This is Gabriel Silverstein. Unlike me, he is involved in commercial real estate and investment banking, and once worked at Morgan Stanley. Like me, he is an amateur pilot who likes to fly the Cirrus SR-22 small airplane -- and, as I will soon be doing, he recently was flying his Cirrus from the east coast to the west and back again with his spouse, on business, making a number of business-related or refueling stops along the way.
At two of these stops this month, he and his airplane, and his husband Angel who was traveling with him, drew the attention of security officials who "happened" to be at the small airports where he landed. One stop, at an otherwise deserted site in Oklahoma, was perfunctory -- but a few days later, in Iowa, a group of police were apparently waiting for the plane and surrounded it after it landed. They inspected it, with a dog, and took two hours to look through every part of the plane and all of the onboard baggage and possessions, before letting the Silversteins go. According to a fascinating account on the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) site:
Silverstein, the pilot in command, raised objections and was given three options: wait inside the FBO [the "Fixed Base Operator," the little office that exists at most small airports] or wait quietly outside, or be detained in handcuffs. An instrument-rated private pilot and AOPA member, Silverstein is also an active real estate investment banker who has never committed a crime, he said.
You can get more details at the AOPA site or in the opening minutes of the accompanying video, below, produced by my friend Warren Morningstar and featuring an interview with Silverstein.
Because several aspects of this story seemed so strange, before mentioning it I wanted to check it out a little more. I found a number for Silverstein (whom I do not know) and reached him on his cell phone yesterday while he was getting ready to board a commercial airline flight.
He confirmed that the AOPA story was accurate, and that he was filing a Freedom of Information Act request, with AOPA as a backer, to find out why he was apparently targeted for a preemptive, invasive inspection as he traveled around in perfectly legal fashion. To put this in perspective: it is as if you pulled over at one of the stops on I-95 on the east coast or I-5 on the west, only to find your car surrounded by cops and federal agents who held you for two hours and insisted on looking at every single item in your possession. Also for perspective: the prospect of "ramp checks" by FAA officials, who can show up to make sure that all your certificates, inspections, and other paperwork is in order, is theoretically possible at any moment but in practice is rare. (I am tempting fate to say this, but in 15+ years of active flying it has never happened to me.)
"I find it hard to believe that two inspections in four days was completely coincidental," Silverstein told me yesterday. "When I commented to the homeland security guys at the second, more invasive, inspection that this had happened a few days before, they didn't seem fazed by that at all. It seems strange that after a first inspection they would immediately feel the need for another."
There are more, great-but-terrible details in the AOPA report -- including references to two previous heavy-handed security measures involving small-plane pilots. One, as reported here a few months ago, involved a 70-year-old glider pilot who was handcuffed and jailed for 24 hours for gliding over a nuclear power plant that was not marked with any restrictions on air space. In normal-world terms, this is like being arrested for driving down what looked like a normal street. The other involved two of the most familiar and Mister Rogers-ish benign figures in the aviation world, John and Martha King, who in 2010 were handcuffed and held at gun point by police for no apparent reason. (Actually, because police mistakenly thought they were flying a stolen plane.)
To anticipate an objection: we all notice security-state intrusions when they affect our own. For me that includes journalists, in the recent AP-phone records case, and now pilots. But I am not special-pleading here: I am offering data points from (generally very privileged) realms I happen to know about, for the light they shed on the larger over-reach of the security state. And at least I'm consistent. Seven years ago, in an Atlantic cover story, I was arguing that the time had come to "declare victory" in the benighted, open-ended global war on terror, and try to restore some of the sane balance that keeps free societies free.
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. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best-seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.