Small airports, big problem?

America's smaller airports, like the one in Florida where a 15-year-old took a plane and flew it into a skyscraper over the weekend, have few -- if any -- security measures at all.

Published January 8, 2002 9:00AM (EST)

Got a pair of wire cutters? That may be more than you need to steal a small plane and fly it off a runway. Thousands of private planes are sitting ducks at the nation's airports, armed with fewer security features than a typical Toyota pickup.

Even after the attacks of Sept. 11, many pilots trust their Cessnas to combination locks or bike chains, while small airports themselves are lucky to be protected by a chain-link fence. "At most little airports, you could drive down the runway at night and nobody would stop you," said Rod Propst, manager of the Fullerton Municipal Airport in Southern California.

Small planes remain a weak link in the nation's aviation security system, as last Saturday's airborne attack on a Florida skyscraper revealed. The alleged suicide pilot, 15-year-old Charles J. Bishop, didn't even have to break into a plane. A flight instructor reportedly left him alone to do a preflight check on a Cessna 172 at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

Bishop was too young to have a student pilot's license, the rough equivalent of a driver's training permit, which would have allowed him to fly solo during training. While anyone can take flying lessons, the licenses are issued only to those 16 and older.

Bishop flew off anyway and crashed into the 28th floor of a Bank of America building in downtown Tampa, killing himself but injuring no one else. Bob Collins, president of Aviation Crime Prevention Institute, contends that Bishop hadn't even technically stolen the Cessna. "He broke the rules, took the plane without authority, but when you're handed the keys to something, you don't steal it," Collins said.

Not that Bishop would have faced much of a challenge if he did want to fly off with someone else's plane. While they are frequently worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, private planes are often protected by flimsy security systems that make The Club look positively high-tech. Some pilots don't bother with any security precautions. Others rely on simple chains wrapped around their propellers or locks on yokes and tires. Some flight schools with large fleets of planes save money by using the same ignition key for several of them.

Ironically, before Sept. 11 many pilots actually wanted to make their planes easy to burglarize, said Bill Dalby, airport manager at Brown Field, a small San Diego airport.

"There was an attitude that 'I'm not going to restrict them from breaking in. It will cost me more to slow them down than just allow them to get in and steal what they want,'" Dalby said.

That attitude is changing, however. In the wake of Sept. 11, Brown Field and a sister airport now require all pilots to secure their planes with some sort of security device.

Pilots have had good reason to be nonchalant about security. Thefts of small planes are extremely unusual -- just 15 were stolen in 2001, all but six in California, according to the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute. Eleven were taken in 2000 and 20 in 1999.

Authorities suspect that most were stolen for use in drug smuggling or for their parts. Burglaries are also rare.

Many small airports have no security at night. Control towers, if they exist, often close for business at 6 or 9 p.m. Security fences are uncommon, although some airports, like Brown Field, are erecting them now.

The lack of security seems to fit the freewheeling world of private aviation, which nearly collapsed when the federal government banned many private flights for weeks after Sept. 11.

"Very few other countries allow flying to the extent that we do in the United States," said Dalby of Brown Field. "It's one of those freedoms that people enjoy and cherish to the nth degree."

It doesn't take a terrorist attack to turn a small airport into a fortress, however. Fullerton Municipal Airport, south of Los Angeles in Orange County, became one of the most secure small airports in the country after four planes were stolen in 1999.

Now, the airport has security fencing, extensive lighting, limited-access gates, and several 24-hour security cameras. Airport employees even monitor an airplane gas station.

Even though security remains lax at many small airports, there is no precedent for Bishop's suicide mission. While planes often crash into hills, mountains and each other, they hardly ever hit tall buildings, even though some downtown areas -- like San Diego's -- are near airport approach paths.

Before Sept. 11, the nation's most famous skyscraper collision came in 1945, when a B-25 bomber got lost in fog and slammed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. The accident was horrific: An engine flew through the entire floor and came out the windows on the opposite side of the building, which shook but remained intact.

Three crewmen and 11 office workers died. The death toll would have been higher if the accident had taken place on a weekday instead of a Saturday morning. The almost-forgotten Empire State disaster suggests that the Tampa skyscraper suicide offers only a taste of the damage a single terrorist pilot could cause.

Protections against renegade private pilots remain scant. The federal government still doesn't require private pilots to carry photo identification, said Propst, the airport manager. "We need to have pilot's certificates that are as good as driver's licenses," he said.

Propst supports background checks for private pilots. But critics say that's going too far, and they question whether planes are dangerous enough to require more protection than cars. Small airports, after all, are essentially parking lots for planes. And how many car parking lots have extensive security?

"There's only two people I know of that are dead because of general aviation crashes that are on purpose," said Collins of the aviation security firm, referring to the Tampa crash and the 1994 suicide crash of a private plane on the White House's South Lawn.

"Why pick on airplanes?" Collins asked. "How many cars and trucks and buses have been used to kill people in the past in one form or another?"

By Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance medical and crime reporter living in San Diego.

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