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.