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Civil Aviation

Aviation experts consider how a Tampa teenager managed to crash a small plane into a building, and its implications for post-Sept. 11 aviation rules.

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    Two experts on the general aviation industry. Phil Boyer is president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents general aviation pilots and owners; and Richard Theokas, chairman of the Flight Training Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

    Welcome to you both.

    Phil Boyer, what's your reaction to this when you hear this? How does it strike you as an example of the situation at civil aviation airports?


    Well, as I listened to the closing part of Vicki's report, I think they should substitute for some recent events an airplane with another weapon of destruction, a gun, let's say in a troubled teenager's hands, a car, whatever.

    Unfortunately, with the sensitivity since 9/11, this particular individual used an airplane.

    And obviously the American public has been quite traumatized by the events that happened in… at both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center by aircraft — obviously of a different size and caliber but this is probably the most typical of general aviation airplanes. It's four seats. It's fairly small, less than the weight of a car, carries not too much fuel, and so you could see the relative damage that it did.

    And the individual with a death wish obviously written out ahead of time violated almost every regulation that's in effect right at the moment.


    Richard Theokas, is it normal for a young person like this to be able to get access to this sort of an aircraft?


    It rather depends on the organization. This appears to have been a fixed-base operator, which was operating a flight line of several aircraft. The mode that they used to control access to the aircraft was probably through some sort of a dispatch person at a desk that handed the student the keys to the aircraft.

    I understand that the student, Mr. Bishop, Charles Bishop, had been there for at least two years and probably was fairly well known and had established a fairly benign pattern of behavior that would not have led anybody at the FBO, at the St. Petersburg Clearwater Airport to believe that something like this was going to happen.

    I differentiate the approach there to other places such as Embry-Riddle, the University of North Dakota, western Michigan where access to aircraft is a very carefully controlled operation involving a series of identification requirements and checkpoints before a student is allowed on to the flight line with a key to the aircraft.

    But, having said that, I think what we're looking at is not so much the process — because I don't think at least under most circumstances the process is what is at issue here. It's the profile of the student. It's what the student was bringing to the aircraft at the time.

    Like Phil said earlier — with respect to weapons in the hands of some people — it's very difficult to tell when they're given a weapon exactly what they're going to do with it.

    The same thing here: The student had access to something that could be an instrument of joy, of pleasure, of business, and instead through some unknown reason and unknown motivation turned it very sadly a weapon of destruction.


    Phil Boyer, that suggests that the procedures were more or less followed in this case. Does that suggest to you that those procedures should be reviewed?


    Well, I think we're looking at all of those procedures, not since Saturday night, but we've been looking at those procedures all the way since Sept. 11 and airport security at general aviation.

    Let's differentiate that from commercial aviation which most of your viewers are familiar with getting on an airline. There are only about 400 and some airports that fall under the guidelines of the FAA for security for airline passengers and yet there are probably another 4,700 public use airports from small grass strips all the way to major general aviation fields that don't serve airlines but serve this type of airplane.

    And there's one size that doesn't fit all because a small grass strip with no fence versus an airport that has heavy business jet traffic may have different security requirements. All those things have been looked at and have been going in place about a month ago a group of us here in Washington in the aviation industry hired the former head of FAA security, brought him in for a day, went through all the general aviation risks.

    Frankly, we didn't really cover the troubled individual who might use a plane this way. And we developed a set of guidelines– they're on our Web site – APO.org, second story– about 12 different recommendations that are very doable.


    Give us an example.


    An example – that the keys will only be checked out by an approved dispatcher, as Richard said, to somebody who the airport knows and have proven their identity in their initial visit or later. Airport is a small community. Aviation is a small community.

    Is there anything untoward going on? Do we spot something in our home airport that we're not used to seeing? But I must be very frank with you, Terry, that if all of these things were implemented today that we had put down as recommendations — sent them, as a matter of fact, to the Department of Transportation and the new transportation security agency — it wouldn't have avoided this, so I guess what we have had to do is we're going to have to look beyond that even.

    Once again I don't know, I don't have the silver bullet, but there's probably something in allowing the keys to the aircraft being given to any student pilot, not just a fifteen year-old, but anyone because this could be any one of any age that we're going to have to look at more seriously.


    Richard Theokas, should we be reviewing the age people get lessons or any of these other procedures?


    I think that's a pretty good observation and a really good question. Charles Bishop at 15 was about as young as you can be and be somewhere in the flight training process.


    Right. You have to be how old to solo and get a license?


    Oh, I think it's 16.




    Yeah. So he hadn't quite reached that particular bridge, and so we're talking about probably one half of one half of one percent of the general aviation flying community.

    The rest of them are a little bit older than that. I might add that one of the reasons that we have that age in there is to ensure to the extent that we can that the person who gets in that airplane and flies that airplane is going to be mature enough to be able to manage risks and to exercise judgment and to be situationally aware so that they don't get into this kind of situation, so that they'll recognize when something is going on in their lives that would disable some of those critical skills.

    And so, you know, that may be another burden that we have to help that person with and to help the entire process with and, again, our dispatchers and our instructors to take a look at the student not only from a flight skill and knowledge perspective but from a deeper and broader one.

    In fact, I believe the FAA is promulgating or publishing some directives now that require some training for all people who have access to secured areas on flight lines to look for those kinds of behavioral characteristics, to be able to say, this person doesn't belong here, and maybe that kind of thing won't happen in the future.

    But, you know, the people that gave Charles Bishop that key probably felt very comfortable in handing that key to him. It wasn't until he taxied on to the actual airport, the active airport that things really got out of hand.


    So, Phil Boyer, what conclusions should we draw from it? I mean should we, for example, increase the age of flight instruction or not?


    It's something that I haven't slept well since Saturday night trying to figure out solutions to try to aid the FAA flight schools and others. They run as large as Embry-Riddle down to really husband-and-wives that for the love of aviation run small schools.

    I would make the point that in the last decade suicides by general aviation airplane are below the Richter scale in any way shape or form as we looked at our safety aviation database.

    However it isn't age alone. Let's not forget very recently Egypt Air an airliner with passengers was taken down by a qualified pilot with six-month medical exams and psychological testing well over the age of even 21.

    So we've got to go beyond that a little bit and try to figure out. There are probably many competent airline captains today that are flying that started their lessons at 14, 15 and 16 under the supervision of an instructor.


    Okay. Phil Boyer, Richard Theokas, thank you very much, both of you.