self-regulation or government imposed mandates, I’ll take self-regulation any day. I do understand that light GA aircraft pose little actual threat, but if it will make the public feel better, give GA a better image, and keep the government off my back, I’m for it.

    By the way, a plastic coated chain and a weather-proof combination lock will work just fine and will cost less than $10 bucks thereby taking the issue of cost out of the equation.

  • Charles W. Carr

    There are products, most often found in experimental aircraft that require a 4 digit code to operate the electrical system, including the starter and fuel pumps. Several RV-10’s built by ITEC in Florida have this level of protection.

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