General Aviation as a Terror Weapon

As law enforcement professionals, we must ask ourselves, is general aviation a significant terror threat or just a red herring?


A software engineer furious with the Internal Revenue Service launched a suicide attack on the agency in Austin Texas by crashing his small plane into an office building containing nearly 200 IRS employees, starting a fire that sent workers running for their lives. The crash caused the fire and killed both the suicidal pilot and an IRS worker, a Vietnam veteran. The pilot took off in a single-engine Piper Cherokee from an airport in Georgetown, about 30 miles from Austin, without filing a flight plan. He flew low over the Austin skyline before plowing into the side of the hulking, seven-story, black-glass building.

Immediately following the crash, politicians and the media began focusing on general aviation as a significant terror threat. Aviation experts stated that this was a gaping hole in our homeland security system. Many media outlets and politicians seized upon the opportunity to portray general aviation as the weapon of choice to be used in future terror attacks. As law enforcement professionals, we must ask ourselves, is general aviation a significant terror threat or just a red herring?

If history is our guide, the answer is no; general aviation poses no more of a threat than any other vehicle such as a car or truck and indeed, perhaps is less of a threat.

In 2002, a high-school student of Eastlake High in Tarpon Springs, FL, Charles J. Bishop, inspired by the September 11 attacks, stole a Cessna 172 and crashed it into the side of the Bank of America Tower in downtown Tampa, Florida. The impact killed the teenager and damaged an office room. There were no other injuries or was there significant damage to the building.

In 2006, in New York City, a plane crash occurred when a Cirrus SR20 general aviation, fixed-wing, single-engine light aircraft crashed into the Belaire Apartments in New York City in the early afternoon. The aircraft struck the north side of the building, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, causing a fire in several apartments. The fire was extinguished within two hours. The two fatalities were the pilot, NY Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor. There was one serious ground injury and about ten minor injuries. The Austin Texas crash killed two persons including the pilot.

Compare these accidents to several recent incidents involving automobiles. A Tulsa man intentionally drove his car into a crowd of people at a party, killing two. In several other cases, people intentionally drove into crowds killing several persons. In 2008 in Maryland, a car killed eight people when it veered into a crowd during an illegal street race. However, no mention was made in the media that cars are the next terror threat or were there any proclamations made by politicians with congressional hearings soon to follow.

Ironically, general aviation has taken very proactive and aggressive steps to make security a top priority in their industry. Even as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began to scrutinize airline security following the September 11 attacks, groups such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) voluntarily introduced several of their own security programs. These security initiatives examine flight training, student pilots, charter operators and a stringent program to fly in or out of Washington DC’s Reagan Airport. Working closely with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the approach has been to implement reasonable, practical and effective programs to guard against terror.

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