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"Small airport security protocols in question after Alabama airplane crash"



Thursday, January 3, 2013

Small airport security protocols in question after Walker County airplane
crash in which three teens died (updated)
By Madison Underwood
The Birmingham (AL) Huntsville


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- The facts about a fatal plane crash in Walker County
late Tuesday night, in which three teens were killed, are trickling in
Wednesday, but the situation has  already raised questions regarding
security protocols at small airports. 

In early reports, authorities suggested that the plane was taken without
permission, but Sherrie Smith, mother of Jordan Smith, the teen pilot killed
in the crash, told the Associated Press the plane, a PA-30 Twin Comanche,
was not stolen. Smith says the owner of the plane had let her son fly it
many other times and had given him his own key. 

The AP also reported Smith said the plane was parked behind a security gate,
but that her son had been given a security code to access it. 

The aircraft, which authorities said was taken on a "joy ride," took off
from the Walker County Airport. The plane crashed about 10:40 p.m., less
than a mile from the airport, according to an FAA spokesperson. 

The victims have been identified as Jordan Montgomery, 17, Jordan Smith, 17,
and Brandon Ary, 19.
 
What is security like at small airports? 

"The security at airports varies from okay, to good, to none," Robert
Collins, president of the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute, told al.com
Wednesday. "The only time the Federal Aviation Administration gets involved
in security is if there are scheduled flights" at the airport. 

Access to small airports is supposed to be restricted to tenants (people who
have aircraft at the airport) according to Barry Franks, who spoke with
al.com Wednesday and described security protocols at Shelby County Airport.
Franks works airport services at the Calera-based airfield, and spoke
specifically to security there -- not for other small airports. 

"All of the airports have a secure gate around them, a fence all the way
around airport property," Franks said. "For you to get on the property, you
have to buzz at the gate, and we have to okay everyone who comes through the
gate." 

During business hours -- 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. at the Shelby County Airport --
an airport staffer verifies the identity of people at the gate using a video
camera system, and either lets them in or denies them. The first and last
names of the tenants are recorded, Franks said.

But, at night, there is no attendant on duty to buzz tenants in. Access at
that point is controlled by a gate code system.

"After hours, there is no access to the airport unless you're a tenant that
has an aircraft here," Franks said. "At that point, you have to have your
own code so you can get in the gate."

Once inside, tenants do not have their belongings checked, and they don't go
through the extensive security checks that commercial passengers expect when
they go to the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. During the
day, video cameras help make sure that tenants are going where they're
supposed to go. At night, there is added security at the Shelby County
Airport because a Shelby County Sheriff's office substation is located on
the property, Franks said, although that's not true of every airport.

The Transportation Safety Administration also requires airport employees to
undergo airport security awareness training, which helps airport employees
recognize suspicious behavior.

Rules require aircraft to be locked when not in use, but that does not
always happen, according to Franks.

"One hundred percent of people, do they lock them? I couldn't tell you
that," Franks said. "Probably not. But that is something that everybody is
supposed to do." 

Keys are required to start most aircraft, and the PA-30 Twin Comanche does
require a key to operate, Franks said.

But could an unlicensed pilot fly a plane at a small airport? It could
happen, Franks said, although he said airport staff would confront anyone
who looks suspicious, or who they knew to be unlicensed. 

"There's no way we could police that, and we don't have the authority to
police that, really."

Aircraft thefts are very rare in the U.S., according to Robert Collins.

"It's rare that an airplane is stolen these days, and it's more rare that
they are stolen for joy rides," Collins said. According to ACPI, two
aircraft were stolen in 2012. "There are more aircraft burglaries," meaning
thefts of avionic equipment from planes, than thefts of actual aircraft,
according to Collins. 

Fred Montgomery, the father of crash victim Jordan Montgomery, said
Wednesday that he didn't think the plane that crashed late Tuesday was
stolen. 

"I don't think my son would steal a plane,'' he said. "If he was bad, I
would tell you. But he's gone now."

Unauthorized joy rides aren't unheard of in Alabama's recent history. In
2005, for instance, a 14-year-old boy managed to gain access to the Fort
Payne Municipal Airport, unhook the tie downs on a single-engine plane, take
the keys he found on a clipboard and steal the plane for a 26-minute joy
ride over Fort Payne. The boy crashed the plane trying to land, and was
arrested.

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