A disturbed man, Joseph Andrew Stack, flies a single-engine Piper airplane into a Texas federal office building. He kills himself and an IRS worker. It is tragic and awful – and it points up vulnerability in our society that could be exploited by terrorists. But it is not a reason to impose new restrictions on private flying.
General aviation–the blanket term given to everything that is not a scheduled airline or cargo flight–has not to this point in time been subject to onerous security. Yet there are those calling for a security regime to be introduced after the Texas incident.
To apply even modest security on general aviation would be a daunting task because airplanes fly from small airports to big ones; and they fly 24 hours a day. Some are light aircraft like Stack’s and others are corporate jets and charter aircraft, all the way up to airline size.
Charter companies and corporations could take the hit from expensive security. But it would mortally wound private flying and not increase security at all. Elaborate evasions–such as flying from deserted roads, farms and abandoned airfields–might increase. What now happens in the light would happen in the dark.
Here I should declare that I have held a private pilot’s license for nearly 40 years, although I no longer take to the air as I once did (whenever possible).
The aviation community has always known that airplanes are easily used as weapons in the hands of suicidal pilots or if rigged with off-the-shelf technology. To turn a light aircraft into a crude missile you need purpose, know-how and access to a hobby shop or an electronics retailer in the local mall.
Over the years, I have heard many discussions on what you can cause an unmanned aircraft to do. No one was planning to do so, but it is a subject that used to come up from time to time in pilots’ lounges: airport facilities where pilots hang out, get weather briefings or just to tell stories of derring-do.
Pilots belong to a freemasonry that binds people of disparate backgrounds together in a common love of aviation and common bad experiences. Horseman and boaters enjoy something similar but not with the depth and passion that unites pilots, whether they are weekend stick jocks (their term for themselves) or former military pilots, who have done extraordinary things and now fly for the airlines or just fly privately.
Pilots tend to revere anything that leaves the ground and to know that part of the thrill is the high price that will be paid if things go wrong. As Walter Hinton wrote in 1926: “Recently, a man asked whether the business of flying ever could be regulated by rules and statutes. I doubt it. Not that flying men are lawless. No one realizes better than they the need for discipline. But they have learned discipline through constant contact with two of the oldest statutes in the universe–the law of gravity and the law of self-preservation. Ten feet off the ground these two laws supersede all others and there is little hope of their repeal.”
At Barron Hilton’s ranch in Yerington, Nev., I saw astronauts riding in gliders, hot air balloons, as happy as they were going into space. Every form of flight deserves the same respect as another. The price of failure is the same: death.
One of the great freedoms in America is that anyone can learn to fly and can fly from the smallest airport; really just a field that has been surveyed and leveled to JFK or LAX. You will need a reservation to land, but you can do it.
Aviation is truly one of the last egalitarian pursuits. You can put passengers through a metal detector at the general aviation terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport, but what about a farm in Kansas?
One of the many firms that is part of the anti-terrorism industry, STRATFOR, has been proselytizing about the dangers of private aviation. Sure there is a remote danger there, as there is with the availability guns or the vulnerability of city water supplies.
Flying is one of the great freedoms. And to those who are lucky enough to fly, it is the supreme achievement in the ascent of man. To curtail it is to make a terrorist somewhere chortle. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate