Annals of the Security State: The Airplane Stories Continue

"I figured at this point that I was being hijacked by drug dealers who were going to steal my plane." But no, it was the Feds.
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For previous installments in this series, please see the stories of Gabriel Silverstein (right), Larry Gaines and Clay Phillips, and a Cirrus pilot who doesn't want to be identified.

Our next installment comes from another pilot who has asked me to protect his name and particulars because he is concerned about retribution. The first episode he describes, from Wyoming, was humiliating and annoying; the second, from Texas, sounds potentially dangerous and certainly quite frightening.

One point of context, which I'll pick up at the end. Many of today's security-state episodes arise from the open-ended "war on terror." Many others arise from the even more open-ended "war on drugs." Some appear to be caused by both at once, or a morphing of one into the other. Follow along with the cases, then a summary-for-now at the end:

'When they lowered their flashlights, I could see they had long guns.' A reader/pilot reports:

I've just finished reading your recent article "Annals of the Security State: More Airplane Stories" and it sounded oh so familiar.  I experienced almost an identical situation in flying from CA to TX.  It is hard to relate the stress, anxiety, adrenaline, concern and anger that is experienced during one of these encounters with our new federal government.

If you find it useful to share this story please delete my name and [other details] as my family has decided (after consultation with legal advisers) that we want no more attention from our wonderful federal protectors.  From what we have learned, they have lists, there is no one you can contact to get off the list and because they assaulted my plane and searched it for drugs, it and I are now tagged with a "drug ID number" and I must expect to be taken out of my airplane at gunpoint every time I land.... 

1. Wyoming, summer 2012. [From a letter to an aviation-world authority.] I recently had a very disturbing experience that I wanted to share with you. I'm a new pilot, I've owned a [single-engine, turbocharged Cessna] for a little over a year and am loving flying. It's been 14 months and I've racked up over 400 hours [JF note: that's quite a lot]...did I mention I love to fly?

The people I've met in the flying community have been uniformly helpful and friendly. That includes the folks at all the various FBOs [Fixed Base Operators -- essentially the service stations at small airports], so I was a bit surprised when I arrived at an FBO at a small Wyoming town last month and instead of the usual pleasant greeting the reception was a bit hostile. I found out why about a half hour later, after I'd put in my order for fuel, car rental, and wipe down and hangar storage for my plane. The manager said he'd gotten a call from Homeland Security (DHS) informing them that I was flying in shortly and to check out the plane and keep watch on me because I was "suspected of smuggling drugs."

At first I thought he was kidding me, or that one of my buddies had put him up to it - I'm an Army vet with lots of active duty military and law enforcement friends - and I wouldn't put it past one of them to play an evil joke like that on me, but it turned out he was serious. He said he decided to tell me because it was so obviously not true, once he got a look at me and at my plane.

I guess it may be true that my flying habits aren't "typical", whatever that is, but I didn't know that my decision to travel about the country in my own plane would result in Homeland Security monitoring my movements using the FAA ATC [air traffic control] system in real time and tracking me down. But it appears that DHS is calling up FBOs and making allegations that I'm a criminal based solely on my new found love of flying about the country. Because that's all it could be based on, anyone who had taken the slightest effort to look into my life would have known I have nothing to do with drugs or any other criminal activity.

I'm told by friends who should know that all this came about simply because I fly VFR (I'm not instrument-rated yet), and I often take advantage of ATC's flight following services when crossing the Sierras or Rockies. [Flying VFR, or by Visual Flight Rules, means that pilots find their own routes from place to place in clear weather and don't have to talk to air traffic controllers as long as they stay out of certain kinds of airspace.]

I'm not sure how much Homeland Security uses ATC's databases to track the activities of general aviation pilots and planes, or asks FBOs to engage in what is basically domestic spying on its behalf, but I thought you and other GA [general aviation] pilots might be interested to hear about what happened to me.

2. Utah, fall 2012
[From the same reader's letter to an aviation authority:] I departed [a city in California] on the night of November XX in order beat an incoming Pacific storm.  I stopped for the night in Cedar City, UT and then continued on to Texas the following day.  I flew mostly direct to Lubbock, TX where I stopped for fuel and then on to my destination in Corsicana, TX (just south of Dallas) a municipal airport south of town.  I landed an hour or so after dark.  I had called and made arrangements with the airport manager that morning before departing UT.

While on final approach to the airport another aircraft came on the frequency and basically blocked the frequency with banter and babble.  Approximately 1 minute after I landed a twin engine aircraft landed and taxied near where I was in the process of shutting down my aircraft. 

During my engine/turbo cool down period I was blinded from the front right and left with white lights. I just covered my eyes and sat there. There was no one else at the airport so I figured these people had come from the airplane that landed behind me.  I figured at this point that I was being hijacked by drug dealers who were going to steal my plane.  My sidearm was in my luggage in the back seat and I figured I wouldn't be able to get to it.

I tried to signal using hand gestures that I needed two minutes to cool down the engine/turbo, but I was then hit with strobe lights.  At this point I couldn't even make out the instruments on my panel so I returned the light with my own flashlight in an attempt to get them to stop blinding me.  Once they lowered their lights I was able to shutdown the plane. When they lowered their flashlights I could see they had long guns (one had a carbine and the other looked like a shotgun).  I did notice that one one of them had what looked like a shield on their jacket so I was hopeful that they were some form of law enforcement and not hijackers. The team looked to be composed of 5 or six men.

Once I got the plane shut down I was ordered out of the plane with a shotgun pointed at my head and patted down.   It was pretty stressful. I was told they were conducting "a standard FAA ramp check."  My ID, pilot's license, aircraft registration, medical, and airworthiness documents were demanded.  I provided all the documentation.

They continuously requested to search my aircraft and demanded to know where I was coming from and why I was in Corsicana.  After what seemed like 20 or 30 minutes I asked what I had done wrong and when I could leave. Finally I was given my documents back and told "I was free to go."

Once I secured my plane and loaded my luggage into a car I had arranged for from the airport, a local law enforcement officer arrived with what they referred to as a "drug dog."  I was told that they were going to walk the dog around my plane.  There dog was clearly trained to indicate for drugs when the handler wanted the dog to do so.  And, so, the dog indicated on the pilot's door and the baggage compartment door. 

The plane was searched without my authorization and against my will.  Obviously nothing was found.  I was then told that all my bags would be taken out of the car and the dog was going to inspect them.  I told them I didn't consent to that and they said they didn't care and continued to go in the car and remove all the bags and place them in the parking lot.  The dog walked around them and did nothing.  I was told I was free to go again.

After a couple of hours I was released and I headed for my hotel -- never to hear from them again, not that I really want to.  Obviously everything was in order and I was very thankful of that as these guys were very scary.  I've been spending some time trying to figure out how to make sure this doesn't happen again, but I'm not coming up with any real solutions.

A few thoughts:
1.  The initial contact was dangerous and unprofessional.  These idiots are going to get themselves or someone else injured or killed.
2.  No identification was given nor was an announcement made over the common frequency, I had no way of knowing these were government agents, thank god my gun was packed away.
3.  The only identification that was offered was CBP letters on one or more of the agents jackets.  No badges or identifications were presented...only firearms.

A European view. A reader combines the war-on-drugs and war-on-terror themes:

I write to you from Holland. Recently our national police started a similar harassment on pilots. If you ask me why I can suggest the following reason.

Security services all over the world have been very successful in repressing terrorism done by larger groups. They could do this by attacking the infrastructure necessary for the organization of these large scale attacks. Tapping into phone and e-mail, tracking financial trails and so on.The result is that terrorism has gone back to small operations done by small groups of people (Boston, London).

The result is also that the huge organizations like DHS suddenly hear and see nothing anymore. So they start to look for patterns done by profilers. Also they want their people to be in the alert status all the time because they have no clues anymore.

All of a sudden private pilots become a lovely soft target. They use the privileges of their license in the most rigorously controlled environment ever created by man. Do they focus their attention into motor gangs, a category much more likely to yield criminal results? No of course not. That would end in heavy gun battles all around the country.Imagine that you would like to make a trip on your motor bike and are allowed to ride only on certain times in the day due to noise restrictions, that you are obliged to have a tracking device on your bike the allow authorities to constantly monitor where you go and how fast, where you stop and how long. That you would have to file your itinerary one hour before departure and report upon arrival.You would find that absurd and society would not allow it.

But that is exactly what private pilots are subjected to. These people are obsessed by rules and regulations and are the most hyper obedient citizens you will find. So no resistance expected, soft targets and easy practice targets to keep your swollen bureaucracy going. In one of your stories there are a business jet ($3000/hr) a King air ($1200/hour) and a small army busy for three hours. That is an easy way to spend your budget. And the budget has to be spent at the end of the year. So the good news is that DHS was successful in fighting terrorism, the bad news is that you now live in a police state.

Similarly, from a reader in the US:

I might suggest that it's not the "Security" state, but the Drug War state. Which are slightly different things. The latter is the bigger problem than the former, in my opinion.

And I think as the security state comes under increasing "why did you exist?" pressures, it falls back on drug enforcement. Because that's an endless hole of discretion, for which astonishing infrastructure costs can be justified. Just look at the unbelievable hardware put in use in this episode. 

And I really appreciate the extrapolation part you discussed at the end. It's important for all of us to "internalize" what this means on the ground for all of us, as I noted yesterday. This could have been a Jay Z song.

And, from north of the border, a Canadian view:

Having read your stories about random checks on aircraft pilots, including a glider pilot, I thought that the time may have come to propose a general stand down. Your society seems to have entered a spiral in which more intrusive policing leads to a desire for greater private possession of firearms, and greater resistance to common-sense measures to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals or mentally unstable persons, while police react to the number of firearms in the population with more body armour, more "Terry stops", and a more intrusive and dominance-focused approach to policing.

A stand down would mean that both individual members of the public, and the public bodies dedicated to law enforcement, should give up some power. On the individual level, that means gun safety: accepting that not all people have the maturity or the mental stability to handle firearms, and accepting necessary restrictions to keep those weapons out of their hands. On the level of law enforcement agencies, it means reducing intrusions on the lives of innocent people. On the level of government, it means reducing penalties and enforcement efforts for consensual crimes and dialing back programs designed to provide police with body and vehicle armour and high powered weapons.

A few common-sense confidence building measures could level out a process that seems set, to use an aviation metaphor, to turn into a graveyard spiral.

The apotheosis of the Border Patrol. An American reader refers to a previous message about the Border Patrol's authority to stop and search without a warrant:

I am not a lawyer, but when I see this:

"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."

I have to wonder by what nebulous authority the Border Patrol can, with legal justification, search a flight originating within the United States (Calaveras County Airport) and flying to an airport in Oklahoma.  Neither airport is international.  Neither airport is particularly close to an international border.  The pilot did not exit US airspace during his flight.

What part of either airport, what part of the flight, what action by the pilot could allow the BP to consider Cordell Municipal Airport in Oklahoma to be functionally equivalent to the border?
These actions strike me, on their face, as an abuse of power.

And, to wrap things up right now, I have received many messages from fellow pilots who (unlike me) are politically very conservative, and who are convinced that what we're seeing is an Obama-era "war on the right wing." I don't believe that -- remember, the two main open-ended "wars" are fully bipartisan -- but offer this exchange as an illustration. It starts with a message from a reader in South Dakota:

Every time I travel abroad I am taken aside and asked a whole lot of questions that most of these highly irate pilots would ever be asked because I am dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who was born in Greece and is a naturalized citizen.  (NOTE:  I was naturalized when I was three years old; I was an orphan, adopted to this country.)  Considering what I go through in order to travel, and have for years, I have no sympathy at all for them and their encounters with "jack-booted thugs".  In fact, I find it ironic that they have discovered that the war on drugs and the war on terrorism applies even to them - nice, white, middle to upper-class, middle-aged folks - and that the Patriot Act and its ilk might have serious repercussions for all of us.

Thank you for pointing out that "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."  And for traveling while looking foreign. 

I wrote back saying that I understood her "welcome to my world" point, but that I very much disagreed with her saying that she had "no sympathy at all" for other people affected by the same treatment. She responded thus:

I will amend my statement:  I do have sympathy for anyone subject to harassment.  Until they launch into conspiracy theories and "jack-booted thug" statements, at which point I try (if they're sitting next to me) to explain the way things work in the real world. 

Sadly, what I often hear is "well of course they're being careful about THOSE people [blacks, Muslims, Native Americans, etc.], but I was doing nothing wrong!"  And they stick to it like glue... 

What I would really like is for those who do experience such harassment - rather than raise up conspiracy theories or complain endlessly about how badly they have been treated - to recognize that they have just been inducted into the world that thousands, hundreds of thousands, of American citizens undergo every day, and which they have acquiesced, approved, participated in it.  And feel just a little bit ashamed of themselves...  And decide that if it isn't fair for them, it isn't fair for anybody, including the scary black guy or Muslim woman or the 60-year old Greek born woman trying to get to Ireland...  :)

On these closing points I agree. This is a little sample of the incoming flow. More as soon as I can manage.

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.
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