After Texas crash, a debate on terror threat of small planes

A. Joseph Stack
A. Joseph Stack (AP)
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By Associated Press
Saturday, February 20, 2010

GEORGETOWN, TEX. -- After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, cockpit doors were sealed, air marshals were added and airport searches became more aggressive, all to make sure airliners could never again be used as weapons. Yet little has been done to guard against attacks with smaller planes.

That point was driven home with chilling force on Thursday when, according to authorities, a Texas man with a grudge against the IRS crashed his single-engine plane into an office building in a fiery suicide attack. One person in the building also was killed.

"It's a big gap," said R. William Johnstone, an aviation security consultant and former staff member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. "It wouldn't take much, even a minor incident involving two simultaneously attacking planes, to inflict enough damage to set off alarm bells and do some serious harm to the economy and national psyche."

The suburban Georgetown Municipal Airport that pilot A. Joseph Stack entered hours before the attack in nearby Austin had the casual atmosphere of a sleepy parking garage. Pilots were not subject to baggage checks, metal detector scans or pat-downs. And they are usually not required to file flight plans.

The easy access and lack of security are the result of years of debate over how much threat small aircraft pose as terror weapons and how they could be regulated without stifling commerce and pilot freedom.

Although the airlines quickly accepted tougher security procedures after the terrorist attacks, the general-aviation industry, which includes everything from privately owned propeller-driven planes to large corporate jets, has fought new measures.

Pilots of private planes fly about 200,000 small and medium-size aircraft in the United States, using 19,000 airports, most of them small. The planes' owners say the aircraft have little in common with airliners.

"I don't see a gaping security hole here," said Tom Walsh, an aviation security consultant. "In terms of aviation security, there are much bigger fish to fry than worrying [about] small aircraft."

He said most would-be terrorists would draw the same conclusion -- that tiny aircraft don't pack a big enough punch. Planes like the one Stack flew weigh just a few thousands pounds and carry no more than 100 gallons of fuel. A Boeing 767 weighs 400,000 pounds and carries up to 25,000 gallons.

Richard L. Skinner, inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, reviewed security at several general-aviation airports last year and concluded that general aviation "presents only limited and mostly hypothetical threats to security."

Tougher restrictions were debated after Sept. 11 and after a few incidents in which pilots deliberately crashed small planes into buildings.

In 1994, a Maryland truck driver with a history of instability crashed a plane on the South Lawn of the White House. In 2002, a 15-year-old boy stole a plane and crashed it into a skyscraper in Tampa. Pilots of small planes have also flown into the secure airspace over key government buildings in Washington.

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