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Unique Threats for the Complex General Aviation Environment

Unique Threats for the Complex General Aviation Environment Homeland Security TodayMost people are unaware that general aviation (GA) accounts for approximately 77 percent of all US flights and contribute approximately 1 percent to the gross domestic product. With over 200,000 aircraft and 5,000 airports, the GA community employs and supports over 1.3 million jobs.

Following the events of 9/11, the government and media focused on the vulnerabilities of GA. It was assumed there was high risk for a terrorist event due to the ease of access to GA airports and aircraft.

Defining general aviation

GA aircraft range from small, single-engine piston aircraft carrying two to four people up to larger business jets. GA airports can be anything from small, private grass runways, to large complex airports on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas.

With a span reaching from homebuilt experimental aircraft to international business jets, GA is a very diverse community with a multitude of interests. Furthermore, similar to automobiles, some pilots can afford a small used airplane while others can purchase large and luxurious new jets. It is common to see a very old Cessna 152 single-engine piston airplane parked next to a Gulfstream business jet at a local airport.

This disparity of classes also creates a diverse community. It is important to understand this concept because each member of the community behaves differently when forced to comply with governmental rules that increase costs or add additional procedures. Therefore, it is extremely tough to find a one-size-fits-all approach to a GA problem.

Assessing security risks

Due to the various types and sizes of GA airports, most if not all, are not as secure as large commercial airports. Some GA airports have fences while others are completely open, leaving the aircraft and hangars exposed.

Although it is possible to reduce all threats from GA aircraft and airports, it is improbable. The GA community makes up over two-thirds of all US flights and conducts various important activities for the economy and country. Therefore, it is important to address both the impact and probabilities of specific threats, and then cater a response based on the desired outcome.

Creating deterrents

Looking at the two largest threats concerningGA airports and aircraft, there may be some ways to decrease the probability and risks. First and foremost, you must deter anyone from attempting to utilize GA airports and aircraft for improper activities.

Deterrents such as fences, lights, locks and closed- circuit television (CCTV) systems can aid a GA airport in making it harder for someone to get unauthorized access to facilities or aircraft. Although it is not realistic to have a CCTV system at every GA airport in the country, perhaps there is a way to increase surveillance at a low cost for smaller airports. Similar to how air traffic control works, CCTV systems at small airports could potentially be linked together and monitored at a larger remote facility. If suspicious activities are observed on camera, the remote facility can contact an airport manager or local police to investigate.

An additional way to deter someone from entering a GA airport is a fence with locks at access gates. Currently, at most GA airports, gates are accessed by PIN or access cards. With the increase in biometric technology, it would not be a stretch to assume that GA airports could incorporate retina or fingerprint scanners. Biometric-enabled access would eliminate the possibility of someone improperly getting access to a code or card.

Biometric-enabled gates would provide another opportunity for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to gather data on personnel accessing airports. It could also be used to track patterns or be checked against the TSA’s No-Fly List. Further usage of the data could be linked with the Department of Homeland Security to determine if the person accessing or attempting to access the GA airport is a US citizen.

The disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 that presumably vanished into the ocean shows a lack of accountability for aircraft globally. As the general public wonders how such a large airplane can just disappear, security experts should be concerned about the ease with which it disappeared. If a large jet can disappear, how much more easily can a GA airplane disappear?

This was demonstrated recently when a man flew a small gyrocopter through Washington, DC’s restricted airspace and landed on the US Capitol lawn. In perhaps the most secure airspace in the world, a man who told law enforcement that he was going to conduct his flight was able to enter the airspace without being detected.

While the technological answer may not yet be available, something such as an advanced radar system is desperately needed to be able to track aircraft aloft. This system may have the ability to distinguish intended versus unintended flight paths and predict impending threats. Such a system could cover both large commercial airports to extremely small private GA airports.

Taking sensible regulatory action

While the GA community has yet to become a victim or a facilitator of a terrorist attack, vulnerabilities do exist. There have been numerous mandated and optional rules and programs that have reduced GA risk, but some still remain.

Due to the diversity of the GA community and its airports and aircraft, a one-size-fits-all solution is not practical or possible. Therefore, it is important for the GA community and policy makers to assess the threats, determine desired outcomes and utilize resources in an appropriate manner without disrupting over three-quarters of all US flights.

Jerome Reitano is an adjunct professor at American Public University, a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and student at Oklahoma State working to obtain a Doctor of Education degree in Applied Educational Studies with a specialization in aviation and space. He holds FAA Commercial Single-Engine Airplane, Multi-Engine Airplane, Rotorcraft and Instrument certificates as well as type-ratings in a BV-234 and BE-300.

Editor’s note: Also see the 2005 Homeland Security Today reports, Private Aircraft Flights Not Documented; Plane From Norway Enters US Airspace, Lands in Oklahoma Undetected, and, Private Plane Lands Unnoticed at Sensitive Air Force Base.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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