Safety of Security

September 4, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

This week, I’d like to discuss an area some of us love to hate: The security around GA airports.

First, let me say that regardless of how you feel about GA being painted as a terrorist tool, TSA and other government agencies are convinced there is potential. We must be vigilant around the airports and prevent the unauthorized use of light GA aircraft. AOPA’s Airport Watch is an excellent refresher.

There are some simple things we could do to make it much harder to steal an aircraft. The door locks and ignition keys are a start but if you’d really like to immobilize the hardware there are three obvious ways.

1. Use a Prop lock

2. Use a throttle lock

3. Use a Boot Chock

Prop locks and boot chocks are visible and relatively cheap. Visible is good because it deters the bad guys. Cheap is good obviously but the prop lock has two significant downsides. It can damage the prop while being installed or removed and if you ever forget to remove it and try to start the engine —- Big Ouch!!!!! Unlike failing to remove cowl intake covers, which usually just get tossed 30 feet in the air to the amusement of bystanders, the prop lock will do severe damage in the event of an attempted start.

The boot can be forgotten on the preflight and while it won’t do any damage, you’re also not going anywhere until the engine has been shut down, the boot removed and start reaccomplished. I’ve never forgotten chocks – ever –much.

My favorite security device is the throttle lock. It’s much lighter than either of the other two so it can be carried without penalty and you won’t start the engine or cause any damage until it’s removed. It’s not as visible but is highly effective. I’d sure like to see the aircraft manufacturers start building throttle lock or locking control locks into new aircraft. Sad to say but the security problem is not going away soon so let’s be intelligent about thwarting the one in 10 million probability (WAG) that someone is going to steal an aircraft for nefarious purposes.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Jessica Stearns

    What’s the best way to secure a PA J3? Ther’s no room for a throttle lock, the boot doesn’t fit the wheel, and I’m not about to ruin my prop with a chain. It seems that the TSA bureaucrats don’t do much research.

  • Herb Jacobs

    Not easy. We used chains, not ropes, to tie the planes down. You can push a chain llnk thru the tie down fitting and place a lock there. Only a locked hangar is reasonably secure. Time to start hanging the thieves, and shoot to kill the anti Americans. The TSA tries, but they are bureaucrats as you say. Nevertheless the higjacking of planes has stopped.

  • David C Hook


    Getting our General Aviation Community to accept the need for security is important. But doing so without explaning how their efforts feed into the basic elements of security is like teaching stall recoveries without explaiining some of the fundamentals of aerodynamics. This has been a knowledge gap for creating practical security that meets the unique needs of each airport. However, Planehook Aviation Services though its free monthly webcasts has been working to close this knowledge gap. In fact we are broadcasting our 15th webcast today…all are invited. Here are the 4 basic elements of an effective security program:

    1. Deterrence
    2. Detection (& assessment)
    3. Delay
    4. Response (& recovery)

    The different locking mechanisms you describe enhance item 3, Delay. That’s only effective if someone noticed the criminal (thief, terrorist, etc.) and chose a form of response that will cause that criminal to go away for fear of apprehension or actually being questioned and/or apprehended by someone in authority (police, sheriff, etc). The sum of the delay times of the different devices (hangar lock, prop lock, throttle lock, etc) must be greater than the response time of the responding authority. Now there is more to this, but this is the basic WHY behind the locking devices. The longer the response time, the greater the need for delay devices with longer times to defeat them. Again, similar to teaching the relationship of angle of attack and stall recoveries, this is the basic relationship between locking devices and the response time by local authority.

    General aviation pilots and aircraft owners are smart people. We have to know and apply the different physical sciences and regulations that apply in conducting a safe flight. Vesting fellow pilots with the some of the applicable science behind effective security is important and makes us all more aware of our security surroundings…similar to situational awareness and airmanship when we fly.

    Thanks for the Blog.

  • James Hamilton

    We are blindly being led over the cliff for a problem that doesn’t even have the potential of someone stealing a fuel truck that is running at the truck stop.
    I can purchase a uav for $16,000 that can be launched from a truck, boat or whatever. I can fly this uav across the Atlantic on 2 gal of gas and deliver a load of “You name it [anthrax, [ebola], [pandemic flu].
    Our much bigger problem is pissing off the world with our attitude.

  • W. Kent Palmerton

    I”ve always used a throttle lock on my Bonanza, but now fly a Baron. I’ve never seen a throttle lock system for a twin. The older Baron throttle quadrant is also “non-standard” when compared to today’s designs. What would you suggest?

    W. Kent Palmerton

  • bob reid

    More BS from the TSA bureaucrats..they just don’t have a clue..the danger of construction water tankers filled with ANFO are more of a clear and present danger..any terrorist can drive one and they carry a lot more punch than a small airplane. Wake up people..the bureaucrats are trying to put GA out of business, mission almost accomplished in Europe. The mainstream bureaucrats can’t stand to see us flying around without them controlling us somehow..there is no incidence of terrorist use of private aircraft that I know of..The Islamics have been using airliners since the mid eighties as weapons..

  • Cary Alburn

    I’ve had a throttle lock (the vernier version of the one shown in your picture) for my airplane (1963 Cessna P172D) since I bought it, and I typically use it if I have to tie down somewhere. I also have switched out the $1.98 Cessna locks on the door and baggage door for slightly more secure barrel locks. More recently, learning that our airport folk have keys to all the hangars and aren’t always good about relocking the door padlock when they do their periodic inspections, I’ve started putting the throttle lock on when hangared.

    For the reason mentioned (potential for massive damage if started without removing the lock), I’ve been reluctant to go to a prop lock. If I were to do that, though, I think I’d favor the Prop Club as being less likely to cause damage–but I think I’d put a large orange “remove before starting” flag not just on the Club, but draped over the control yoke! It’s too easy to forget things during preflight–and like you said, I’ve never forgotten chocks–well, not very often, and usually only when it’s calculated to be very embarrassing. The best “reminder” is one that has to be removed before damage can be done.


  • bob reid

    Screw with my airplane…get though the M-16 first.

  • http://AOPA Ray Bloch

    Although I agree that locking the airplane is a good idea and certainly makes the insureance companies happy, still there are few things a terrorist can do with a small aircraft that would make a large impact on the world. It is just not possible to carry enought explosives to do a Twin Towers like incident. Now Citation size jet may be tempting but couldn’t even compare to a 757 loaded with transcontinnental fuel. Why did the terrorists decide on a passenger jet to do the job? Because, they tried to do it with a trck load of explosives in 1993 and it didn’t work. CAN YOU GET A TRUCK LOAD OF EXPLOSIVES INTO GENERAL AVIATION AIRCRAFT AND IF YOU CAN, CAN YOU GET IT OFF THEE GROUNG. i SUBMIT THAT THERE WOULD BE A LARGE HOLE AT THE END OF THE RUNWAY.

  • Bill

    A friend had his Cessna stolen in Mexico from the strip by his house. The plane had a throttle lock, door and window locks, and prop lock — all found in pieces where the plane had been parked. Oh, and there was a full time resident airport manager/watchman at the airport. Dave Hook is right on: These devices are important but you must realize they are best at keeping the honest people honest — they only delay the determined thief.

  • John Hensley

    I agree with Bill in part; that is, locks are for honest people. Having said that, there is the ocassional drunk/drug addict that sneaks onto the field and thinks a joy ride is in order. Usually that idot make such a mess and loud noise with the gate/fence and/or the airplane trying to get in they get caught.
    So, is there an answer for one and all-NO. Its an individual choice for the security of your airplane.
    In my opinion, simply the best you can do is lock the doors and window and baggage compartments. Don’t leave headsets and other valuables in plain sight. Use sun shields to cover all windows. There cheap, go to any auto parts and make your own for under $30.00. If the thief can’t see what he is going to steal, then maybe he will move onto the next airplane that displays a nice pair of headsets.
    As to prop locks-no way-to much potential for major damage. As to wheel lock, to heavy to take with you from overnight airport to airport. As to the throttle lock, a thief takes a marine can used for an airhorn and freeze blasts the lock, wacked it with a hammer, and now the lock is broken. His can of break the lock costs less than $10.00. So you spend $30.00+ for a throttle lock. I don’t think so.
    Lock up the locks and cover up the windows. Oh yeah, don’t forget insurance. It pays to have it.

  • David

    We have a place in Baja and a 210 with all 3 locks ,,,Throttle/Wheel/Prop were in place and cut of with a torch in 10 minutes and the airplane disappeared ……

    We need a better solution here …. like a secret switch or built in throttle lock!!!!
    GPS Trackers that come on when the airplane is powered up would help locate
    stolen planes …………………………….

  • Bruce

    Whether we’re dealing with terrorists, smugglers, or just joy riders, I’ve always thought airplanes were too easy to steal. I’ve rented and instructed, but if I owned my own aircraft, I’d want more security.

    I have seen motorcycles with disk brakes that have numerous holes in the disks, for cooling, I presume. This tells me that it is functionally OK to have holes in brake disks. So – why not have holes in aircraft brake disks and then make a deadbolt type pin locking mechanism that inserts into one of the holes in the disk and locks the wheel. Such a device would cause a thief as much delay as a throttle lock, prop lock, or boot chock and be as lightweight and easy to use as a throttle lock. Actually, with one on each wheel, it would cause more delay.

    The locking device could be permanently incorporated into the brakes with the pin extending through a hole in the center of the brake calipers. Or, it could be like another set of calipers permanently mounted ahead of or behind the actual brake calipers. Or, it could be portable and just stick into a hole and lock onto the disk like a padlock, and would stop the wheel when it bumped into the brake calipers.

    The permanently affixed type would have the advantage of not needing to be kept someplace else when not in use, and not risking damage to the brake calipers, since it wouldn’t bump into them. If it were made inconspicuous enough, it could cause a thief further delay and possibly attract some attention, as the thief may not discover it until first starting the engine and failing to be able to move the aircraft.

    Engaging the pin on the permanently affixed type would require pushing the aircraft a little bit until the pin lined up with the hole. It may be desirable to have holes no more than about an inch apart around the brake disk. If the permanently affixed type accidentally locked itself in flight, there would be serious consequences upon landing, so some very positive means of assuring that doesn’t happen would be essential – such as being unable to remove the key unless it is fully locked closed or fully locked open, and the strong recommendation that the brake key be kept on the same keychain or key ring as the ignition key.

    Such a lock might be desirable for automotive use as well, but for that purpose, it may need to be key activated from the driver’s seat (or with a remote) in order to have user appeal. For aircraft use, activation from the cockpit or by remote would, I believe, have too great a weight penalty as well as being more difficult to make failsafe.

    I know the aircraft version of this will need a lot of paperwork and FAA approval to implement, but I’m sure there is somebody more ambitious and enterprising than I am who can take this timely idea and run with it.

  • Ohio Dave

    Why not allow pilots to carry guns? If hijacked we are the first to die, insurance does not cover airplane if used in act of war or terrorism so what better way of protecting your self? You can lock the hanger door, throttle lock, door lock, prop lock but that is only a slow down device. As stated accurately most GA airplanes can’t carry enough weight to do any damage.

    I have ask State of Ohio and AOPA about changing the law so we can carry guns while at airport and flying. We would have the best reason to fight the terrorists… protecting our lifes and families. Pretty good drive to “get the job done” wouldn’t you say.

    I believe this is all hog wash as most GA airplanes can not do the damage that large airliners can do but the news media and government has everyone believing they can.

    I would do my best to kill someone that was trying to kidnap me… just allow me the tools to do that job.

    Ohio Dave

  • Cliff Ball

    99.827 % of the pilots I know are mature, responsibile individuals, or, they aren’t around that long. While a safety reminder ever so often doesn’t hurt, a constant hammering on the subject is stupid. TSA and Homeland Security would be of a great deal more use on the border since 33% of our prison population are illegals. How many of those guys fly airplanes anyways, don’t sound like many.

  • Kenneth Farhang

    can you send me info for the throttle lock. where to buy it??
    thanks. KF

  • Tom Shappell

    Solution, I believe, is for a secondary fuel shutoff, known only by the owner! Hanger your aircraft; lock the doors; shut off the fuel……………….personal creativity can now come into play! What terrorist, drunk or drug addict is going to hang around longer than a few dozen cranks, with no results? He has made noise, is frustrated, and needs to get out of there! The coup de’ grace is to leave a permanent notice by the door, “Your efforts will not go unrewarded; you are now part of the FBI photo contest”!

  • Brad

    Ialways lockup my plane. Just like my car. I would feel bad if some kids got a hold of it and hurt themselves. I believe that not taking extra efforts in security is like giving permission to the press to make us look bad. That being said, I’ve noticed making cars real hard to steal has created a new problem, CARJACKING! It seems to me last time I looked, the MO for the terrorists was to grab a plane that is in operation. So as you unchain, unlock, and unblock any systems that are diabled, that is the time you would be in the most danger. (Notice I said “you” and not “the plane”). Unlike the carjacker the terrorist will give no quarter. Hey TSA, let’s setup a program where we use our planes as BAIT. In the future ADS-B may be the answer, they could add digital finger print and retina scan ID, codes and all that. Ooooh, a level of control bureaucrats of generations past could only dream of.

  • George Horn

    Although their discouragement factor is likely good, most prop-locks will damage YOUR aircraft in any attempted start by Mr. Stoopid. (And anyone up to the sort of mischief involving aircraft theft will certainly meet that description.)
    Even owners and renters have been known to fail to perform pre-flight inspections and started their aircraft with the prop-lock installed.
    If you use one, MAKE IT HIGHLY VISIBLE FROM THE COCKPIT with a rigid flag, etc., if you can imagine a hurried human to ever get in the cockpit.

  • Jose

    The answer to most of these problems was thought out a long time ago by the folks who founded this country. It is called the Second Amendment.


  • strap on

    You could definitely see your skills in the work you write.
    The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to mention how they believe.
    At all times follow your heart.