Annals of the Security State: More Airplane Stories

"My dad fought a war so this can never happen in America. I will not dishonor my father's memory by giving up what he fought for. No, sir. With all due respect, I will not consent to a search without a proper warrant."
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Over the weekend I related the story of Gabriel Silverstein, a businessman and pilot who for no apparent reason was subjected to a two-hour detention and invasive search by Homeland Security officials as he traveled across the country in his small plane. The picture above is not from that episode; it's an official DHS photo of its emergency-response agents being trained.

Below and after the jump are two additional stories of the same sort. The first is a long account from Larry Gaines, a small-plane pilot from California who had a similar episode last year. The story is long and detailed, and will be riveting for those in the aviation world. The summary for general readers is this.
  • A private pilot set out from an airport in the Sierra foothills of California, headed to Oklahoma; 
  • He made the trip "VFR" -- under visual flight rules, choosing his own path and knowing that he did not need to check in with air-traffic controllers as long as he stayed out of certain kinds of airspace (around big airports, in military zones, or subject to other restrictions).
  • He eventually landed at a tiny little airport in rural Oklahoma, where a friend met him and took him home for dinner. 
  • The pilot realized that he had dropped his eyeglass case at the airport and went back to retrieve it.
  • At which point all hell broke loose, as he describes in detail. In short, local, county, and federal enforcement agents were there to inspect him and his plane -- and when he asked why, they said that his "suspicious" profile was "flight west to east, from California."
Again to put this in perspective for people outside the airplane world, a person who was doing absolutely nothing illegal and was embarked on a perfectly normal trip from place to place, became the object of an extensive and costly manhunt -- on grounds of general "suspicion." As he says at the end of his account (taken from an email to a friend):
The whole episode lasted about 2 hours.  While the officers who questioned me were not overtly or personally threatening, the situation was intimidating and threatening.  I was never told details of the "profile", so I don't know how to prevent this from happening again, aside from talking to federal employees at all times while flying.  I am concerned that DEA and DHS now have files on me.  This distresses me GREATLY.  I am equally concerned that my plane's tail number is now suspicious in the eyes of law enforcement....

[He adds this caveat in a follow up note:] Although my adrenaline gets going when I think about this whole mess, and I can read the US Constitution, I have ENORMOUS respect for the rule of law and for the men and women who put their asses in harm's way to help assure my safety.  That includes local, state, & federal law enforcement agents, as well as our military.  The people who should answer for this crap are the cowardly bureaucrats who sent all those men, vehicles, airplanes, dogs, and guns out there - not the men dispatched to the scene.

His full account after the jump. After that is the second case, from Clay Phillips, a retired Navy officer who had a similar experience.

To say it again: I am not contending that the aviation world is being inordinately picked-upon. Overall it is a privileged part of society -- and demographically it skews toward older white males who are politically conservative, have money, and often have military experience. Ie, these are people who are not generally the object of police profiling for terrorist or other criminal tendencies. So if the security state is leaning heavily on them, you can extrapolate to other groups. The stories begin below.

____
Here is the first story. Explanations of aviation terms provided in brackets, [like this]:
I'm Larry Gaines; my airplane is a J35 Bonanza [a popular single-engine plane].
 
I took off from KCPU, Calaveras County airport in San Andreas, CA about 9:00 AM local (1600 Z) Tuesday, July 17, 2012.  1200 squawk.  [1200 is the code put in the transponder, as a "squawk," to indicate to air-traffic controllers following the flight on radar that the pilot is flying under Visual Flight Rules. This requires clear visibility, and it puts the obligation on the pilot to avoid hitting other planes or running into obstacles. A VFR pilot does not have to talk with controllers, as long as the plane stays out of certain controlled air space. Z is "Zulu time," aka Universal Time or Greenwich time.] Route was direct TPH VOR (Tonopah, NV), to stay north of Tonopah Test Range restricted airspace, then direct F36 (Cordell Municipal Airport, Cordell, OK).  [The pilot plotted the course by certain navigation waypoints, and was careful to stay out of a military-airspace zone.] Landed F36 about 6:30 PM local (2330 Z).  Total flight duration, engine start to engine shut down was 7:24.
 
My friend XX met me at the airport and we drove to his home.
 
I dropped my eyeglasses case on the ramp, so we returned to the airport a little before 7:00 PM local.  As we drove onto the airport access road, there were 3 local law enforcement vehicles - 2 turned in ahead of us, 1 behind.  All three surrounded my airplane as we drove up.  I retrieved my glasses, then a Washita county sheriff began asking questions.  
 
"Is this your airplane?"  "Yes."
 
"Where did you fly in from?"  "Calaveras, California."
 
"California?"  "Yes"
 
Then I asked why he and the other officers and deputies were there.  At first he ignored my question, but eventually said my flight met "a certain profile", and that the Department of Homeland Security asked his office to send a deputy out to see if an airplane was on the ramp.  He said DHS wanted to talk to me.  I was afraid they thought I had violated a TFR. [A "Temporary Flight Restriction," which often includes the no-fly zones that surround a president as he moves around the country.] I knew I had NOT.  Unless the president had somehow had dinner in Amarillo.
 
I asked for the DHS telephone number.  He said I had to wait because they were flying in.  While we waited, the deputy said he was supposed to "check my documents."  I showed him how to conduct a proper ramp check, and produced pilot and aircraft documents.  I then respectfully let him know that he really did not have authority to conduct ramp checks, as that is within the sole purview of the FAA (which I believe is correct - I do realize pilots must produce pilot certificates when requested by local law enforcement officers, but I do not believe we are required to produce any other documents.)
 
I asked about the "profile".  After asking again, he said the profile was a flight "from west to east, from California."
 
I called my mother on my cell phone to let her know I had made it to Cordell and landed safely.  When I got out my phone, the deputy moved toward me and made it VERY CLEAR I was not to make any phone calls.  I told him who I was calling and why.  He let me call, but listened in to make sure I was, indeed, talking to my Mom and that I was not talking about this detention.
 
We waited for the DHS aircraft.  2 black Suburbans drove up at some point during this time, plus more Cordell Police and Washita County Sheriffs.  All told, there were 3 police cars, 3 sheriff's cars, and 2 Suburbans with black windows from what I was later told was DEA.  The officers/agents in the Suburbans were dressed in what appeared to be riot gear - body armor and helmets, I believe.  They had shotguns and at least one German Shepherd dog.  One of the local sheriffs was definitely in full SWAT regalia.  It was over 100 degrees F.  I counted 20 officers, deputies, and agents.  Seven were dressed & equipped, literally, for armed conflict.  The entire scene was very intimidating, ominous, and foreboding to me.  I really was not in immediate fear of physical harm, but I was definitely scared that they thought I was some sort of horrible criminal, and that I would be treated as such.
 
A large business jet arrived and circled overhead for the next 60-90 minutes.  A King Air 200 [a sizable twin-engine turboprop plane] arrived and landed.  2 Border Patrol agents got out.  I was "interviewed" again.  I was lied to about a couple things.  The BP agent who appeared to be senior, or in charge, said I had been tracked on radar "from Stockton".

That's not true.  My flight took off from Calaveras County Airport.  My airplane is based at Stockton Metropolitan Airport, but that's not where I took off.  He asked, "Why don't you file flight plans?"  I answered, "Sir, with all respect, I DID file a flight plan this morning.  I did not activate it, but I did file."  I offered to show him the confirmation e-mail from the DUATS provider (Foreflight). [DUATS is an online system for filing and accepting flight plans.]  He asked why I had not opened the flight plan.  I said, "Flight plans are about Search & Rescue.  This flight was mostly over major highways; if I crashed, the news people would be there before the flight plan expired." [If you are flying VFR, you are not required either to file or to follow an official "flight plan." People sometimes do them to provide guidance to rescuers if the plane does not arrive on time. Under Instrument Flight Rules -- which in effect apply to nearly all commercial flights and to any flight in bad weather -- pilots must file specific routes and follow detailed instructions on altitude and heading from controllers.]
 
He asked why I didn't use Flight Following.  I said I don't ask for services when I don't need them. ["Flight following" is a courtesy that pilots on a VFR flight can ask of controllers. The pilots can still choose and follow their own routes, but the controller watches out for them on radar and alerts them to other planes nearby, for collision avoidance.]
 
The lead BP agent asked about my home town, "They grow a lot of drugs in Stockton, don't they?"  I told him Stockton was famous for its imminent bankruptcy and for growing asparagus, but that I had never seen anyone growing drugs.  I asked how he got the impression my home town was a drug capital.  He didn't answer.  I very politely (meekly, actually) asked why he was there.  What had I done wrong?  He said I didn't do anything wrong.  I asked about TFRs.  He said it had nothing to do with TFRs or any kind of airspace 'bust'.  I repeated my question, "What triggered all of this?"  He said the same thing the Deputy Sheriff said.  My flight fit a "profile".  "What profile?"  "You started in California and flew from west to east."  He later hinted that squawking 1200 might be part of the "profile".  I chose not to mention that if I was trying to hide anything, I would have turned the transponder off. [In that case a flight would show up on radar as a little blip, without any identifying information. If it flew low enough it might not show up on radar at all.] I did not want to suggest any "druggie" strategies, no matter how obvious.
 
At this point, the senior BP agent conferred with the head DEA guy.  He may have gotten back in the King Air to consult with someone in the Citation, which continued to circle at about 3000-5000 feet AGL [Above Ground Level].  While he was away, the junior BP agent conducted another ramp check.  I showed him my pilot and aircraft documentation, but he asked for a Weight & Balance calculation for that day's flight.  [A calculation to ensure that a plane is not overloaded, and that its nose-to-tail weight balance is appropriate for safe flight.] I noted that I am responsible for assuring my airplane is loaded properly, but that I am not required to put it down on paper and carry it aboard the plane.  He said I was wrong and that a W&B for each flight was required to be on board the aircraft.  I asked if he was going to issue a citation and he said, no.  He off-handedly noted that this requirement was little known by most pilots, and said, "We keep this in our back pocket for non-compliant suspects."  That evening I looked it up and confirmed he was wrong.  Part 91 flight operations rules do NOT require that a written W&B for each flight be carried on board. [Part 91 is the section of the FAA rules that governs most small-plane, non-commercial flights. Part 131 mainly governs the airlines.]
 
The senior BP agent returned and asked if I would consent to a search of my airplane.  I teared up and my voice broke.  I told him, "My Dad fought a war so this can never happen in America.  I will not dishonor my father's memory by giving up what he fought for.  No, sir.  With all due respect, I will not consent to a search without a proper warrant."
 
All the federal agents huddled up and then the lead BP agent asked if the DEA's drug-sniffing dog could sniff my airplane.  I replied, yes, but on the condition that this would be the last request I would take.  On reflection, I should not have allowed that, either, without a warrant.
 
A DEA agent led the dog around the plane. The dog sniffed the wheel wells and around the baggage compartment door.  When he ordered the dog up onto the wing, I told him to keep the dog's feet on the black painted wing walk.  He said he could not guarantee that and the dog had "soft paws".  I told them that I would not allow anyone, including the dog, to damage my airplane in ANY WAY WHATSOEVER.  I said he could put the dog on the wing, but only after signing written affirmation that he, personally, would pay for a new paint job if his dog scratched the paint, and only after the other 19 law enforcement people there witnessed and signed it, too. 
 
I was shaking from having challenged the guy.  He was NOT happy.  Then I offered to allow the dog on the wing if there was a blanket or mat to protect the airplane's painted surfaces.  The handler had the dog sniff the baggage door once more, and the dog gave me a "clean bill of health".
 
The senior Border Patrol agent stood there for a few seconds, apparently thinking.  I asked if he was satisfied.  He said, "Yeah.  You're free to go."  I said, "I assume that, until right now, I have NOT been free to go.  Is that correct?"  He did not answer, but repeated that I could leave.  I told him that we were leaving to get dinner, and that nobody was to go near my airplane again.  He nodded and we left.
 
The whole episode lasted about 2 hours.  While the officers who questioned me were not overtly or personally threatening, the situation was intimidating and threatening.  I was never told details of the "profile", so I don't know how to prevent this from happening again, aside from talking to federal employees at all times while flying.  I am concerned that DEA and DHS now have files on me.  This distresses me GREATLY.  I am equally concerned that my plane's tail number is now suspicious in the eyes of law enforcement.
Here is the account from Clay Phillips:
I just read your article regarding Gabriel Silverstein and the treatment he experienced.  A month or so ago I was flying my Cessna 180 [small single-engine plane] home from Salt Lake City.  Other than the fact that it was a very windy day it was a normal VFR flight. 

I filed a flight plan and activated it, and shortly after takeoff I also requested and received VFR flight following from Salt Lake Departure, but was dropped shortly after flying over the mountains because I couldn't fly high enough for the radar to "see" me.  Center ["Center" controllers are part of the air-traffic control system, along with "approach" and "departure" controllers near larger airports and "tower" controllers at those airports] suggested that I could pick up flight following again once I was closer to Moab, UT.  I elected not to pick up flight following again for the remainder of the flight (perfectly legal). 

When I landed at my home base in Moriarty, NM I was met by the owner/operator of the local FBO [Fixed Base Operator, essentially the managers of small airports] who said that about 15 minutes before I touched down he received a call from Homeland Security and that they wanted him to go find me and ask whether my plane was properly registered.  This is Homeland Security, mind you, not the FAA. 

I was bewildered why Homeland Security would have any interest in me.  I avoided restricted airspace and did not violate any temporary flight restrictions.  I did absolutely nothing wrong, plus my plane is legal in every respect including current registration.  Clearly, the FAA brought me and my flight to the attention of Homeland security.  I called AOPA legal services [Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association] the next day to ask what I should do.  They said I shouldn't do anything and that they had never heard of such a thing.

I'm a retired US Navy officer, have held security clearances during my entire time in the Navy, and now into my second career as an engineer for a defense contractor, and am one of the most law-abiding citizens in this country and yet something I did, or didn't do attracted this jack-boot fascist attention from our out-of-control government.  I hope others like me can tell their story to show that Mr. Silverstein was not an "outlier data point".  This is now the new-normal unless the public forces our representatives to do something about it.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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