Annals of the Security State: Turboprop Edition

"At this point I was shaking in my boots. I was absolutely concerned they were going to plant something in my aircraft."
More
You can find previous entries here, here, here, and here, with other links included in those items. Today's installment comes from David Blackburn, of San Diego, who like most of the recent correspondents has agreed to let me use his real name to tell about an encounter with the authorities late in 2010. 

The details follow in his own words, but this is the gist:
  • MU2.jpgBlackburn, a businessman and pilot, was making a normal and by-the-book flight from his home in San Diego, to a training base in Tennessee, and stopped for gas in Texas en route. He was flying a turboprop Mitsubishi MU-2 plane, with its very distinctive low-slung look. (Similar model, not his plane, shown at right.)

  • While in Texas, he overheard DHS officials calling the local airport manager on a phone-answering machine, asking that Blackburn be detained.

  • He left and went on to Tennessee, where on landing he was surrounded by police, in the way that is becoming familiar.

  • After being held and questioned for four hours, he was finally released. At no point was there any reason to think he had done anything wrong.

  • All this while, every inch of his progress across the country had already been monitored by air-traffic control authorities, with whom he had checked in throughout his flight. There is no comparable degree of monitoring in the normal ground-based travel world. To imagine it, think of motorists having to radio in their location to Highway Patrol officials every 20 or 30 miles along the Interstate, or whenever they changed course -- and meanwhile having devices that transmitted their position, speed, and altitude to federal authorities every few seconds. That is how aviation works for planes like this*. So before Blackburn's flight began and at every minute he was underway, government officials knew who he was and where he was going. Still he was the object of a manhunt. [* By "planes like this" I mean high-speed pressurized craft traveling at altitudes above 18,000 feet, where all trips must be under "Instrument Flight Rules" and subject to guidance from air-traffic control.]
Like the other people I have quoted, David Blackburn is not making any claim for special sympathy. Like other members of the pilot population, he is overall very fortunate, and is used to being on the right rather than the wrong end of scrutiny from the law. Rather I offer these cameos as examples of the way the "stop and frisk" mentality is extending throughout American life, and of the cumulative effect of our two open-ended wars: the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.

Over to Mr. Blackburn. This is his account, with clarifying remarks about aviation terms inserted in brackets [like this] where useful.
The following is an account of Three IFR flights from KSEE to L35 for fuel then to KBFE for more fuel then the destination KMQY.  [An IFR flight is under Instrument Flight Rules. The significant point here is that for IFR flights the FAA knows the name of the pilot; the details and home base of the plane; and every inch of the route it will take across the country. Most airports in the U.S. officially have "K" before their airport names -- KLAX, KJFK, etc. KSEE is Gillespie field, in San Diego; KBFE is Terry County Airport in Brownfield, Texas, south of Lubbock, where Blackburn stopped for gas. His destination was KMQY, Smyrna airport in Tennessee. The other airport is L35, in Big Bear Lake, California, where he also got gas. I won't go into why some smaller airports don't start with "K."]

I departed at 5AM on October 21st 2010 from KSEE. It was IFR, with poor visibility, to Big Bear CA, L35, for fuel and further flight planning. The weather was changing from mid- Texas to the north [and Blackburn had to adjust his planned route]. The route was also IFR more or less direct from L35 to Brownfield Texas and was conducted at Flight Level 270. [Approximately 27,000 feet] It was without a doubt a good fast flight at 300+ Knots [usually there is a tailwind for planes headed west to east].

The flight was planned for training purposes in the MU2 and for recurrent training to satisfy the requirements necessary to fly the MU2. [The piloting world has both regulatory and insurance-related requirements for frequent recurrent training. I was in fact doing some of that today in my Cirrus SR-22.]

The weather was down to 2,500 feet upon arrival to KBFE for fuel. [That is, the clouds were 2,500 feet above ground level as he came in for a landing. In pilot-world, "weather" often means "bad weather," as in "we ran into some weather."] The airport manager at KBFE,  whose name was XX, came to assist me with fuel.  He noticed the one of the tires was low and provided me a bottle of nitrogen to fill it up. We had a length discussion [about some mutual friends, including some who had come to tragic ends.] We had a long talk about that and shook our heads with what a small world it was. 

As I was returning the bottle in his shop the phone rang, the recorder picked it up and the manager answered.  I could hear the entire conversation.  The gentleman identified himself as "Homeland Security" and asked if a Mitsubishi was taking on fuel and XX said yes asked if he wanted to talk to me.  The caller said NO and asked if I could hear him and XX said no, as he did not know I was listening.  The caller said I will call you right back see if you can delay his departure and hung up. 

As I entered the shop I asked him if that call was about me and he said "Well sort of".  I told him I heard the call on his recorder and that I was going to depart now.  I filed an IFR flight plan and went direct to KMQY, in Smyrna Tennessee.  I landed and parked next to the National Guard after asking permission. [Smaller airports often have a variety of craft -- private airplanes, police helicopters, National Guard, etc, and you get local guidance on where to park.]

As I walked down the street to the office of the Mitsubishi Flight School, the airport security stopped me and asked if I just arrived in the MU2. I said yes.  He parked his car and said let's walk back to your aircraft.  He would not answer any questions. Just, let's get to your aircraft. 

As we walked to where the plane was parked,  he said I will need your identification, drivers license, Pilots License, Medical, aircraft registration and any other documents relating to the operation of this aircraft.  In the distance I noticed a string of 5 or 6 cars with Blue Flashing lights.  I asked if those cars were coming for my benefit and he repeated the demands for the documents and watched as I gathered them from the aircraft.  I had everything  arranged as the flight school was also going to need to see all of the same information before we started school. 

The 5 or 6 cars arrived and the gentleman immediately asked where the other two passengers went.  I said I had no other passengers as I was here to attend [flight training school].  He said several times that he wanted me to tell him who the other two persons were and I said there were none. 

He then asked If I was carrying a large sum of money and I said well I guess.  I reached into my pocked took the wallet out and counted out $300 which was more then I usually carry with me.  He said he was looking for a large sum.  I said like what and he said well like $250,000. 

I said NO I no longer carry that type of money because my wife would spend it.  He found no humor in this.  He asked why I did not stop when I crossed the Border.  I answered that I came from Brownfield, Texas, and from California before that.  All he had to do was look at my frequencies on my knee board and or look into my flight on Flight Aware as it was all IFR. [The pilot is saying (a) that the list of radio frequencies, for the air-traffic controllers he had been talking to through the flight, would show a sequence from California through Texas to Tennesee; and (b) that the radar tracks kept on FlightAware would also show his route.]

To this he answered "We will do this our way". I said again I was attending school for the recurrent training.  He said nothing to that and then requested access to the aircraft.  I said for what and he said he had a need to search the aircraft and that in fact if I was not carrying drugs or large sums of money that I shouldn't have a problem with that.

I asked him who all these people were and he informed me that he had three agencies investigating me  and they were Homeland Security, The FBI, and DEA.  Each team had their own dogs that would be going through the aircraft and that they would be as careful as they could.  I  gave permission for him to search the aircraft. 

That is when he brought out 3 dogs and what appeared to be 3 separate teams of two people with each dog.  One team went in at a time and after they were done they came over to ask me questions. 

At some point I was taken behind one of the vans and asked questions.  I asked to be in front of the vans as I wanted to see what if anything was going into the aircraft and they said no they wanted me right where I was.  They asked about other passengers, Mexico, drugs and money each time.  They would not allow me to make any calls and this went on till the wee hours in the morning for at least 4 hours.

At this point I was shaking in my boots.  I was absolutely concerned they were going to plant something in my aircraft.  After they completed their questioning over and over again they finally  instructed me to move my aircraft to a different parking  area and that the security would escort me off the airport and that they were done.  

And they were gone.  No contact information, no reports, no comments no nothing from them, nothing.  My phone was now dead and I knew that my wife was worried.  The security guard allowed me to use his battery as we had the same phone.  He also apologized for the awful interrogation and told me that they had called him earlier in the day and advised him to detain me with any means necessary until they arrived. He had no choice he had to do whatever they told him to do. 

He knew I was there for school because he knew of the MU2 instruction that was provided at this airport.
 
The next day I called my brother and asked him to look on flight aware for my flights.  He called back and said I have your flight from Ksee to L35 Big Bear and also the L35 flight to BFE Brown Field Texas.  The flights were direct and showed the correct flight levels.  The flight from BFE Brown Field however had been changed and showed a speed of 90 knots to 115 knots and never above 3,500 feet and all over the place south to the border and north for 60 miles and all over the place but never to MQY Smyrna Tennessee.  According to the Fight Aware I never arrived in Tennessee.
 
I can speculate as to a couple of the details and the first if about the money.  I had a conversation with a business associate about a project I was working on that needed a capital investment of $250,000.00 and during the same conversation I mentioned after my flight to Tennessee that I was going to Mexico in my airplane down to Cabo.  I think it is possible, that someone was listening to my cell phone for some reason and that is what started something with homeland security....

I really do not know if I am being treated any different than anyone else.... I will continue to fly and mostly IFR.  I will NOT be deterred from my passion of flight.

 In this case, unlike most of the previous ones, Blackburn was not held at gunpoint during the questioning and detention. But in all these cases we have many hours of detention, inspection by dogs, people left rattled and humiliated, and no indication of anything approaching probable cause. Further cases and commentary tomorrow. For now, just adding to the dossier. Sincere thanks to David Blackburn for going on the record here.

Presented by

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.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In