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The FAA gives anwers on the King-Santa Barbara ordeal, but questions remain

by Josh 2. September 2010 16:57
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John and Martha King with their Cessna 172
prior to their fateful trip last weekend to Santa Barbara.

When something goes wrong, we usually can step backward and find multiple events that led to the collective mishap. It appears that happened again this week.

Many in the aviation community displayed outrage after police detained well-known King School owners John and Martha King last weekend, mistakenly believing the aircraft in which they were flying had been stolen. Guns drawn, officers handcuffed the couple and hauled them away in police cruisers.

Looking backward on this incident of mistaken identity, a chain of events can be found to blame. Now several national aviation groups, including the AOPA and NBAA, have urged government agencies to employ more efficient tactics so those who fly legally are not lumped together with the criminals who do not.

We spoke with several officials with the FAA and FBI about the incident to shed more light on what happened and how they think it could be kept from happening again. Now we will break down the King ordeal in Santa Barbara. Let us try to reconstruct what went wrong in chronological order, while also considering how to redirect efforts to avoid this from happening again.

-          The FAA made a list of tail numbers, including the trouble-making N50545 from this event, available to the Cessna Aircraft Co.  The aircraft maker then attached it to a 2009 Cessna 172S that will be flown by, among others, John and Martha King.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told GlobalAir.com that aircraft manufacturers, including Cessna and others, often receive blocks of available registration numbers from the agency. This allows each company to deliver an aircraft directly to the buyer, simplifying the process of obtaining a new plane.

-          Through Oct. 1, old FAA rules have allowed retired tail numbers to be reissued two years after they are retired. The new rules, which GlobalAir.com writers have written several articles about, increase the timeframe between recycling tail numbers to five years. They take effect next month. The updated law also allows the FAA to better track to whom and to where an aircraft is registered by enforcing registration renewals more tightly.

So some of the work to help fix this has taken place already.

“This new endeavor will probably eliminate, to a huge degree, a 'Santa Barbara' occurrence in the future,” said FAA spokesman Mike Fergus in an email Monday. He served as an acting public affairs official for the west coast this week and normally represents the agency for issues in the northwest and Alaska. “Just how the C-150 number was reissued (the plane stolen in 2002 that sparked the mix-up) is not something I can track down.”

-          Fergus’ last line brings up another aspect in this bureaucratic snowball that involves several federal and local agencies. The Cessna 150 in question originally was reported stolen (and the Kings say the owner still never has recovered it) in 2002, seven years before last weekend’s incident. Thus, even if the new five-year FAA policy of recycling old tail numbers had taken affect years ago, it may have done little to prevent this particular case.

The FAA will now look into further options for handling the registration numbers of stolen planes, Brown said, including considering an AOPA suggestion to retire them outright.

-          The Kings’ filing of an IFR plan alerted law enforcement that a stolen plane may have been flying into Santa Barbara. They in turn argue the absurdity of a criminal filing a path that lets the government know their exact moves ahead of time.

The El Paso Information Center, a joint security force of several branches of federal government that is overseen by the DEA, tracks flight plans against a list of registration numbers from stolen aircraft (and the probably keep tabs on other suspect flights, too). Originally focused in the realm of border patrol, the facility’s roles and staff grew exponentially after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Its employees now investigate many aspects of illegal immigration, terrorism and drug smuggling.

Nobody outside of the agency knows for sure exactly what happened at this point, as DEA public affairs officials told reporters this week they would dig for better answers before commenting, although AOPA reporter Alton K. Marsh talked to the right sources got a home run. (His report on the AOPA web site, perhaps the most thorough on this whole affair, also notes the case of a Cirrus aircraft that shares a tail number with a Piper that was stolen in Florida. The FAA will likely push to have both numbers removed from the stolen aircraft list.)

By calling a spokesman with the McKinney, Texas, police department, from where the Cessna 150 originally was stolen, Marsh’s reporting makes it increasingly clear that officials at EPIC learned somewhere along the line that the registration number did not, in fact, belong to the stolen 150 but to the 172 flown by the Kings. By the time the center tried to relay this to police in Santa Barbara, police already had detained the couple.

-          Though the DEA has not confirmed this, it is reasonable to assume, based on conversations with the FAA and other reports, the data alerting of the stolen aircraft originated from within the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. The FBI oversees the center, which includes data gathered by local, state and federal agencies from throughout the United States.

The center allows agencies to (most of the time quite intelligently) share information on fugitives, terrorists, sex offenders, stolen cars and goods, important tools to support crime fighting. However, according to FBI spokesman Bill Carter, it is up to the reporting agency to remove or change a report so other agencies can avoid the failure of acting on bad information.

The 172 flown by the Kings had been stopped 18 months beforehand with a Cessna employee at the yoke. The situation did not entail drawn guns and news media coverage, as it did in the King case. However, at that point, it gave investigators every reason in the world to remove the registration number in question from the NCIC.

“It’s happened with cars,” said FBI spokesman Bill Carter. “A stolen car is recovered and the police department fails to clear it.”

Imagine that one if you see a dozen officers behind you with guns drawn and all you did was run a red light.

To drive this home further, Carter noted that NCIC data alone is not probable cause for an officer to make an arrest.

Although the King situation exposed several chinks of armor in the registration and tracking of aircraft, along with how law enforcement uses that data to catch criminals, it is a cloud that also comes with a ray of sunshine.

The Kings received an apology from the Santa Barbara police chief and, in turn, they offered to work with the agency to help develop a more effective protocol for approaching suspect aircraft. The Kings hope that other agencies use the result in a nationwide model.

Furthermore, one also can be hopeful that the FAA and other involved federal agencies can modify their policies to ensure the innocent remain innocent so investigators’ time can be more effectively spent catching those who are not. No innocent person wants, or deserves, to be confused with someone else at gunpoint.

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