Sky Kings: Innocent Pilots Face Down Guns, Handcuffs

Scary moments underscore the need for pilots to deal with a “traffic stop” calmly.

We taxied up in front of the line of four police cars as we were directed by ground control, instead of to the FBO where our friends were waiting. Martha said, “This is going to be interesting.” As we shut down the engine, we heard the bullhorn aimed at us and a voice: “Pilot, very slowly open your door. Pilot, very slowly stick both hands out the door and come out very slowly.”

Martha and I take turns flying and each can fly from either seat. In this case, I was not particularly eager to declare myself as the pilot. Finally, I “agreed” to be the pilot.

As I exited the airplane, the bullhorn’s voice said: “Pilot, keep your hands high in the air. Face away from the sound of the bullhorn and back very slowly towards it.” Next, “Pilot, put your hands together behind your back.” When they had my hands cuffed, they put me in the back of a squad car.

Next came the instructions to Martha. “Passenger, very slowly open your door. Passenger, very slowly stick both hands out the door and come out very slowly.” As Martha exited the airplane, the bullhorn’s voice said: “Passenger, keep your hands high in the air. Face away from the sound of the bullhorn and back very slowly towards it.” Next, “Passenger, put your hands together behind your back.” From my viewpoint in the squad car, I watched with distress as they cuffed Martha’s hands behind her back. It was very disturbing to see they had their pistols aimed at Martha’s head the entire time, right up until they put her into a separate squad car. It is a sight I will never forget.

What was taking place is referred to as a “high-risk” traffic stop. It is designed to prevent the suspect from fleeing and protect the police officers involved.

Later, the Santa Barbara, California, police told us that a “private company” had called to report that N50545 had been stolen and was on its way to Santa Barbara Airport. In fact, the airplane that had been stolen (eight years earlier) was a 1968 C150J, and the registration for that airplane had been canceled in September 2005. The registration number was then reassigned by the FAA to the airplane we were flying, a 2009 Cessna 172S owned by Cessna Aircraft Company.

It would have taken less than 60 seconds on the FAA website to reveal these facts.

The “company” that had called the Santa Barbara police was the Texas-based El Paso Intelligence Center. In reality, this “private company” is shown on the web as an agency of the Drug Enforcement Administration. One of the functions of EPIC is to maintain crime databases and distribute the information to police departments. One of those databases is the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, which is a database of crime information including, among many other things, stolen airplanes. EPIC notified the Santa Barbara police based on the IFR flight plan we had filed on that August morning in 2010—something anyone who had stolen the airplane would have been unlikely to do.

It appears there is no system in place to prevent this from happening repeatedly. We’ve had numerous pilots tell us they had the same thing happen to them—including a previous case with the identical airplane. The database had not been corrected even after it became known that a pilot had been detained and put at risk unnecessarily. It is something the pilot and passengers will never forget.

The biggest question that comes to my mind is whether our case really needed to be treated as a “high-risk” traffic stop. It is our belief the situation could have been managed in a way that didn’t require guns being pointed at our heads. If they had allowed us to simply go directly to the FBO, we would have shut down the airplane and then self-disabled it by ensuring it was chocked and tied down. At that point, the police could have approached us and had a calm conversation without guns and with very little risk. The problem is, in most cases, the police don’t know enough about aviation to know the pilot in almost every case would self-disable the airplane. They imagine the pilot somehow fleeing when they realize the police want to talk to them. That is not as likely in an airplane as in a car. But it was more likely to happen in the open area the police chose for the confrontation than in a tight parking area at an FBO.

Our concern about this is that guns induce risk. Martha and I had been impressed by an incident near our home where the police had miscopied a license plate number and followed an innocent teenager home. The mother became upset by the treatment of her son and had been shoved away by the police. When the teenager leapt off the ground in support of his mother, he was shot to death. Martha and I subsequently developed what we called our “interception standard operating procedure”: comply fully, never complain, never explain.

A police interception presents a risk that the subject can best control by using our SOP and keeping their emotions under control. When guns are added to a situation, everyone is more adrenaline-charged, and that risk is heightened by argumentation—or even mere explanation. I remember sitting in the back of the squad car thinking to myself, “Someday, I will have my say about this, but it isn’t now.” Later, in a press release, the police department was quoted as saying, “They were completely OK with it.” At that time, one of the officers said to us, “You know we had to do this, don’t you?” Of course we didn’t believe they had to do it, and we weren’t OK with it. Fortunately, each of us followed our SOP to the letter.

It did give us a great joke line—”Guns, handcuffs… Worst ramp check we’ve ever had.”

This story appeared in the September 2021 issue of FLYING Magazine


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