Wrong ID of ‘Stolen’ Cessna Causes Gunpoint Drama

 - August 31, 2010, 10:36 AM

After landing at Santa Barbara Municipal Airport on August 28, King Schools owners John and Martha King were puzzled when ATC insisted that they taxi to a remote corner of the airport. Four waiting police cars disgorged officers who held the Kings at gunpoint, asked them to exit the airplane, handcuffed them and placed John and Martha 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.” The officers finally admitted 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 alerted the Santa Barbara police about the Cessna 172 (N50545) that the Kings were flying, not knowing that it carried the retired N-number of a Cessna 150 that was 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 outfits 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. The Cessna 172 was detained a year-and-a-half ago in Wichita for the same reason, and 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. This is not the way we want to run our society,” 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 DEA has not yet responded to AIN’s questions about Epic’s Air Watch procedures.

“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. I’m not prepared to tell you where the fault lies. In this case, the SBPD is helpless to change whatever information Epic had access to. It was my impression from the McKinney Police that this had been addressed before and somebody was told to clean up the records. But obviously that didn’t happen.” A Santa Barbara Police detective has been assigned to look into this incident, he said. “One of the first things my boss said is ‘What can we do to make sure this is taken out of the system?’”

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.”

The chief of the Santa Barbara Police Department called John earlier today to apologize "clearly and profusely for the incident," according to Martha King. "He said that the police don’t have any training for aircraft stops and used the only procedure they knew, a 'hot stop' on a stolen vehicle. John suggested that perhaps police departments should have national training and an 'SOP' so they can do aircraft intercepts–when necessary–properly. John will provide him with ideas on the kind of training police should receive in this regard."