Kings Detained on Eight-Year-Old Stolen Aircraft Report

Mark Phelps

Aviation is still buzzing over the N-number mix-up that led to a profound law enforcement blunder. It's pretty clear that none of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) police who responded to a stolen aircraft alert last Saturday are pilots. Who among us would not have recognized John and Martha King as they deplaned from a 2009 Cessna 172? To say nothing of mistaking the 21st century Skyhawk for a 1968 Cessna 150.

While the episode is grist for one more humorous backdrop to a King Schools instructional video, it wasn't funny at the time. The police detained the Kings at gunpoint and handcuffed them in the back seats of two patrol cars for half an hour while the confusion was resolved. As John King pointed out; the potential for a tragic outcome was far too real. The police were responding to a call from the El Paso Intel Center (EPIC), an element of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. EPIC notified the Santa Barbara PD that an alleged stolen aircraft, Cessna N50545 was on an IFR flight plan to Santa Barbara Airport. A 1968 Cessna 150 bearing that tail number was reported stolen in 2002 by the McKinney, Tex., police, and the registration number subsequently removed from FAA circulation in 2005. It was reassigned to the 172 that the Kings had leased from Cessna.

The police explained that they were responding appropriately to a report, though they were not familiar with EPIC, and as the Kings pointed out, an Internet check of FAA records (by either EPIC or the Santa Barbara police) would have revealed the error. The lesson to be learned, say the Kings, is that authorities need to do a better job of updating stolen-aircraft lists, and some simple logic should come into play before guns are drawn. John King wrote, "They failed to exercise the standard of care that should be required before you put citizens at gunpoint." For the latest on the investigation and his view on the apology from the Santa Barbara Police Department, go to John King's blog at

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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