Annals of the Security State, Glider Pilot Edition

I am mentioning this story precisely because it occurs in a self-contained little corner of American life that most people would never think of or hear about. But it illustrates some broader changes in American life worth reflecting on.

When you have time, I hope you'll watch the first six minutes of the 19-minute video at the bottom of this item. Or you can read a summary here. The video and story come from the AOPA -- the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which as I've explained is "my" version of the NRA. That is, it is an unyielding and at times unreasonable advocate for what it sees as its members' interests. In this case, I really support its vigilance.

The story in brief: Robin Fleming, a 70-year-old glider pilot in South Carolina, was out for an afternoon's flight last summer. From the AOPA story here's the pilot and his craft, to give you an idea of who and what we're talking about:


He left in the early afternoon. By late afternoon his colleagues at the glider club were getting very worried, because he had not returned as planned. He finally emerged late the following day, having been arrested, handcuffed, held overnight in jail, and questioned by the FBI and Homeland Security officials.

His offense? While circling over a lake to gain lift for a return to his home airport (this is what gliders have to do), he passed about 1,000 feet above a nuclear power plant that adjoins the lake and a nearby airport. This may sound ominous, but, as the AOPA story lays out, it's not illegal and of course has never led to any kind of security problem. In the years since 9/11, pilots have been told to "avoid" nuclear facilities, but most plants are not surrounded by any formal no-fly zones. The two plants I most often encounter when flying northward from the DC area are the famed Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, and the Limerick site outside Philadelphia. Each is very close to a small airport, just like the one in South Carolina  -- you look for similar away-from-residential-zone territory when siting airports and power plants -- and thus the coexistence of air traffic and normal plant operations is routine.

From the piloting world's point of view, the crucial fact is there is absolutely no formal indication of a "no-fly" zone in the area where the pilot got in trouble. Here is the FAA's "VFR Sectional Chart" (via SkyVector) for the scene of the crime. The pilot was circling over "Lake Robinson" in the upper center of the chart. The magenta circle next to the lake, marked with a cross symbol, is the Hartsville airport where the pilot landed, was swarmed by at least a dozen police vehicles, and was immediately placed under arrest.


Where's the nuclear plant? It's the blue mark that looks like a big M at the base of the lake, just to the left of the airport. The "M" is actually two cone-shaped symbols indicating a tower-type obstruction. Where's the indication of a no-fly zone or area to avoid? There isn't any. There is no indication whatsoever that this is other than "normal"* airspace.

You want to see what it looks like when it's not normal airspace? Here is a tiny illustration of the controlled, restricted, and otherwise closed space just north of Washington DC. (The big red part at the bottom left means what you would guess: KEEP OUT, except with explicit clearance. It's the giant "Special Flight Rules Area" that now surrounds the capital area, about which more another time.)


You can get more details from the video and the AOPA story, but the key is this:
  • The pilot was doing something entirely legal;
  • He was doing it in an area that was in no way marked as being illegal;
  • He was doing it in a tiny craft designed to lift very little more than its own and the pilot's weight;
  • He was doing it roughly two miles from a small airport where light-plane traffic was routine.

Nonetheless he was arrested, handcuffed, held for 24 hours, and interrogated as a national-security suspect. For a while local "security" officials considered shooting the glider down. I could go on, but the AOPA story is full of piquant details.**

The pilot was eventually released, and the charges were eventually dropped (after he agreed not to file suit). So the case doesn't "matter" in that sense; and since 99+% of the public will never consider flying a glider (well under 1 million Americans have pilot certificates of any kind), this may seem to matter even less. But if you watch the first few minutes of this video I think you'll find it significant as another chronicle of the modern security state. Thanks to the AOPA for documenting this case.

* Note to the aviation world: yes, I know that "normal" is not the official term. I mean that this is not marked as Class B or Class C airspace, nor shown as "Special Use" or restricted airspace in any other way.

** For instance, from the manager of the airport right next to the nuclear plant:
Wendy Griffin was monitoring the Unicom [the CB-style communications frequency for pilots in the area.] Griffin said the people at the power plant sometimes call her if they see an aircraft flying nearby to ask her who's flying and why the aircraft is there. (One time, she said, she got a call about a helicopter lingering in the area and found out from the pilots that they were working for the power plant.) Sometimes she calls the pilots on the frequency to find out their intentions, but on July 26 she saw that it was a glider and didn't think much of it, she said.

"I said, 'Well, I really don't think it's a threat,'" she said. "'I wouldn't worry about it.'"

And if you skip to the last minute of the video, you'll see a surprise that doesn't involve this glider pilot but does bring you ... James Lipton.