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Flight School Security

by Daniel J. Benny
Reprinted with Permission of FAA Aviation News

The recent incident involving the theft of a Cessna 172 in Tampa, Florida, and its deliberate crash into an building, along with concerns over aviation security since the September 11 terrorist attacks, demonstrate the need for flight schools, general aviation airports, and aircraft owners to do all they can to ensure the security of their aircraft. This increased security is important for many reasons. It can aid in preventing the theft and use of aircraft as terrorist weapons which is a primary public concern at this time. Security measures can also reduce the threat from traditional criminal activity and motives such as the theft of aircraft for illegal drug trafficking, joy rides, and theft of avionics.

Being a litigious society, the failure to provide adequate security of aircraft could lead to successful lawsuits against flight schools, FBOs, airports, and aircraft owners. Security precautions will also be assisting in reducing or maintaining lower insurance rates for both liability and hull coverage of the aircraft.

Over the last year, there have been periods in which flight schools were unable to operate because of restrictions in airspace related to the recent terrorist attacks. In order to prevent increased government restrictions and regulations on flight schools and general aviation, it would be more palatable for the general aviation community to establish and adhere to their own voluntary security standards. This gesture would go a long way in preventing mandated government restrictions and security procedures for flight schools and general aviation.

The level of security that can be provided by a flight school depends on several factors. As is the case of Reigle Aviation, located in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, were I hangar my Cessna 150, they own Reigle Airport (58N) and the FBO and operate a flight school. In this situation, they have complete control over the entire airport facility and flight school-owned aircraft and are unlimited in the level of security measures they can implement. In situations where the flight school is operating as a tenant at a general aviation airport, they will be limited in the security measures they can implement.

While no measures can guarantee the security of aircraft, a flight school can establish security procedures to reduce the risk of theft or misuse of aircraft. Security begins with the hiring of staff and flight instructors. A thorough background investigation should be conducted on all applicants to verify their identity, work history, criminal history, emotional stability, and verification of appropriate credentials for flight instructors. This can aid in preventing individuals with long-term terrorist or criminal goals from being able to insert themselves into a flight school operation in which they themselves could have access to aircraft or be in a position to allow other potential unauthorized individuals to gain access to aircraft.

The next step is to establish written policies and procedures covering security of the flight school and to ensure that all staff members and instructors are trained in, understand, and follow the established procedures. The mere fact that written procedures have been established is of little value if they are not followed. These procedures should cover the screening of potential flight students, physical security of school aircraft, and control of access to the aircraft.

The screening of flight students is critical in the prevention of the misuse of aircraft and terrorist incidents. The flight school staff should interview all potential students and verify their identity. Students who are not of age to obtain an FAA medical certificate should be required to obtain one from their own physician indicating that they are physically and mentally cleared to participate in flight training activity. Flight schools might consider initiating background checks of students, including a criminal check-if authorized in their state-and reference checks. Staff should be trained to look for possible indicators of terrorist intent, such as students paying for training in large sums of cash or showing an interest or requesting training in only certain areas of flight to the exclusion of other areas that are critical to the full certification process. Other indicators are students who suddenly leave the program without explanation or act in any manner that appears suspicious or inconsistent with obtaining full flight certification. Potential students should also be observed and screened for any obvious mental or emotional conditions. If any of the above indicators appear during the course of flight training, the student should be reevaluated for suitability to continue.

Physical security and the control of access to flight school aircraft are important aspects of the overall security program. All keys to aircraft should be accounted for and maintained in a locked key cabinet when not in use. It is also recommended that the doors to the aircraft and the ignition be keyed separately. Aircraft when not in use, especially when secured for the night, should be maintained in a locked hangar, with intrusion detection systems if possible. Other security measures could include prop cable locks, throttle locks, or wheel boots in addition to locking doors and securing the window of the aircraft. The use of signage indicating that access is restricted and that tampering with aircraft is a violation of the law, along with the use of adequate security lighting, should also be considered as part of the security program.

Student access to aircraft must be controlled. Flight schools might consider issuing all students a flight school photo identification card upon registering with the school or at a minimum, be required to show a driver's license or other form of photo identification. Students should check in with a staff member upon arrival at the school and never be provided with a key to obtain access to an aircraft without the knowledge of their flight instructor. As mentioned earlier, the door lock and ignition should be keyed separately. Students should sign for and only be given the door key to the aircraft if they are going to be doing a preflight of the aircraft on their own. The flight instructor should then hand carry the ignition key to the aircraft before beginning dual flight instruction. Students permitted to conduct solo flights should sign for both door and ignition keys.

While there are no flight school security measures to prevent a solo student from misusing an aircraft when they are airborne, by following the recommended screening procedures and monitoring the student during the dual instruction period, the risk of a student misusing an aircraft for terrorism or other unauthorized purpose will be greatly reduced. Should an unfortunate incident occur in spite of taking security measures, it would certainly provide insulation to the flight school with regard to liability and failure to provide adequate security of the aircraft.

A final consideration for flight schools who rent aircraft to certificate holders: any individual wishing to rent an aircraft should be screened, including verification of identity by comparing the FAA certificate with a photo driver's license. The inspection of a current medical certificate and a review of the pilot's logbook should also be part of the screening process. Indications of any suspicious activity or motive for the rental of the aircraft should be looked for, such as paying in large sums of cash, asking questions about specific buildings or facilities in the area which could be potential terrorist targets, or any unusual luggage or packages to be taken aboard the aircraft.

It is vital that flight schools and general aviation take the initiative to establish increased security at their facilities in order to ensure the safety of the United States and the continued support of the general aviation by the public.

Daniel J. Benny, M.A., CPP, is a licensed Private Investigator and Security Consultant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He is a private pilot and owner of a Cessna 150, volunteers as an FAA Safety Counselor, and is a MAG and safety Officer with the Civil Air Patrol. He may be contacted by telephone at (717) 540-9236 or by email at <DJBennyPI@aol.com>.

The recommendations contained in this article are consistent with recently issued FAA recommendations. Flight schools are in no way required to use any of them.