John and Martha King got the surprise of their lives on the evening of August 28, when they landed in a Cessna 172 (N50545) at Santa Barbara Municipal Airport after some instrument currency practice. The Kings are well known to the aviation industry, not only as the founders and the faces of King Schools, which has helped train thousands of pilots, but also as tireless advocates of general aviation safety and education.
The landing was normal on that typical California late-summer evening, but then something unexpected and puzzling happened: the controller insisted that the Kings taxi to a remote corner of the airport instead of to the FBO. When the Kings saw that four police cars were waiting for them, they carefully complied with all directions even though they had no idea what was going on. The police cars emptied and officers surrounded the 172 with guns drawn. After shutting down the engine, an officer hailed the Kings on a loudspeaker and instructed each of them to exit the airplane. They were handcuffed and placed in separate police cars. “This is a risky, lethal situation,” King told AIN. “Do not argue, don’t complain, don’t explain, just do what you’re told. I was thinking not to screw this up and get shot.”
When one officer asked John for the vehicle identification number of the airplane, it was apparent that some behind-the-scenes discussion was going on about whether this was the correct airplane. Finally, John explained that the aircraft’s serial number could be found on a placard on the rear fuselage and an officer checked this. The officers told the Kings that the airplane was reported stolen by a U.S. government agency called the El Paso Intelligence Center (Epic), which tracks stolen aircraft and matches them to IFR flight activity. Epic had alerted the Santa Barbara police about the Cessna 172 that the Kings were flying, not knowing that it carried the retired N-number of a Cessna 150 that had been stolen eight years ago.
Epic is a multiagency organization led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and composed of agents from 15 U.S. law-enforcement entities and was the subject of a critical Department of Justice inspector general report released in June. The report notes that one of the databases that Epic’s Air Watch is supposed to use is the FAA registration database. The FAA database does show the correct registration of the 172 flown by the Kings, including a note that the N-number used to be assigned to the stolen Cessna 150. That Cessna 172 was detained a year-and-a-half ago in Wichita for the same reason during its delivery flight as a new airplane. John King wonders why Epic doesn’t have a system to remove stolen aircraft and check them against the FAA registry.
“This is a bad procedure,” he said. King doesn’t fault the Santa Barbara Police Department, although he does believe that the police could have handled this matter in a safer manner, not as a high-risk vehicle traffic stop. “When you file IFR you’re telling who you are, what time you’ll arrive, where you’re going,” he said. “Is this how you would behave if you’re flying a stolen airplane?”
The Aviation Crime Prevention Institute (ACPI), which is an insurance-industry organization, receives a monthly stolen aircraft list from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which stores records on more than 15 million people and items and processes more than 7.5 million transactions per day. According to research by the head of the ACPI, Bob Collins, the last time that N50545 was mentioned as an active stolen aircraft in the monthly report that he receives from NCIC was Dec. 27, 2008. “The next report I have dated 1/31/2009 shows that N50545 was not listed on NCIC,” Collins told AIN. “The record reappeared on the report I received dated 8/29/09. This was the first instance that notes the FAA reassigned the registration number. It looks like an information entry, not an active theft entry.” This record included a confirmation phone number from the McKinney, Texas, police department, which originally reported the Cessna 150 as stolen. “It looks like Epic is the agency responsible for this whole situation.”
“I’m aware we’re getting flak from people saying we could have checked [the FAA] database,” said Santa Barbara Police lieutenant Paul McCaffrey. “We had a federal agency and the police both saying it was stolen.” The police dispatch center received phone calls from both Epic and the McKinney, Texas, police, which had originally reported the Cessna 150 as stolen eight years ago. Shortly after the Kings were detained, Epic spoke to the lead officer at the scene and verified that the serial number of the 172 didn’t match that of the stolen 150, according to McCaffrey. He said that the officers apologized to the Kings when they discovered this information and released them.
McCaffrey explained that the Kings were subjected to a standard felony stop procedure because the officers had no knowledge about the occupants of the allegedly stolen airplane. “You don’t know if they’ve been kidnapped or forced to fly at gunpoint,” he explained. “If something does go wrong, it’s too big a price to pay.
I feel bad about what the Kings went through and it doesn’t look like any part of it was their fault.…In this case, the SBPD is helpless to change whatever information Epic had access to.” A Santa Barbara Police detective has been assigned to look into this incident, he said.
NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said, “We recognize that law-enforcement officials need to have a reliable source of up-to-date aircraft information to prevent illegal activities. At the same time, we believe the government process for using the data appears woefully inadequate. We believe there is an urgent need for the creation of a joint government-industry group that can expeditiously conduct a top-to-bottom review of the process to ensure that incidents such as this one never occur in the future.”
A Department of Justice (DOJ) spokesman explained to AIN how Epic handles stolen aircraft. The spokesman confirmed that Epic first contacts the local law enforcement agency that created the stolen aircraft record when it detects that aircraft in flight or in relation to other enforcement actions. He didn’t say why Epic wasn’t able to determine that the 172 the Kings were flying was not the stolen 150 the McKinney police department reported. “The Epic watch officer or the law enforcement agency that created the NCIC record then contacts the state or local law enforcement agency at the destination airport of the in-flight stolen aircraft.”
The responsibility to remove an aircraft from the Epic database rests with the originator of the stolen aircraft record, according to the spokesman. However, the aircraft owner is responsible for notifying “the FAA and law enforcement of any final disposition involving the aircraft so that updates can be made to law enforcement and FAA records.” As for N50545, he explained, “In response to notification by the FAA, this aircraft identified by tail number N50545 has been removed from NCIC, stolen aircraft databases and the national stolen aircraft list.”
John King raised an important question when he asked whether a criminal flying a stolen aircraft would file an IFR flight plan and fly in plain sight from San Diego to Santa Barbara. And this relates to the effectiveness of the NCIC database and Epic’s role in monitoring flight activity and law-enforcement investigations for stolen aircraft. It turns out that Epic’s efforts have resulted in only one aircraft that was reported stolen “thus identified and recovered by law enforcement in the past two years,” according to the DOJ spokesman.