How Secure Are America's Small Planes?

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The single-engine Cessna Bishop flew into the Bank of America building

When Charles Bishop flew a single-engine Cessna into a 42-story skyscraper on Saturday afternoon, he sparked myriad questions. When investigators found a note expressing sympathy for Osama bin Laden and the September 11th terror attacks, questions turned to demands. How could this have happened?

Bishop's flight instructor says he asked the teen to conduct a routine equipment check before the lesson began. He left Bishop alone with the plane, and the next thing he knew, the plane and the student were gone. Isn't anyone keeping an eye on our airspace, especially after what happened in September? Theoretically, yes. In practical terms, however, the answer is far more equivocal: New rules have been established in the past few months, but they are notoriously difficult to enforce. Small planes represent a largely unregulated sector of air travel. Technically, a general aviation (small plane) pilot doesn?t need any formal training to fly a plane; some informal tutorials will do the trick. It also doesn't help that small plane pilots are a fiercely independent population, generally reluctant to adopt rules that hinder their freedom.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Bishop's crash left local authorities haunted by what-ifs: What if Bishop had taken his plane down in a crowded area? What if he had wanted to kill scores of people? The grim fact is that he probably could have done both. Although a Coast Guard helicopter was dispatched and its pilots told Bishop to land, the teenager ignored the commands and crashed the plane. Scrambled F-15 fighter jets reached the scene only after the plane hit the building.

Bishop violated the rules, but as has become painfully obvious in the post 9/11 world, any threat of punishment is useless to someone intent on committing suicide. Bishop flew over restricted airspace, and prompted a military response, but attempts to stop him were futile.

Can anything be done to keep small planes — smaller weapons than commercial aircraft, but weapons nonetheless — out of the hands of those bent on harm or suicide? Sure, says Warren Morningstar, vice president for communications at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, but there's a limit to what officials can change. Much of the responsibility for safety lies in the hands of pilots themselves.

Warren Morningstar:First of all, let's be clear about one thing: The Bishop incident was an abuse of trust — not a security breach. This young man was at the flight school legitimately, taking flying lessons, and he was well-known to people at the school. They knew him, liked him, and assumed he was a young man serious about flying.

So there was nothing strange about Bishop being alone with the plane before the flight?

Not at all. Before you fly a plane, you do a pre-flight inspection on the interior and the exterior of aircraft to make sure airplane is ready to fly. In the normal course of training, the instructor will take the student through the pre-flight step by step. But by the time the student has been through this inspection many times, an instructor will often send the student out to do the pre-flight check on their own. So in this case the student has legitimate access to the plane; he had the key. This kid abused the trust that he had previously earned and essentially stole the aircraft and then took it into the building.

So what kind of changes have we seen at general aviation airports after 9/11?

We've definitely seen a lot of airfields increase their security. There are more checks on students enrolling at flight schools. Aircraft and keys to aircraft are kept under tight control. Around smaller airports, there has always been a very strong sense of community — and anything out of the ordinary tends to stand out. Since 9/11 that sense has been enhanced and people are not the least bit shy about asking people what they're up to.

Are there i.d. checks at smaller airports? Before you get into a plane or before coming onto the airfield?

The level of security depends on the airfield. If it's an airport that has scheduled airline service, there's going to be some kind of controlled access. Generally speaking, the larger the airport, the more security there's going to be. At a small general aviation airport, there's less security.

If you're getting onto a Lear jet, or another, larger general aviation plane, will your bags be subject to screening?

Remember if you're talking about a personal or corporate aircraft, passengers are going to be known to the pilot. I don't pick up hitchhikers — in my car or in my airplane.