Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I think the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is out to get us. Somehow, the powers that be at the TSA have become convinced that, although small airplanes were not involved in the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center, they pose a serious risk to the country’s security. The evidence is contrary to that conclusion. The dramatic and tragic incident in which a small airplane was flown into the building in Tampa was a pretty good illustration of the lack of damage one of our small airplanes can cause. Studies have shown that even flying a fully loaded airliner into a nuclear power station won’t cause any significant damage.
Nevertheless, the TSA continues to ban normal operations at what have become known as the Washington, DC3 (College Park, Hyde and Potomac Airports). And it has said it sees no lifting of the restrictions in the future. In fact, there are discussions of buying out the owners and closing the airports. We all recognize the need to be vigilant and alert to the possibilities of terrorist activities, but what danger does a J-3 lifting off from College Park-the oldest continuously operated airport in the country, and the one where I took my first flight lesson-pose that isn’t posed by an airplane taking off from any other airport in the area?
How can the TSA justify continuing to ban corporate aircraft from Reagan National Airport? The chances are much better that the passengers on a Gulfstream V are better known to the pilots than those on a commercial airliner.
What scares me is that at some point, the same people who are promulgating the current restrictions are going to decide that they haven’t done enough to keep small airplanes away from the monuments, buildings and symbols of our national government. From there it’s only a small step to ban general aviation airplanes from flying over-or even near-major population centers. And next is a total ban of pleasure flying.
Can’t happen here? Think again. A 61-year-old man was arrested at a local shopping mall for trespassing after he refused to either leave or remove a T-shirt he was wearing that he had just purchased at a shop in the mall. The T-shirt was deemed to be “offensive.” On the back it said, “Peace on Earth” and on the front it said, “Give Peace a Chance.”
Recent rulings by the TSA could mean that if the T-shirted man were a pilot, the TSA could determine he is a security risk and require the FAA to immediately lift his pilot certificate. Even more troubling is the fact that although a pilot thus branded would have 15 days to appeal the revocation of his license, the TSA would not have to reveal what information it used to determine he was a security risk. That doesn’t seem fair. It only gets worse. His appeal would be heard by the TSA.
Unfortunately, some of us have given the TSA ammunition in its efforts to restrict our activities. We’ve all heard about the number of pilots who have violated the Camp David protected airspace, and the television evening news seems to take special glee in reporting whenever an airplane drifts over the DC area and jets are scrambled to escort it back to the ground. Despite the fact that all of these incursions have been “innocent,” they’ve all added to the public concern about the danger “those little Piper Cubs” pose.
Although it’s embarrassing when we hear another pilot has violated the Camp David airspace, it might be possible to excuse violations of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) when they’re imposed at the last minute. But with the proliferation of inexpensive GPS navigators, there is absolutely no reason pilots should be straying into the Camp David airspace that has been clearly marked on sectionals and IFR en route charts.
Are pilots flying without sectionals? Maybe in parts of the West there are areas that you can navigate comfortably without checking a chart to be sure you’re staying clear of the different classes of airspace, but operating in the area around Washington, D.C., a pilot would have to be pretty naïve to think he could navigate without clipping at least a corner of someone’s airspace unless he was carefully referring to a chart (or graphic depiction on a GPS). While we’re not making friends, we are influencing people with our apparent disregard for protected airspaces-or our inability to navigate accurately to avoid them.
When the TSA imposed its latest Level Orange restrictions on the Washington area, it considered a 55-mile circle rather than the Class B and 30-mile extension it finally settled on. Despite the fact that we’re not a security danger, if we keep demonstrating our inability to navigate accurately and stay away from crowds, we’re going to find more and more restrictions on our freedom of flight.
Even the security forces are unwittingly contributing to the public’s misguided fears. Residents of Bloomington, Indiana, became concerned by the frequent unexplained passes a Cessna 182 was making over the city at noon, in the late evening and after midnight. Although initially it was denied that the airplane was conducting surveillance for the FBI, it was eventually revealed that it was in fact an FBI operation keeping tabs on foreign nationals, vehicles and businesses.
What do you think the initial reaction was of the crowds at the Super Bowl when a police helicopter flew near the stadium, legally entering the protected airspace? With the scares the people have experienced, the first thought of many in the stands must have been an instant concern about a terrorist attack.
Things are only going to get worse if we don’t somehow change the misconceptions about general aviation. But it’s going to be an uphill public relations campaign. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has run a series of commercials on television and created a website (www.gaservingamerica.com) to try to educate the public about who we really are and what we really do. I applaud it for the effort.
The misconception by the public is what’s causing efforts like three bills recently introduced into the New York State Assembly that, if passed, will further restrict our freedoms. The first (Assembly Bill 3512) would require anyone wanting to take flying lessons to be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check. They wouldn’t be able to start flight training until the commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice determines they should be allowed. The second bill (A2043) would require background checks before anyone could take training on a flight simulator. The third bill (A3899) states, “In addition to the qualifications required to operate an aircraft within this state, no person less than seventeen years of age shall engage in operating aircraft within this state or apply within this state for a license to operate aircraft.”
How the state and the FAA will work this one out will be interesting since the FARs require a student pilot to be only at least 16 years old (except for a glider rating, when they must be 14 years old). If the law passes, student pilots won’t be able to take lessons in New York until they’re at least 17, nor will student pilots from New Jersey or Connecticut, or any other state, be able to cross the states’ border in the air.
New York’s not alone. Illinois has also introduced a bill (House Bill 3804) to establish a requirement for criminal background checks for flight training, possibly including recurrent training and rating upgrades.
And Michigan has imposed rules against banner towers and blimps overflying sporting events in the state. It’s not a stretch to think the effort will proliferate and a number of banner towing companies will find their livelihood in danger. The 3,000-foot, three-mile protected space around large crowd gatherings is window dressing. It won’t have any effect on limiting the possibility of terrorist attacks. They’re going to scramble jets and shoot down an intruder over the stadium?
Although the oft-broadcast shots of the crumbled airplane that crashed on the lawn of the White House years ago and the airplane clinging to the side of the building in Tampa demonstrate the relative ineffectiveness of our airplanes as instruments of terror, the effect has been just the opposite. Every time they replay the footage, it only reinforces the fears of airplanes dropping out of the sky. I bet the terrorists know better than our own rule-making authorities what little threat we actually are.
While the AOPA gets credit for its efforts to educate the public about general aviation, I have a problem with its “Airport Watch Program.” The program is being widely publicized as a neighborhood watch program that will have pilots reporting suspicious activity to the TSA over an 800 number. My concern is that promoting that we’re watching for suspicious activity at our general aviation airports just reinforces the misconception that we’re a danger. I would guess it’s a proactive effort by AOPA to head off more security procedures and restrictions that might be imposed by the TSA, but I’m concerned it will not only give the wrong impression, but also give anti-airport protesters crying wolf an opportunity to cause real havoc.
Unfortunately, protecting us from terrorists is a balancing act between limiting the potential for terrorist activities with the freedoms and rights that make our country what it is-or was. The airlines have suffered what may be irreparable damage because people have become afraid to fly. The goal of terrorism is to make us live in fear. Unfortunately the terrorists have been much more successful in achieving their goals than they could have ever expected. We’ve done far more damage to our country’s economy and our way of life than the terrorists managed to accomplish with their attacks. We have met the enemy and he is us.