Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Special Form of Ridiculous

I was recently chatting with a fellow aviation enthusiast who worked at a flight school, and he told me about what became the topic of this post. He was required to complete an online flight school security program created by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

After he briefly described what the program was about, I told him we needed to find it so I could share it. I worked at a flight school and had never heard of it, nor did I really think it was necessary.

If you're curious too, you can find it here: I went through both of the courses, which were differentiated for flight schools with aircraft and flight schools with simulators (they're very similar, and I'm not sure I know of any flight schools that only have simulators and not aircraft, but this is the TSA, after all).

Suspicious behavior is defined as "activity that creates uneasiness or uncertainty without being criminal or illegal."

In other words, you can toss innocent until proven guilty out the window. As you go on in the course, it becomes evident that basically anyone with an interest in aviation should be a suspect.

I'm going to list all of the "suspicious behaviors" or indicators below and then comment. My comments will be indicated by hyphenation (--comment--).

Suspicious behaviors include:

~"Transient aircraft with unusual or unauthorized modifications."
*This includes "Tape over the aircraft registration numbers," "Unusual adjustments to strengthen the wheel wells," and "Other modifications to make the identification of the aircraft difficult or that indicate the aircraft has been used for other than normal operations"

--I don't know about you, but I'm not enough of an expert to be able to tell what is or is not an STC'd modification, nor am I well-versed enough in all aircraft of the world to know if it is simply a different model than what I'm used to seeing. As for those wheel wells, since I usually fly fixed gear airplanes, I guess I never need to worry about this! Terrorists only use retractables I guess. My point in this being, the TSA has zero knowledge of aviation. But I'm sure you already knew that. And God forbid the TSA go to Alaska, since I'm pretty sure all that cool stuff they do, like landing on sand bars and the like, is not classified as "normal." That, indeed, is the problem. As aviators and enthusiasts, we're supposed to eternally concerned with acting "normal" so we don't draw attention to ourselves. What, then, is normal? If you're the TSA, normal is paved runways, towered airports, security checks, strictly business or transient trips for a reason, and chain-link fences. That sure leaves a lot out, doesn't it?--

~"Unknown persons loitering for extended periods with no specific reason to be there."
*This includes "By aircraft" and "In the pilots' lounge"

--Well, there goes the entire population of my airport . . . According to the TSA, you cannot simply enjoy being at the airport. You cannot go there to get to know people, learn more from pilots, or to watch airplanes. No wonder so few youth get involved. Had the airport I went to been hostile, it's doubtful I'd be writing this today. How many other youth have given up on learning to fly because they were presented with such a hostile, closed environment and no way in?--

~"Pilots who appear to be under the control of another person."

--Someone from my home airport would probably make some crack about traveling with their wives, but I digress.--

~"Persons wishing to rent an aircraft without presenting valid flight or medical certificates or identification."

~"Persons who present seemingly valid flight or medical certificates but who do not display a corresponding level of aviation knowledge."

~"Persons who seem unfamiliar with aviation procedures trying to rent an aircraft."

--A fair amount of people are completely unsure of the requirements for getting a pilot's license. Since when is being unfamiliar with something a cause for suspicion?--

~"Any pilot who makes threats or statements inconsistent with normal uses of aircraft."

~"Events or circumstances that do not fit the pattern of lawful, normal activity at an airport or a flight school."

--I'm not sure what "normal activity" is in the TSA's dictionary, but I'll bet it has nothing to do with fun.--

~Persons trying to access an aircraft through force.
*This includes "Without keys,""Using a tool or makeshift pry bar to gain entry into an aircraft," and "Unfamiliar persons on the flight line"

--Just because someone new is on the flight line does not mean that terrorists are trying to steal your airplanes. Just saying. Give them a chance, and try to get to know them. Automatically assuming they're a terrorist won't do either of you any good.--

~"People or groups who keep to themselves."

--Remember, only terrorists have bad days when they don't want to talk to everyone.--

~"Members of your airport neighborhood who avoid contact and refrain from
conversation with you or other airport tenants."

--The airport community itself is the greatest security measure ever. However, that does not mean that those who prefer to keep to themselves are terrorists. Most airport tenants are wise enough to respect those who keep to themselves. Since when must we snoop to be safe?--

~"Dangerous cargo or loads being loaded onto an aircraft."

--What's dangerous? The bottled oxygen used on high-altitude flights could explode. TSA rules are so vague that we begin reading into every little thing and trusting no one.--

~"Students who are vague with verbal answers or when filling out their student

~"Students who are overly concerned as to whether the application includes a
background investigation."

~"Students who continually want to fly over sensitive locations or critical
*This includes "Nuclear facilities, power plants, dams, etc."

--I can understand repeated inquiries being suspicious, but let's not forget general curiosity. I always thought flying near the major-league baseball park near where I live was cool. One of the appeals of flying is the new perspective on things we thought we once knew. Let's not get too paranoid.--

~"Students who ask questions that do not seem relevant to the instruction."

--I asked where the bathroom was once . . . You'll have to pardon my jest. Some things may be peculiar, like a macabre interest in the damage caused by aircraft crashes, but again, try not to overreact at the expense of some one's interest in aviation.--

~"Students who seem interested in only one part of training or who leave the program prior to training completion."

--I'm a student that left the multiengine program before completing it, but that's because I'm currently all out of money. Not everyone leaves because they just wanted to know how to crash an airplane into a building. Additionally, an instructor should know a student well enough to sense something wrong by the time they've spent several hours with them. The TSA itself notes that many students stop training for other reasons.--

~"Student attempting to pay with cash only."

~"Students speaking secretively or evasively passing notes in an attempt to avoid
drawing attention to themselves."

--Passing notes? Are we back in 4th grade?--

~"Students who perspire excessively or who have excessive nervous energy."

--I'm really glad the TSA didn't stop by after my first solo!--

~"Student who is easily agitated."

~"Any other activity that appears inconsistent with the intent to obtain full certification."

Next comes the scenarios. The TSA presents you with a scenario and asks what your response should be. As with the indicators, some are in the "no duh" category but some are simply ridiculous in their accusations.

Scenarios include:

~"You observe an individual you do not recognize working in the engine compartment of one of the flight school's aircraft. He is wearing no uniform and has no identification badge. Additionally, he has a toolbox open at his feet and he is taking tools from the box and using them in the engine compartment."

--The TSA recommends questioning the individual to ensure he is not an impostor. Fair enough, but let's not forget that most GA airports are small communities where you know the person working on the airplane or you offer to help a transient.--

~"You notice a man with some type of instrument in his hand walking around one of the aircraft on the parking ramp. Upon further investigation you realize the man is using the instrument to jimmy the lock and pry the airplane door and window open."

~"When entering the gates to the flight school training facility you see a man standing outside of the fence taking pictures. The man seems to be taking all sorts of pictures including aircraft taking off and landing, aircraft on the parking ramp, and photos of the hanger."

--First of all, I'd respect the TSA a whole lot more if they spelled "hangar" correctly. Secondly, as an aviation photographer, I resent the way my hobby is criminalized. In my case, the flying side of aviation was so unattainable that I hoped I would be able to get to know the pilots by sharing photos of their airplanes. Eventually that worked out for me, but I hate to think how many other photographers have formed the opinion that aviation is a hostile, elitist hobby.--

~"While walking on the flight line you see an unfamiliar man who appears to be altering an aircraft’s registration number. Taking a closer look, you realize that he is using tape to cover-up and alter one of the numbers on the aircraft’s registration. He has changed the “8” to look like a “0”."

~"During a routine aircraft walk-around inspection, you notice a plane on the flight line that has had its wheel wells strengthened. Further investigation shows that an additional bar has been welded on the undercarriage of the aircraft to each wheel of the plane. This aircraft is a typical, single propeller plane and is not commonly used for transporting heavy loads."

--Again with the wheel wells . . .--

~"On the way out to your aircraft you notice an individual working on a plane next to yours. Curious, you look into the plane and watch as the man works beneath the aircraft’s console. It looks as though the man is making alterations and changes to the wiring beneath the console."

--Wait a minute, the TSA just said you should be curious! But you can only be curious about aviation if you intend to catch terrorists. So for all of you who were curious about learning to fly, well, you're just a terrorist.--

~"Locking your plane up for the night, you happen to observe the wheels and undercarriage of a plane nearby. You see brush stuck in the wheel wells and splashes of dried mud on the undercarriage of the plane. This plane has definitely been landing in areas other than standard runways."

--I can't mock the wheel wells anymore. I think it'd be beating a dead horse. But, I have to question "standard runways." Evidently standard runways are always pavement, because the TSA has clearly not seen some of those more "matured" grass runways. And mud, well, that's just part of grass runways. However, since the TSA doesn't know anything about general aviation, they further perpetrate the idea of a cold, unemotional aviation that is nothing but numbers, devoid of fun and emotion. Unfortunately, that's what general aviation is all about in its purest sense.--

~"You observe an individual walking around the parking ramp looking at various aircraft. You do not recognize him and you watch as he takes time to peer through the windows of the different aircraft."

--While the TSA does point out that the person may just be someone interested in learning more, the fact of the matter is that we have nearly criminalized being curious about aviation. We are told to be immediately suspicious of anyone showing any interest, and that's bad. Instead of walking out to the airplane with the notion that you are possibly confronting a terrorist, make sure you walk out there excited to see someone interested. Even that subtle mental overhaul can make a huge difference.--

~"A man approaches you at the Customer Service Counter wishing to rent an aircraft. He requests a plane for a two-hour joy ride to enjoy the weather. He seems to have strong aviation knowledge, but does not present you with valid or proper flight or medical certificates or identification."

--Some enthusiasts learn all they can before heading out to the airport. The TSA presents the idea of a foreigner visiting as well. However, make this an opportunity for conversation, not suspicion.--

~"Walking through the Pilot’s Lounge an individual that doesn't seem to belong there catches your eye. You hang around the lounge to watch the man to see if your instincts are correct. You observe that he is not filling out any paper work, working on a flight plan, or checking weather and does not engage in conversations with any of the instructors or other students. He appears to be loitering in the lounge with no specific reason for being there."

--Again, there goes the entire population of my airport. There is something about airports, an intangible quality we're drawn to. Maybe it's simply because the airport is where we fly, and flying is a simple pleasure in life. Don't take away the joy of being at the airport.--

~"A pilot approaches you at the rental desk to check on the availability of one of the aircraft. He appears nervous, jumpy and keeps looking over his shoulder at the gentleman behind him. You observe the man standing behind the pilot and notice that he is concentrating on the pilot and seems to be concealing something under his arms. You have reason to believe that the pilot is under the control of this man."

~"An individual approaches you at the Customer Service Counter wishing to rent an aircraft. He presents seemingly valid flight and medical certificates, but needs a lot of help with the terminology when filling out some of the paper work. He also does not know the names of the different aircraft that he can rent or where he wants to fly. Some of his questions seem bizarre and his lack of knowledge of the various aircraft clearly shows that he does not have a corresponding level of aviation knowledge."

~"An individual trying to rent an aircraft wants to know what type of planes he can rent, how much they cost, and if they are already fueled. He seems unfamiliar with the aviation procedures and requirements when trying to rent an aircraft from this facility."

--Simple curiosity. Take the time to help other people out and not accuse them immediately.--

~"When instructing one of your students on the cockpit instruments, your student says, “Do you think it would be possible to fly an aircraft into the Hoover Dam? Imagine all of the damage that would cause.” This is clearly a threat/statement inconsistent with normal aircraft use."

~"An individual approaches you to sign up for flying lessons. You ask him to fill out the appropriate application and to return it when it is completed. The individual returns the application but has left several areas blank. You inform the individual that he needs to complete all sections of the application but he refuses to do so."

~"A student filling out an application is overly concerned as to whether the application includes a background check. He wants to know what the background check would entail, how far back in his history would they investigate, and who they might contact for information. He also wants to know when the background check investigation process would begin."

~"You are giving a lesson on take-off procedures but the student is constantly asking questions that do not seem relevant to the instruction. Some of the questions include, “Would it be possible if we could fly over a nuclear power plant?” and “Are there any major bridges that we will be flying over?”"

--Again, curiosity is normal and an instructor show know their students well enough to detect an abnormal interest. Unfortunately, things like this just make us more suspicious of every little thing.--

~"You have been making great progress with one of your students. You have completed training through the airwork, systems malfunction, and autopilot portion of the syllabus. In addition, you have completed several simulator lessons on take-off procedures and V1 cuts. Today was to begin normal approach to landing procedures for your student, but you have learned that he has suddenly dropped out of flight training. It seems as if he was interested in only one part of the flight training program – getting the aircraft in the air and maintaining
straight and level flight through the use of the autopilot and mode control panel."

--I love how the TSA adds that last bit of drama to make sure you get suspicious of any students that can't complete their training.--

~"An individual approaches you about taking flying lessons so she can get her pilots license. You sit down with the woman and explain the procedures and time frame for the flight school. After filling out the appropriate paperwork she hands you a wad of cash to pay for all lessons in advance."

~"A student is sitting in the Pilot’s Lounge and you notice that rather than interacting with other students or instructors he is sitting by himself."

--Go say hi and introduce yourself, then invite them over. Walk over there with a social intent, not a suspicious one.--

~"You observe that one of your students is perspiring excessively and has excessive nervous energy. He is sweating through his shirt and occasionally lets out nervous laughter. This is unusual because he does not seem to be in a stressful situation as he is just sitting in the lounge area."

~"An individual who is in-between lessons approaches you at the customer service center. He asks you some questions about future lessons but he appears very agitated. You try to answer his questions but he snaps at you and constantly interrupts you. Something is obviously bothering him."

--I sure was irritable after bad lessons. Different people deal with situations differently. I suppose we're all supposed to jump to conclusions instead of trying to be understanding.--

~"You are giving a lesson on take-off procedures but the student is constantly asking questions that do not seem relevant to the instruction. Some of the questions include, “When we get into the simulator, will we be able to fly over any major U.S. cities and bridges?” Or, “Do you think we could fly over the Golden Gate Bridge?” Or, “Does the simulator have a daylight visual model of New York City or of Washington, DC?”"

I've taken the liberty of not copying some of the identical scenarios for simulators. I feel that the spirit of the issue is thoroughly conveyed. I will not deny that some of the scenarios proposed are obviously suspicious, but I do believe that aviation is very good at policing itself.

What has been created is a culture of hostility and suspicion. If someone is brave enough or persistent enough to venture out to the airport, they are treated as though they don't belong. Employees make sure to keep an eye on the people they don't know and meet their curiosity with question after question.

In August I moved to school. As an aviation student, I was required to attend an informational meeting at the airport at the beginning of the semester. I was bombarded with presentations, forms, and questions before I even got to see an airplane. In fact, the flight school even requested financial information before a flight was scheduled, let alone conducted.

Aviation is exceedingly unfriendly nowadays. Few FBO employees will or are allowed to take visitors out to see the airplanes or to show them around. We are so afraid of losing what freedom still remains in aviation that we attempt to hoard it, as though by making would-be pilots and advocates endure a gauntlet of questions and checks will ensure only the best enter the world of flying.

Is that the kind of image we want to project? I think not.

I cannot make a business change its practices, and that is not my goal. The best vehicle for change in aviation is you--the local pilots and the grassroots aviation organizations. Chapters are able to work on a local level, networking with schools and individual youth.

Look around you.

If you won't make the effort to reach out to youth, who will?

1 comment:

  1. That was long. :) And I have to admit I didn't take the time to read it, as it barely applies to me :) But it was obviously very well-researched!