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No guns, no cuffs this time at SBA

Pictured are Left to right: Karen Ramsdell, Airport Director, Martha King, Jim Armstrong, City Administrator, John King, Camino Sanchez Chief of Police, Helene Schneider, Mayor.

As you may know, the last time Martha and I were at Santa Barbara airport, we were met by the police, held at gunpoint, and placed in two separate police cars with our hands cuffed behind our backs. This time we were met instead by Craig Fuller, President of AOPA, and invited to the Mayor’s office.

There we visited with the Mayor, the City Administrator, the Chief of Police, the Deputy Chief, and the Airport Director. We presented them with a planning guide and law enforcement officer checklist for the interception of an aircraft on an airport. The main idea behind the guide and the checklist is to allow the airplane to go to an FBO rather than sending it to a remote part of the airport. When we were sent to the remote area it tipped us off that something was up. When we spotted all four police cars lined up in wait for us, we knew something interesting was about to happen. Any real culprit in that situation would have simply put the throttle in and taken off. So the technique they used wouldn’t have captured the bad guys.

The use of a remote location came to mind for them because they, like all the rest of us, had seen on TV hijackings handled exactly that way. The technique works for a hijacking because the pilots are in cahoots with the police against the bad guys in back. But when the suspects are the pilots, the technique gives them a tip-off and an opportunity for escape.

Pilots who are instead allowed to go to an FBO won’t be tipped off. When they get into a parking spot, just like all the rest of us, they will get out, and most likely chock or tie down the airplane and lock the doors. They will have immobilized the airplane in anticipation of transferring to ground transportation. This is the time for the police to deal with them. They are on foot and usually inside a fenced area. There is little opportunity for escape and little need for the police to draw weapons.

The result is a procedure that does not tip off the suspects, minimizes the opportunity for escape, and is less risky for everybody. This doesn’t come to mind for law enforcement officers, because in most cases they just don’t know about airplanes. They don’t know such key things as the pilot will very predictably go to an FBO after landing and then immobilize the airplane, and that if you want to keep a piston airplane from going anywhere all you have to do is pull in front of it, because it can’t back up.

The planning guide deals with the need for law enforcement agencies to, in advance, recruit folks with aviation knowledge to assist them. In our case the subject airplane was actually a Cessna 150. We were flying a Cessna 172. The police wouldn’t know the difference, but nearly every pilot would. The police had thought they had covered this detail when they asked the tower, “Is this a Cessna?” The tower replied that it was. The problem with that exchange is that Cessna has built over half of all the single-engine airplanes in the world. The police hadn’t narrowed it down much, because they just didn’t know the right questions to ask.

This is where you come in. Print out the card with a color printer, have it laminated and take it to the law enforcement agencies that have jurisdiction over your airport. This card has practical recommendations developed by people who know both law enforcement and aviation, including police chiefs and past and current members of the board of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The other aspect to our interception is that it was the result of a multi-agency governmental mix-up that resulted in the Santa Barbara Police Department being falsely notified that our airplane was stolen.

The FAA is, for unimaginable reasons, re-issuing to different aircraft the registration numbers of aircraft that have been stolen. Then the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is listing the registration numbers as belonging to a stolen aircraft even though they are now attached to a completely different aircraft. Finally, the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) is sending alerts out to police departments like the Santa Barbara Police Department when they spot an aircraft on the list in the IFR system headed their way. EPIC does this without even bothering to check the status of the registration number in the FAA’s registry. This takes about 30 seconds on the first page of the FAA’s website.

So AOPA, NBAA, and other organizations as well as our local congressman, Brian Bilbray, are working to resolve those issues. Let’s hope they are successful.

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  1. John Ho

    John and Martha, I’m grateful that you made something positive out of this experience with the police. However, what about the other agencies that started and perpetuated this matter:

    1. the FAA for re-issuing stolen aircraft registrations.
    2. FBI for listing the aircraft as stolen

    These caused considerable hassle for the police departments, and the aircraft operator. Imagine this happening a second time to this aircraft registration! How many time do our law enforcement agencies continue to fool themselves.

    Is anything being done to prevent this from happening to you and others?

  2. turbo dave

    While I am trying to find sympathy for the cops here, I am having a very hard time doing so. I agree that arresting John and Martha is like arresting Diane Fienstein or someone very famous. In fact, to most of us pilots, they are more well known and famous than the senator. As a business consultant, I like to find “gaps” in the procedures/policies and clearly the handing out of stolen numbers is very foolish. The person that made that decision should either be fired or someone needs to find out how it was made.

  3. John Hey

    Well, this once again just shows that our government is incapable of having enough sense to figure out what to do. Part of the problem is that more and more those who seek government jobs not only are incompetnet, but are either currupt or just looking for a roost job. That is why we must insist that we do not want the government to try to fix any of our problems. Their cure is always worse than the disease. I could give a long talk on my personal experiences with TSA. But all this TSA thugery should be a real boost for General Aviation. I for one will not go commercial, even if it means not going. Also, the real reason for not going commercial is that it is too dangerous to fly with them. TSA and the PC administration don’t have a clue as to how to stop the terrorist. Or maybe they really don’t want to. They had rather just get to exercise raw power. Think about that next time you get on a plane. The terrorist have already advertised that they will just put bombs in the cargo hold and TSA has admitted they can’t really search for them. We should just outsource airline securiety to the Israelis. IMHO

  4. Tony A

    Well just goes to show you , The terrorists have already won. (Thanks Stan for Understanding already )Everyone is so scared there is no longer any common sense, or communication between government agencies, just the fight for our tax payer $$

    As for what to do in the Kings incidence………………….the list is a fine idea, but do you think that anyone who might actually steal an aircraft for an grandiose illicit purpose would be dumb enough to take it to an airport for fuel…????????????.. there is plenty of places to land and park elsewhere without any hassle…so if you do take that list and it gets adopted despite its best intentions………….be prepared for more searches, more fees at your airport, more security and more delays.

    Wake up aviation community…..time to band and stand together as ….OUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED and there is nothing that AOPA can do it about it.

    Very soon it will be a FIGHT to FLY

  5. Bill Menzel

    While I am happy to see much good come out of this unhappy incident (kudos to the Kings for their grace and dignity!), I do have a concern about the revised police procedures they suggest. What if the criminals in the suspect plane are armed? They come walking toward the FBO diligent and ready to use their weapons if they need to. The police confront them, both sides pull weapons and start firing. Innocent bystanders are endangered by gunfire, or fast-thinking criminals grab hostages.

    Maybe my concerns are unwarranted and law enforcement procedures would preclude such a disastrous scenario. I hope that would be the case.

  6. J Pinto

    As both a pilot and a PO I applaude the King’s constructive response to this situation. Everyone else who is clicking tongues over “how awful” that there were guns and handcuffs should keep in mind that stopping criminals is dangerous – and cops don’t like being shot at. From the King’s account it sounds like the officers acted in a professional, straight-forward manner in dealing with a situation that was outside of their training and experience.

  7. Dan Vandermeer

    I am grateful for your efforts to make the interception process safer for both the pilots and passengers and for police. It is sad to note that it required an inept, Keystone Kop detention of a widely known and respected pair of leaders in GA to make this change.
    Another potential pitfall for private pilots exists at many uncontrolled airports with scheduled air service in the US. Many of these have restricted ramp areas. These areas are marked only with a painted red line. A pilot who strays into such an area either while taxiing or on foot walking to the FBO is liable to detention and arrest.
    Thanks again and sorry for your experience.

  8. Dennis Cordeniz, ATP-CFII Citation Lear Jet

    Dear John and Martha:

    Sounds like they have made amends for a very bad day for you. When I heard of your ordeal, I was truly embarrassed on behalf of our airport, city, law enforcement, and aviation community.

    Thank you very much for your contributions to our aviation community. You are truly appreciated and I am happy the city has made this right for you.


    Dennis Cordeniz
    ATP-CFII Citation Lear Jet

  9. Stan Lee

    Just another case of America using a sledge hammer to crack a nut,by acting this way the terrorist’s have won,why can’t the powers that be see this.
    What happened to the Kings happens every day at some airport to people flying in for vacation to spend a lot of money in the US.
    Millions of Dollars are being lost to South Africa ,their flight training is booming because of because of the way people from the UK and other countries are being treated on arrivel.To be locked up for hours,interregated ,missing connecting flight’s ect ect.
    Simple profile checks would save all this hassle. I’ve witnessed 70 and 80 year old’s being spoken to like dogs for no reason.
    I myself was locked in a room then questioned for an hour while the interregaters then conferred among themselves in Spanish ????
    Time to stop the bullshit

  10. Jeff

    Let me get this straight, you were doing nothing illegal, and yet the police surrounded your private plane, without a warrant, and began to search your plane and you at gunpoint? And you want me to go show these retards how to go about harassing private citizens traveling about the United States?

    You know, I have always had a lot of respect for you both, John and Martha, but you all need to take a look around at what is happening, and the police state in which we live. My private plane is like my car, and NO ONE is going to search me or my car without my permission. They sure as hell better not point a gun at me unless they want to get shot in self-defense.

    Quit codling the people that are ruining travel and turning this country into a police state.

    • Rob

      Jeff, while agree with your hostility with the police department in question, your actions have a serious flaw. The best course of action if a police officer draws his weapon, right or wrong, is to comply. If for any reason he thinks you are going for a weapon you have already been shot. Let them admit their mistake like they did in this situation, then consult an attorney. Getting shot over stubbornness is a dumb way to die

  11. Joshua10

    Re-issuing stolen aircraft registry numbers. That’s the dumbest f%$!@#& thing I’ve ever heard!!! Only a government agency would be so stupid and blind not to see the obvious inherent danger with that plan. Meanwhile innocent pilots, passengers and their aircraft are put at extreme risk at gunpoint by some idiotic bureaucrat.

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