Aircraft Theft = Media Attention

August 18, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

Stealing aircraft is an unusual line of work and somewhat dangerous. Not since the Barefoot Bandit crashed a perfectly good Cessna 400 into the waters off the Bahamas have we had this much activity—fortunately. Just this week, however, someone stole a Piper Saratoga from Horace Williams airport in Chapel Hill, NC.

Like the “Bandit” however, they were not quite up on the rudiments of flying more complex aircraft. It appears when the Piper came down, with one tank full and another empty, that the engine stopped and the ‘toga’ settled in a forested area. The ELT went off about 0700 and the wreckage was located about four to five hours later.

The pilot escaped but not unscathed, leaving behind a trail of blood. The Sheriff’s department called out the dogs and they soon identified the thief although he’s still at large at this writing. Now, read carefully what the local TV station reported.

The sheriff said “…He’s never dealt with a stolen aircraft in his 40-year-long law enforcement career…at least one media outlet and a federal agency had contacted investigators wondering if the theft might be terrorist-related…there’s no indication of that at this point in the investigation.”

A Raleigh TV station spoke with an aviation attorney who said the lightweight doors and windows and lack of heavy locks on planes make them easy targets. “The aircraft itself is ripe for being broken into. Aircraft are not made to be secure; they are meant to fly in the air.”

First, the Sheriff notes that this is an exceedingly rare event but then there is the immediate question about terrorism, although not by the Sheriff. Although there was nothing to link this to any nefarious activity, it seems to be a prevailing mindset that GA aircraft could be used as weapons. As we approach the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, anticipate possible trouble and increased paranoia.

How best to prevent this sort of problem? At this early stage we don’t know how the aircraft was secured but obviously it didn’t work but a few thoughts for your consideration:

1. We need to be looking out for each other and our flying machines. I’m not a big fan of airport fencing but rather making the aircraft more difficult targets.

2. We need to secure them carefully so that they can’t be used as propaganda tools against us. I’ve blogged before on securing the aircraft and with the advances made in automotive security these days you think some of that could trickle up, at least into new aircraft.  AOPA’s Airport Watch program is a low cost and common sense approach to help protect against just such incidents.

3. It’s much better to implement our security voluntarily than by government mandate.

Prevention is far more effective at protecting the image of GA than our protestations that light aircraft are unlikely to be used for terrorism. Never underestimate the paranoia of security agencies or the opportunistic desires of an ever-hungry media.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Alan

    Airplanes are EASILY secured with very limited low tech methods. We use throttle locks and lockboxes to secure keys. Even if you could get in our planes, you could not start them without heavy duty bolt cutters.

  • Anonymous

    I thought throttle locks would be effective, so I bought one and used it. After 9/11, the local airport governing board was interested in improving aircraft security. The FBO owner asked that I loan him my throttle lock so that he could show it to the board at their next meeting. While the FBO owner had my throttle lock, my airplane was stolen and hasn’t been seen since. (I did get the throttle lock back, however.)

    The local police were pretty convinced that the theft was an inside job. One investigator did come up with an easy way to solve the crime. She called the FAA to see what destination the thief listed when he filed his flight plan. The police were also totally miffed that a stolen airplane could get “clearance” to take off. (EVERYONE knows that you cannot just get in an airplane and go flying without first getting permission from the government!!!)

  • Eric Leuty

    Good article. I know of an aircraft owner who doesnt lock his aircraft for 3 reasons. 1- the locks are broken and he doesnt want to spend the huge $$ to replace them. 2- If someone wanted the radios, the cost to repair the door / window would exceed the cost of the radios. 3- the a/c is insured for theft.

  • Angelo Forte

    You do not need permission to fly from the Gov when flying VFR from an uncontrolled airport.

  • grumpy

    It’s called sarcasm.

  • Richard

    Most of the earlier Cessna’s can be unlocked using any other Cessna key. Not all, but most. We show guys that around our airport all the time. You might have to “jiggle” the key a little, but most of the time it can be unlocked.