String of Airport Courtesy-car Thefts Baffles Authorities

 - June 2, 2015, 4:45 PM
Supplied by the Ottawa, Kansas police department, this screen shot from a video surveillance camera shows the man believed to be responsible for a series of crew car thefts in three states.

For most pilots, having a car at an FBO dedicated to their use is a true convenience, but according to authorities in several Central U.S. states, someone is taking the courtesy in “courtesy car” a little too far, stealing the vehicles and swapping them for other courtesy cars at other airports. Targeting only small general aviation airports, the individual is believed to be either a pilot or someone with intimate knowledge of how an FBO works, as he was able to convince workers at Missouri’s Cameron Memorial Airport to leave the crew vehicle for his use after hours. The car, a 2000 Crown Victoria, was found several days later at Ottawa Municipal Airport in Kansas, where it had been swapped for the crew car at the airport-operated FBO there. 

The suspect, whose command of pilot lingo sounded credible to airport workers, supplied them with a false name and aircraft tail number for his pilot whom he said would be arriving later that night. “This guy is smart. He’s going to small rural areas where he knows it's common for pilots to come in after hours and need to use a courtesy car,” said Ottawa Airport manager Robin Flagler, who noted the FBO has since changed some of its policies. A bulletin issued by the Ottawa Police reported the suspect was seen on surveillance video wiping down the inside and outside of the Cameron Airport car before leaving the airport.

Ottawa’s vehicle—also a Crown Victoria, a former police car in fact—was found several days later, undamaged but with an empty fuel tank at Clarksville Municipal Airport in Arkansas. That airport's crew car, a 2001 Chevy Impala, was taken in the middle of the night. According to Clarksville airport manager Jim Looney, the suspect was able to determine the after-hours password to enter the facility (an acronym that pointed one to a certain radio frequency, something only a pilot would typically know).

“The [car] key is not locked up, but it's not out in the open; it’s in a drawer so he had to know where it was, either from having been here before or somebody told him how to access it because I had received no requests for the use of the courtesy car that week,” Looney told AIN. Clarksville’s car has yet to be located.

As for where the thief might be headed next and whether he will try to nab another car, Mike Haeffele, Ottawa’s director of public works, had the following advice for FBO operators: “I would definitely make sure they have a process in place for tracking who actually has the car, and their contact information,” he said. “I know a lot of the smaller airports use an honor system with their courtesy car, and that’s what we did for this fellow.”