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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Crash Reveals Small Planes as Giant Security Headache

Aviation: Pilots such as the teen who hit a Tampa high-rise would be hard to stop, experts say.

January 08, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The case of an apparently suicidal teenager who crashed a plane into a Tampa, Fla., high-rise presents federal officials with a dilemma: how to bolster the security of private aviation without suffocating its long tradition of free flight.

A post-Sept. 11 security system is already in the works for airlines. But providing protections for more than 200,000 planes, 18,000 airports and 500,000 pilots in private aviation is a tricky balancing act.

"How do you have some security without crushing that free spirit?" asked Gerald Dillingham, director of aviation issues for the General Accounting Office. "Right now there is very little checking of private pilots or their passengers. Maybe the beginning of an answer is that we need to recognize we have a security gap."

Small planes do not pack the sheer destructive power of jetliners. They may weigh as little as a small auto and carry less than 60 gallons of fuel.

But little planes often putter about the skies with much less scrutiny than large jets. Although commercial aircraft fly assigned routes specified and monitored by air traffic controllers, pilots of small planes often rely instead on their eyes and instruments to navigate.

The Tampa crash--in which a 15-year-old flew a plane into a 42-story building--raises questions about whether such an incident could happen again with deadlier repercussions.

To dismiss Charles Bishop, who left a note expressing sympathy with Osama bin Laden, would be risky, private security experts said. If a troubled teen could get hold of a small plane, so can a terrorist.

"We can't just brush this thing off as some kid who went down," said Charles Slepian, a New York lawyer who runs a think tank on transportation safety. "That's what it may be, but it should serve as a wake-up call. If you pack that Cessna with C-4 explosives and a detonator, it is a delivery system."

Billie H. Vincent, a former Federal Aviation Administration security chief, said the government should conduct a thorough risk analysis of potential threats posed by private planes. He believes that jets and flight schools are the segments of the private aviation community where additional security measures would bring the greatest benefit.

"When you look at what you can do about this, corporate jets and flying schools are the things you need to look at," Vincent said.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., the largest group representing private pilots, said the Bishop case is an example not of vulnerability to terrorism, but of another national problem: troubled teenagers.

"I don't think this incident in Tampa was a security breach," said Warren Morningstar, a spokesman for the organization. "This really was a breach of trust, an unfortunate incident involving a young man who apparently had some trouble, and folks didn't recognize he was in trouble.

"We don't see this as an issue so much of security as of what is going on with our young folks," Morningstar added.

But the FBI was taking no chances. It seized two computers linked to Bishop and is examining them to see if he accessed any Web sites supporting Bin Laden, militant Islamic extremism or terrorism, FBI Special Agent Sara Oates said in Tampa.

In a report to Congress last month, the Transportation Department acknowledged that light planes "could be used to strike ground-based targets."

"Their load-carrying ability, even if limited, enables the delivery of explosives, compensating for their relative lack of kinetic energy [speed] or fuel," the report says. "Given the ubiquity of general aviation aircraft and airports, such aircraft are never far from major urban centers, critical infrastructure and other targets."

Bishop's fatal flight illustrates how vulnerable critical targets can be. Authorities said they were relieved the teenager didn't aim for the military's nearby U.S. Central Command, which directs the troops in Afghanistan.

The government has warned private pilots that they could be shot down by fighter jets if they seem to pose a threat. The Transportation Department is also considering new security training for the general aviation community, requirements for tighter airfield security, pilot licenses less susceptible to forgery, and a system that would allow airport operators to access government "watch lists" of potential terrorists.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said she knew of no additional security measures being contemplated after the Tampa crash.

The politically powerful pilots' association, meanwhile, is lobbying to stave off a crackdown while recognizing the need for some improvements in security.

The association supports a proposal for more secure pilot licenses in place of the current paper ones. It also calls for a profiling system to help identify people who should not be allowed to buy or rent aircraft, and for increased security awareness on the part of pilots and airport operators.

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