Annals of the Security State: Even More Airplane Stories

By James Fallows


Over the past few days I've relayed several stories that amount to the familiar police force stop-and-frisk policy being extended from the sidewalk to the skies. The case of Gabriel Silverstein (originally told by AOPA) is here. Those of Larry Gaines and Clay Phillips are here. This photo, apparently of a real interdiction, is via AOPA.

Now pilots and others respond, plus another first-hand story, from another pilot who for no reason found his plane surrounded by police. 

1) Politics. I pointed out earlier that as a group general-aviation pilots are older, whiter, more politically conservative, and more likely to have a military background than the population at large. While they're not all rich, they're all committed to an expensive pastime/ passion/avocation. So as a group they're not used to being on the wrong side of routine hassles by the police. Therefore, I concluded, if they (we) are now being viewed with routine suspicion, you can imagine circumstances for people in the "driving while black" category.

A reader notes one comment from one pilot who was hassled -- "I'm a retired US Navy officer, have held security clearances during my entire time in the Navy... and yet something I did, or didn't do attracted this jack-boot fascist attention from our out-of-control government." The reader adds:
The stories you have published lately about the harassment of private pilots are truly disturbing.  There is one point you made that I suspect is stirring up some dust -- "So if the security state is leaning heavily on them, you can extrapolate to other groups."  I think your take on this is correct -- if older white guys are being harassed, just imagine what is happening to other folks.

However, the "jack booted fascists" comment made me think that a lot of these folks feel that they are being targeted specifically because they are older white conservatives.  This perception has been reinforced by the recent IRS hullaballoo of course.  But the general sentiment has been going on for a long time -- fueled by all the right-wing media and repeated in their echo chambers. 

I'm reasonably confident that one or two of your correspondents on the airplane stories have said something in the past in favor of "stop and frisk" type laws, property seizure in suspected drug crimes, etc.  It is a reminder for all of us that freedom is for everybody, not just us and those who look like us...
I agree with this reader's interpretation, and don't agree with some of my fellow pilots who feel that they're being persecuted as an extension of the IRS/Tea Party imbroglio. I will bet anybody any amount that this is the security-state/ stop-and-frisk reflex extended in a new direction, rather than the (comparatively tamer) workings of partisan politics.

2) Search and seizure. From a lawyer in Los Angeles:
I'd love seem these guys at Homeland Security held accountable for what seems to be violation of Terry v. Ohio and other Supreme Court case law that requires more than what they have to detain the pilots and their aircraft.

3) We didn't go to Russia, but... From a friend I've known for decades in the defense-policy world:
Unf_ _ _ ing believable. I hope you pursue this.

Here is a quote from a friend I receive recently:

"I know I didn't move to Russia but did Putin move here?"

So I have suggestion: why don't you come up with a DHS Rapid Response Check List for Citizen's Rights so future pilots (and others) know the limits of what they can and cannot do.
Many people I know in the piloting world are actually thinking about this latter step.

4) The Soft Paws Angle. Another reader writes:
I read with growing fury your recent update recounting the experience of Larry Gaines.

I don't have much to add, but I may be able to shed one tiny sliver of light on an insignificant aspect of the article.  There's a product called "Soft Paws" -- these are blunt plastic covers for animal claws (dogs & cats), which are used to keep them from scratching up surfaces (and owners, in the case of cats!).  That's probably what the canine agent meant when he said that his dog had "soft paws."  I still wouldn't be comfortable letting the dog onto the wing of my airplane, though.

I have a handy wallet card that the ACLU produced concerning my rights as a citizen when stopped by law enforcement.  It seems to me that ACLU and AOPA may need to combine their efforts to create a similar one for pilots.  I will write to AOPA to suggest that they create one.
The idea of the ACLU collaborating with the AOPA, the generally conservative Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, epitomizes a changing political era. Or maybe a trans-partisan queasiness about the security state.

5) What the Border Patrol can do. A person with experience writes:
As a former US Border Patrol Agent, and a pilot and aircraft owner I feel for the man who was searched but a border patrol agent is fully authorized by the Government to "board and search any Vehicle, Boat, Aircraft, dog sled, ect.. without a warrant or probable cause.
The DEA and other law enforcement agencies do not have the authority to "board and search" and that is why the Border Patrol was there.

6) And one more story. From a person who, like me, flies a Cirrus SR-22 airplane:
I had an experience that was just like a few of those you mentioned in your article. Flying a Cirrus SR22 from Santa Monica to KJWN in Nashville [a small airport, on the west side of town] in April, 2009. Had a quick refuel in Amarillo. Met by about ten officers of various agencies in Nashville. The dog handler lied and said he "triggered" on my baggage door. I told him to save it as I already gave permission to search the plane. I won't do that again. The officers were courteous and they said their orders came from the "big boys".

[Now, the more detailed tick-tock account:]

Date  - April, 2009
Plane - SR22
Pilot - 40-sometime white-male pilot, flying alone
Route - Two leg flight from SMO-AMA [Santa Monica to Amarillo], AMA-JWN [and on to Nashville]. First leg was IFR, second leg VFR (even though I had an IFR on file for that leg - it was good weather and I enjoy VFR flight across our wonderful country.) [VFR is Visual Flight Rules, for good-weather / good-visibility conditions in which pilots can choose their own route and don't need to check with controllers as long as they stay out of certain kinds of airspace. IFR is Instrument Flight Rules, for bad weather/bad visibility or other circumstances in which pilots want controllers to be responsible for their routing, separation from other airplanes, etc. On IFR flights pilots are expected to follow controllers' instructions about heading, altitude, speed, etc.]

I did "get" flight following on the second leg. ["Flight following" is a courtesy service on VFR flights, in which controllers alert pilots to potential traffic conflicts or other problems. In return the pilot has to stay in touch with the controllers, rather than just cruising along on his own.] At the time I thought this was weird because when I left AMA [Amarillo], they told me to contact departure. Departure gave me a squawk and "forced" flight following on me. [At larger airports with control towers, after the plane leaves the immediate area control will pass to "departure" controllers. A squawk is a specific code for a transponder, which lets air traffic control identify your plane on radar.] I say that in quotes because I know I was PIC [Pilot in Command, with ultimate authority to accept or reject requests] but I never requested it and they gave it to me. (Later they told me they were tracking me across the country so I guess this is why it was "forced" on me). 

This is a route I have flown many times in the Cirrus, a Cessna 182, and other aircraft. I departed early morning SMO [Santa Monica] and landed in the evening JWN [near Nashville. As a side editorial note: Imagine just being able to do this, flying yourself from LA to Tennessee, at your own schedule, in a day.]

Upon landing and taxiing to the FBO [Fixed Base Operator, essentially the small-airport office] at JWN:

After exiting and securing the aircraft, I quickly walked to the bathroom which was across the lobby inside the FBO (long flight leg combined with small bladder). Going to the bathroom, I saw two average looking guys hanging out in the lobby. I didn't think anything of it and proceeded to the restroom. After exiting the restroom (and in front of FBO personnel) the two males flashed badges and asked if they could talk to me. I do seem to recall that one of the badges was local sheriff dept but can't remember what the other guy's affiliation was.
I consented to the questioning (another mistake I won't repeat).

They asked me about my route of flight first. They asked why I went out of my way and landed in Amarillo. I told them that if they looked at the great-circle route line between Santa Monica and Nashville, they would discover that it was only about 20 nautical miles or so out of the way on a 1500 nautical mile trip. So I considered it a convenient place to stop since Amarillo airport is also one of the bigger ones around for my refueling stop.

Next question was "Can I look through your flight bag?". I said sure and he went and looked at my charts, radios, and satellite phone. He asked why I had a satellite phone. I told him it was to make phone calls in-flight, pickup clearances when necessary, and in a forced landing if required.

After this "chat-up", they asked me to walk to my plane on the ramp with them. When we exited the FBO to walk to the ramp, I looked at my plane that was 200 feet away and was surprised to see it surrounded by many law enforcement vehicles in a circle around the plane with their lights shining on the it. At this time, there were now about ten law enforcement officers there. Various agencies I believe. They told me that this "command" to check me out came from the "Big Boys". I didn't know who they meant at the time but later figured it was possibly the AMOC (Air Marine Operation Center) out of Riverside, CA and maybe some DHS/CBP involvement.)

Then they asked to search my plane and I consented. The reason I consented to the search is I had worked with federal law enforcement agencies previously in a professional manner and was comfortable and trusting of them. Looking back I was probably more cooperative than I should have been (per my lawyers) but I had no reason to doubt their integrity at that time.

So about a minute after I consented to the search with one officer, another officer/dog-handler with his dog approached me and gave me a paragraph about how his dog "triggered" on my baggage door for drugs. By the monotone delivery, I could tell that this was a memorized speech he had given many times. I politely told him that he didn't have to go on with the speech since I had already consented to the search.

At this moment, I switched from comfortable to scared as I was 99.9% sure this dog triggered on command and I felt this part of the detainment was definitely manufactured. I also sensed multiple agencies working at the same time because they were not completely coordinated in their search. This was evidenced by the fact that the dog handler did not know I already gave consent to the search and was trying to get my consent.

While searching the plane, they removed all loose items from the plane (cooler, oxygen bottles, bags, etc), piled them on the ramp, and looked through them. When they were done, I was allowed to put the items back in the plane. The whole event lasted from one to two hours. I have a picture somewhere that I secretly took with all the cars and officers around the plane. I am trying to find it.

In closing I must add that the officers were courteous and I feel they were being directed to do what they did by Feds. I think the problem with these shakedowns needs to be solved at their superiors. It was harassing and embarrassing event for me. I fly into that FBO frequently and now feel that some of them look at me like a drug runner. I also think that local law enforcement resources are wasted on shaking down innocent citizens.

On a side note, I have since done research on drug-dogs/triggering and found out that when done on a highway stop, the dog will frequently trigger outside of the view of the dash-cam. Because of this, the interpretation of the triggering is solely up to the handler and his recollection.
For the record, as with the previous accounts this is one more story of a pilot who was:
  • doing absolutely nothing wrong;
  • breaking no law, guidance, or suggestion formal or informal; and yet
  • was detained for an extended period, subjected to an intrusive search, and otherwise treated as a suspect in a process that yielded no incriminating material nor anything even vaguely suspicious.
Our open-ended "wars" -- on "terrorism," on drugs -- have brought us to this point. More soon.

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