Small Planes As Weapons: Are Tougher Security Measures Needed?

Experts say deranged or suicidal pilots are difficult to protect against.

ByABC News
February 19, 2010, 12:28 PM

Feb. 19, 2010— -- The suicidal pilot who destroyed a Texas office complex has revived the post-9/11 fears that terrorists flying small planes, possibly loaded with extra fuel or explosives, would be almost impossible to stop from carrying out devastating attacks.

"It's something that has exposed a weakness we've seen since 9/11 -- airplanes can fly into buildings," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said Thursday just hours after A. Joseph Stack flew his single engine plane into a seven-story Austin building, reducing it to a smoldering wreck.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government stepped up security at all the nation's airports, focusing primarily on commercial aviation. But general aviation – non-commercial, non-scheduled – flights face less screening.

McCaul, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, plans to raise the issue with his colleagues, but says "no amount of security can prevent a man in a plane from taking his own life."

At dozens of small airports around the country, private pilots with licenses and their own planes are able to fly under the radar – often literally. Pilots flying at low altitudes under so-called visual flight rules are not required to file a flight plan.

And planes weighing 12,500 pounds or less – like Stack's Piper PA-28 – are also exempt from several Transportation Security Administration mandated security screening, such as crew background checks and pilot license reviews.

In the days after 9/11, many small airports enhanced their security by installing higher fences and controlled gates, but the immensity and impracticality of securing so many little airports, pilots and employees was soon apparent.

TSA spokesman Sterling Payne told ABC News the agency is aware of risks posed by general aviation and is continuing to develop new security initiatives and policies.

All licensed U.S. pilots are "recurrently vetted" against government watch lists, Sterling said in a statement. The agency also has an Airport Watch Program and a 1-800 number through which small airport managers can submit security concerns to TSA.

But at many general aviation facilities, airport staff are often the only line of defense against drunk or deranged pilots from taking to the cockpit.

"We do watch for suspicious looking people," said Charlotte Bain, manager of the Brownwood Regional Aiport, 150 miles southwest of Dallas, which sees 20 to 25 flights a day. But, she says, pilots there can largely come and go as they please.

"The Austin attack was a guy who lost his marbles," Bain told ABC News. "We're not going to say no one's allowed to fly their plane now just because of that… it would be sad that one person's idiocy causes everyone to have to pay."

Several aviation experts agree that limits to general or business aviation may not be the answer, and that the Austin attack, while tragic, is of a type difficult to prevent.