General Aviation as a Terror Weapon

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.

A very popular and well received program has been AOPA’s Airport Watch. As described on the AOPA website: AOPA has partnered with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to develop a nationwide Airport Watch Program that uses the more than 650,000 pilots as eyes and ears for observing and reporting suspicious activity. The Airport Watch program includes warning signs for airports, informational literature, and a training video to teach pilots and airport employees how to enhance security at their airports. In addition a special hotline has been established to report aviation related intelligence information. Think of it as an industry specific neighborhood watch program. Like most neighborhoods, the airport community is usually fairly small and most employees know the people that come and go on a daily basis with a suspicious person being immediately noticed.

Licensed pilots in the United States face periodic scrutiny by the Transportation Security Administration. All pilot licenses are routinely compared against terrorist watch lists to see if any individual warrants further checking. There is also an informal, yet very important vetting that takes place when an individual wants to rent an aircraft. Regardless of pilot license or experience, if a pilot wants to rent an aircraft, they are required to be checked out by the renting company. This means that the pilot must fly with a flight instructor of the rental company and demonstrate competency before they are allowed to rent an aircraft. Although these checkouts are not a security screening, they certainly do provide insight into a pilot's abilities and possible intentions. Compare this system to that of renting a truck. In order to rent an 18’ box truck, simply present a license and major credit card and off you go!

Even if a plane was loaded with explosives, the damage could never approach the devastation caused by a large truck bomb such as used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Using a rented truck, the blast claimed the lives of 168 victims and injured more than 680. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings. The bomb was estimated to have caused at least $652 million worth of damage. The weight limitations and relatively small cabin size of general aviation aircraft certainly limit their ability to carry a similar devastating deadly payload.

Law enforcement agencies are best served by looking at general aviation in the same manner as they conduct any terror or risk assessment. What proactive steps can we take to reduce any threats? What resources can we develop and use to help mitigate the potential for any types of criminal activities at our airport? Consider becoming an integral part of the Airport Watch Program and encourage the free exchange of information with the airport operators and your agency. Have directed patrols include the airport perimeter as well as access roads and interior roads. As with any credible and effective law enforcement strategy, cooperation and vigilance is a must. The general aviation industry must actively engage with law enforcement to make certain general aviation remains safe from terrorism. Many of these programs already offer proven practical and effective strategies.