I Try to be Open Minded About Security Theater, But.... (updated)

(see update at bottom) .... something preposterous happened over the weekend in Santa Barbara. I've resisted mentioning it, because it involves one of my hobby-horse subjects (general aviation). Nonetheless I think it deserves broader attention than it has received so far.

The main characters here are John and Martha King. If you have come anywhere near the flying world, they need no further introduction -- and very vivid associations will spring  immediately to mind. They run a well-known set of flight schools, but beyond that they are omnipresent because of their somewhat hokey, but extremely wholesome and all-American toned, set of instructional videos. Here are the Kings, in their trademark matching shirts:

KingSchools.png

Oprah isn't really the right comparison among mainstream celebrities, since she is more blindingly famous, plus hipper-seeming. Maybe Mister Rogers, in his heyday on PBS, would come closest to The Kings in being well known and also unembarrassed about his earnest tone. Maybe I'd add a little dash of Ron Popeil, the infomercial titan, since like him the Kings seem genuinely excited about the message they have to impart to their viewers. And a touch of the "Well, Timmy... " narrator from 1950s-era instructional videos, or Clark Griswold from the National Lampoon Vacation movies. You get the idea.

Unlike Clark Griswold, the Kings are highly accomplished at what they do. As they point out on their site, "John and Martha are the only husband and wife to both hold every category and class of FAA pilot and instructor certificates." That is, from gliders to helicopters to jets, they are certified as practitioners and teachers.

Over the weekend, the Kings were detained at gunpoint by Santa Barbara police and held in  handcuffs for half an hour, for reason that appear not to have been their fault in any way. The details are here and here, but the heart of the story is this:

- Eight or so years ago, a small Cessna 150 airplane was stolen in Texas;
- Each aircraft has a registration number, often known in America as the "N-number" since it begins with an N for US-registered aircraft. When a plane is destroyed, stolen, exported, or otherwise put out of commission, the FAA eventually "deregisters" its N-number and makes it eligible for reassignment to a new plane;
- Several years after the theft in Texas, the FAA deregistered the stolen plane's N-number -- N50545 -- and made it eligible for reassignment;
- Last year, that number was assigned to a small Cessna 172
- The Kings had leased that plane and were making a perfectly normal business trip. But some security agency - reportedly a branch of the DEA -- still had the number on its "stolen aircraft" watch list. When the Kings filed an instrument flight plan with that number, the DEA noticed it and told local police to apprehend the Kings as soon as they landed. And then, as reported on the AOPA site:

According to John King, who was piloting the airplane, upon landing at Santa Barbara, the airplane was directed to a remote part of the airport instead of the FBO [Fixed Base Operator - the normal place for small planes] where the Kings planned to park. There, four police cruisers were parked. After shutting down the engine, King was ordered out of the aircraft with his hands up and told to back slowly toward the officers, who had guns drawn. After he was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser, Martha was ordered to similarly exit the aircraft. She too was handcuffed and placed in a separate cruiser.

Yes, I know: no one was hurt or really seriously inconvenienced. Far, far worse happens every day in big cities and along the border -- and generally to people who, unlike the Kings, don't have the resources and connections to get their story out. And so on. Still, we have people who (by all reports) have done nothing wrong, either in this incident or in a past pattern of behavior, who are held at gunpoint because security agencies didn't update their files. And the general reaction in the flying world is: If John and Martha King, epitomes of the wholesome, can be taken as security threats, how much more suspicious must everyone else seem?

Later, perhaps, a larger point or more information. For now, just noting the news for the record.
____
UPDATE: Max Trescott, who according to his web site was recently the "Certified Flight Instructor of the Year," reports that this is the second time local police have mistakenly detained people flying this same plane. The previous time was in Kansas early in 2009. What this means, of course, is that the same out of date  "stolen plane" info concerning N50545 remained in the DEA's (or some agency's) files even after it was shown to be incorrect.

Another reader writes in with the fair point that this is less a case of "security theater" than of still-disconnected government databases, long after they were supposed (at great expense) to be combined. More on this after a while.

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.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In