Securing the Hardware!

December 30, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

PadlockWe got lucky last week when a would-be bomber failed to pull off an in-flight detonation when nearing Detroit after a flight from Amsterdam. As usual, there were plenty of warning signs and you can bet that travel on the airlines will become an even more trying experience as the authorities try to plug the holes. Perhaps we should just fly naked – THAT would solve the problem!

This week an aircraft was stolen at a local airport around here. The thief, not a pilot, got about 50 yards before tipping the tailwheel aircraft up on it’s nose. It wasn’t terrorism related – the guy just wanted to leave town! But this seems like a good time for us to take stock of GA’s security as well, especially CFIs and flight schools.

I’ve written before that the manufacturers ought to start building in more robust security than the rather modest locks that many aircraft have. It’s always easier to build something in than to add it as an afterthought.This should be simple and inexpensive—TSA—take note: We won’t be securing the cockpit from the passenger compartment since hijacking is NOT the problem.

Listed in my order of preference:

  • Throttle/mixture lock – visible, portable to use anywhere and no damage potential. Would like to see these built into the quadrants.
  • Tire boot – visible, heavier and bulkier than throttle lock, no damage potential other than to ego if you attempt to taxi with it in place.
  • Prop lock – Very visible and bulkier than throttle lock, significant damage to ego and aircraft if start is attempted prior to removal.
  • Hidden fuel line shutoff – spoils the deterrent value but a way to secure aircraft without electrical systems. (appropriate FAA 337 form req’d)
  • Hidden battery or electrical system kill switch – also non-deterrent but effective (appropriate FAA 337 form req’d).
  • Haven’t seen this but perhaps someone has: Locking control lock – seems like it would be easy enough to do – but we always have a few people who attempt takeoff with discouraging results – remember control check.
  • Avionics disabler – obviously, we can’t fly if the glass doesn’t power up (just kidding) but perhaps a password is used to unlock the starting circuits (heck, we got passwords for everything else so give me something else to forget!)

The more we do to prevent theft of our aircraft the less the authorities will be attracted to GA and the more they’ll focus on mass transit. While GA is not currently a big target for the terrorist, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the disruption that would be caused by even a small scale success.

GA SecurityFlight schools and rental fleets need to be well secured for very obvious reasons – we’ve had a couple of failures there in the past. CFI’s, remember you have a requirement to review security procedures annually – These are covered in all ASF FIRCS. Once you’re sure a student is NOT of nefarious intent, let’s teach security thoroughly. AOPA’s airport watch program and General Aviation Security online course are great starting points to get some ideas.

Personally, I don’t like any of this but suspect we’ll be dealing with terrorism for a long time to come. Let’s not give the bad guys any GA opportunities!

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Patrick Flannigan

    I can’t believe no one has incorporated a simple password option into the glass cockpit. Really not a bad idea, but it certainly wouldn’t be a full-proof deterrent. As long as you can crank the engine, the determined crook can still take off.

  • Kevin Collins

    I have flown a privately owned, nicely equipped C182 that has a locking control lock. It is painted yellow, which makes it hard to miss during pre-flight and enhances the deterrent effect. It is rather bulky and requires a few extra seconds to remove before flight and attach afterwards, but that doesn’t bother me.

  • Bob H.

    “I’m sorry Dave, but you’ll have to type in the password before I can display that approach plate.”

    KISS. Physical security and digital security domains are best kept apart.There’s no regression testing required for each new software update for a throttle lock.

    Maybe AOPA could lobby for some airport watch funding to subsidize some throttle locks for members and make it a dues option or a PAC contribution gift with any donation of $20 or more?

  • Paul Y.

    Increased hangar security, security patrols, control locks and hidden switches is what will decrease the likely hood of GA theft. Prosecuting thieves to the maximum will also help to deter this activity. Personally I feel that hijackers and terriosts should be tried at the A/C and when found guilty, publicly executed imediatly.

  • Pat Patten


    I couldn’t disagree more with your article. I would ask your assistance and that of AOPA in trying to bring some sanity to the issue of aircraft security.

    I am increasingly dismayed that AOPA continues to play into the pathetic paranoia of the TSA. When I lived in the United States States during the 60s and 70s there were frequent aircraft hijackings in Europe and other places in the world, and an occasional one in the United States as well. The amazing thing is, rarely was anyone ever injured or killed. In addition, far fewer people were inconvenienced then, than are now being inconvenienced with all the false sense of security that the billions upon billions of dollars of wasted funds are pretending to provide.

    I would hope that our organization and our magazine would base it’s security advice as much on facts, as it does it’s flying advice. In reality, security breaches are comparitavely tiny in relation to the numbers of aircraft and hours we fly. I think we would be surprised to find out how many actual security breaches we have had at our airports compared to how much money we are spending to try to prevent such relatively few breaches. It is very difficult to obtain these figures, not because of damage to security, but because the information seems to be hidden to continue feeding the paranoia. I would like to see AOPA magazine publish the actual number of reported aircraft-related security breaches that actually were determined to be flight safety issues. Then place that number side by side with the actual amount spent that week on prevention. This should include the cost of chain link exclusion fences, security personnel, surveillance cameras, security training and lost work hours.

    All of this is hugely unhealthy for aviation and basically unhealthy for our personal psychology.

    It may be both surprising and interesting to note that heightened security actually fosters more damage and causes more violent crime.

    Older AOPA members will recall when people didn’t used to lock their cars and often even left their keys in the ignition. If a thief wanted the car, or someone just wanted a joy ride, they just took it. Far more often than not, the car was found nearby, undamaged. The incident was chalked up as an annoyance. But when we started locking cars, thieves started punching out the locks on the doors and tearing out the steering column lock cylinders in order to take the car. The cars always got damaged. The results were far more than annoying.

    Then we started putting car alarms in them. One result was that the alarms ceased to have much impact because so many were going off that people ignored them. The other side was that if someone really wanted your car, they had to hijack it once you got in and started it.

    Then the security companies sold us disabling alarms that would shut down the engine after a short time. So if a thief wanted the car, he had to not only hi-jack it with a gun or knife, but now also hold the driver hostage for a time to be sure that the car wouldn’t turn itself off.

    With cars, the story has progressed from one of — at most — serious annoyance and occasional damage to (or loss of) the car; to now, when the theft often means kidnapping and murder.

    It was far, far better when we didn’t even lock the cars.

    Lockerbie, 9-11, and all the resulting death in the air and on the ground, was the result — pure and simple — of heightened security, not heightened terrorism. It has become far more difficult now for an aircraft to be hijacked to make a political point. It has to be blown up. And who profits from this? No one whatsoever except the bloated security industry.

    At some point someone has to stop this foolishness. Our actions, our laws, and our magazine articles are increasing risk rather than reducing it.

    If we can’t do anything positive to eliminate the scans, the long lines, the body frisking and x-rays, the delays, the raised tempers, the wasted time, and the frustration, at least we can stop promoting the paranoia.

    I am a flight instructor. I am also the senior member of the airport security committee at one of the four major airports in my country of residence. A look at the TSA website for the flight instructor recurrent security awareness training

    gives a pathetically weak group of examples of security breaches at U.S. airports during the past year. If this is all that this massive bureaucracy is trying to prevent, we ought to be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves.

    Can we get some sort of serious discussion going on this issue? Can we get some serious movement going to reverse the trend?

    Sincerely, and with lots of concern.

    Pat Patten, AOPA # 00798135

  • Bill Ferrigno

    Pat hit the nail on the head. When you consider the cost of our security, nation wide, Osama won. He is bringing us down financially. I work for a Navy Base and the level and cost of the security is staggering. But back to the subject of GA security, small aircraft theft is practically a non-issue if one considers the number of GA planes to the number being stolen. The elephant in the room of GA security is the thief is not a pilot and the plane will not get off the ground and if, by chance it does, it won’t get very far. Our biggest enemy is the excitable media (USA Today for example) that makes the smallest incident national news to secure good ratings.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Bill & Pat….

    As I said in my final paragraph, I don’t like any of this either. Your points are duly noted and respected. In this case, the non-pilot didn’t get far and you are correct that GA thefts are very few.

    I agree with you on fencing – good for the fence company and for keeping livestock off the runway.

    An alternative thought is that if we can do something that makes it a bit tougher for anyone to use a GA aircraft for nefarious purposes and it is effective and not very expensive – why not? You recall the student who committed suicide in Tampa – never mind the facts, the media had a field day.

    Low probability, high consequence events are the bane of law enforcement, security and safety personnel. They are horribly expensive to prevent and the ultimate question is whether the risk is worth the cost of prevention. Our society is becoming extremely risk averse, as you both have eloquently noted. I’m not sure there are any good answers but if we can significantly ratchet up the unlikelyhood of GA being used for terrorism at relatively low cost — that seem more reasonable than some of the other foolishness we’re dealing with.

    Thanks for your post.

  • Roger Haverty

    Thank you, Pat Patten, for your cogent response. Unfortunately, so many people (govts incl) are profiting from the security craze that it will be difficult or impossible to reverse the trend. As a start, we should insist that AOPA fight it rather than contribute to it.