This Isn't America
Secret program to stop pilots with no probable cause needs to stop.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Jun 04, 2013
You’ve probably read reports about innocent pilots arriving at their destinations after long cross-country flights only to be greeted by squadrons of police agents — from local cops to Homeland Security and who knows what other agencies — to search and question them as though they were under arrest. Reports we have heard of this program are that the agents do not answer questions about why they made the "traffic stop." The story has been reported by AOPA and in The Atlantic by fellow pilot James Fallows. As the story comes out, we’re getting more reports of pilots being similarly detained and searched.
The program has had the curious effect of uniting pilots on very different sides of the political coin, from civil libertarian ACLU types to libertarians and tea party types. I’ve been the subject of two unsettling incidents in the past three years myself. The first was as a result of my turning around on an IFR flight plan (after making the proper calls and getting a clearance to do so) about 100 miles into the flight after the engine appeared to be running a bit rough and started producing slightly less power. After learning of the subsequent emergency vehicle response upon my landing back at KAUS (a response I specifically told ATC I did not need or want), an inspector at the local FSDO saw fit to open “a federal investigation” of me for what he saw as possible reckless pilot actions. The inspector closed the investigation a few days later after learning I was a journalist, but only after having threatened me with tough enforcement because I was unwilling to answer his questions, as was my right.
Then two months ago I was flying a leased-back airplane and had landed at an airport along my way to refuel — I am purposely leaving out details here — and was asked by the folks at the FBO to call an FAA number. After failing to figure out what I might have done on my routine IFR flight to deserve attention from the feds, I called. It turned out that my airplane had never been re-registered by its owner (a relatively new FAA requirement), so even though the registration card in the airplane looked up to date, it was not in fact a registered airplane. The feds were right to call me out on that, and the guy from Atlanta I spoke with — whose name I did not write down and do not remember — could not have been nicer. I left the airplane there, found alternate lift, and went on my way. But the thing that got my attention through all of this was that the system apparently automatically spotted the unregistered airplane and alerted an FAA employee who then made the calls. I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of electronic monitoring to be more than a bit creepy.
As far as the pseudo detention program is concerned — nobody at TSA or Homeland Security will even confirm the existence of any such program — my best guess is that there’s some kind of flight profile that triggers a response, similar to what happened to me in my unregistered, leased airplane. The only common threads so far seem to be that most of the pilots stopped were traveling west to east and all of them so far were male — no surprise considering the overwhelmingly male pilot population. Some were on IFR flight plans, some were on VFR plans, and others were just legally flying VFR without a plan. They have all been questioned about what they were doing and why, where they were going, what they had in the airplane and why they were headed to the destination they landed at.
For the record, none of this is any of their business. In the United States we can legally hop in an airplane (so long as we’re licensed to do so and the airplane is legal) and go fly wherever the heck we want to so long as we stay outside of the various and sundry kinds of special use airspace along the way. It’s not that hard to do. I have flown across the country doing just this. It’s a part of America’s heritage of freedom, and not an informal part of it either. When the police stop us, they need to have probable cause to do so. That we might look like a criminal or wind up being somewhere that criminals are known to hang out doesn’t mean the police can have their way with us. Unless they have a real reason to suspect that we are doing something illegal, they need to presume that we are not. These principles of probable cause, freedom of movement and presumption of innocence are not only a big part of our legal heritage, but I’d argue that they are the backbone of America. Take them away and you are left with a big chunk of land and a flag, not a country that has stood for the principles of freedom for going on 250 years.
Whatever program is prompting the stopping of pilots who apparently just happen to fit a profile of flight needs to stop. If the purpose is to interdict drug traffic, it’s not worth it. If the purpose is to stop terrorists flying small airplanes across the country (a laughable premise), it’s not worth it. If the purpose is to just see if the feds can catch some random bad guys with a software filter and a swat team, it’s not worth it.
If we’ve learned anything about freedom in this grand experiment we’ve all been engaged in, it’s that there is no perfect security in a free state. Indeed, we need to tolerate a certain level of uncertainty in order to be free. That means the government needs to get their noses out of our flight plans — unless they have a really good reason to do otherwise.
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