Senate bill calls for review of GA security

 - October 4, 2006, 4:35 AM

A Senate amendment that called for severe fines, loss of license and aircraft confiscation for violating the flight restricted zone (FRZ) in the Washington air defense identification zone was stripped from the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill last month.

But the bill does contain an amendment authored by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) that calls for a study of general aviation airport security and the threats general aviation aircraft pose. The amendment passed unanimously.

“I believe that this kind of national assessment is absolutely necessary to avoid a repeat of the type of attack carried out on Sept. 11, 200l, or some sinister copycat of it,” Clinton said. “We must not turn away from the challenge of assessing threats posed by thefts or hijackings of general aviation aircraft.”

Security Breaches

Her amendment was prompted in part by an incident in June in which an intoxicated individual stole a Cessna 172 from the Danbury (Conn.) Municipal Airport, eventually landing at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., just to the east of the Indian Point nuclear facility.

On June 29 the U.S. Capitol was evacuated again when a corporate Beech King Air 350 entered Washington’s restricted airspace and caused the North American Aerospace Defense Command to scramble F-16s to intercept it and escort it to Winchester, Va.

Senators were voting on a bill when the Capitol’s alarm system of flashing white lights and whooping sirens sent them rushing to exits at about 6:30 p.m. At the White House, a red alert–the highest in its security system–was triggered and President Bush was “relocated” to a more secure location.

Although it caused less disruption and panic than when a Cessna 150 flew to within three miles of the White House six weeks earlier, Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M) were not amused. They submitted an amendment to the Homeland Security appropriations bill that said anyone who negligently violates Washington’s flight-restricted zone leading to the evacuation of a public building could be slapped with a $100,000 fine, confiscation of the aircraft and a five-year loss of flying privileges.

NBAA, the National Air Transportation Association, AOPA and other groups convinced Domenici and Bingaman to withdraw their amendment. But the submission clearly signaled that Congress wants every operator to understand that it will accept no more excuses for these violations.

The event sparked news reports suggesting the Bush Administration might seek to extend the ADIZ, and the recently formed Greater Washington Business Aviation Association called on members to “energetically pass the word to folks flying near, into, and out of the D.C. area to file a flight plan, maintain radio contact with ATC and receive a discrete transponder code. To do anything less is irresponsible and may put our community in jeopardy of losing more airspace in the name of security.”

Clinton’s amendment, also sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), requires the government to undertake as assessment of the dangers posed to high-risk, large populations and critical infrastructure areas should GA aircraft be stolen and used as a weapon.

The study also requires as assessment of the vulnerabilities of general aviation airports and aircraft and what low-cost, high-technology devices could be available to better track GA aircraft.

“Thankfully, the Danbury incident ended without any damage, destruction or death,” said Clinton. “But it stands as a forewarning of the types of threats to which we remain vulnerable. Our nuclear plants, key infrastructure, military bases, not to mention our large cities, could be threatened and all of the advances we have made in the area of homeland security could be subverted if general aviation airports can be breached this easily and the airplanes used as weapons.”