Recently I helped a mechanic-pilot friend repair an older private aircraft. He had purchased it from an owner who had just about abandoned it at a local FBO shop after they had told him how much it would cost to make it airworthy after they inspected it, a common event these days it seems. He spent a week or so working on the aircraft, doing the usual annual work. He got it flyable, flew it around locally to check it out, and after that was satisfied and proceeded en route to the East Coast. The following stories deal with pilots but since many pilots are also mechanics, like myself and my friend, I offer this piece as an alert to all.
His first stop was in Texas at the major airport and he parked at the FBO for servicing. He told me that just after he parked he was immediately set upon by people who said they were U.S. officers and they were inspecting him and his aircraft for contraband. They said they were Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers and they were soon followed by local sheriffs and other police. The FAA also showed up. Needless to say our pilot was terrified of these very intimidating guys. They said that he somehow fell into the profile trap.
The pilot did not know how he was singled out in this “profile” for an inspection…there were other aircraft coming and going. He had not filed an IFR flight plan so that ruled out a tip-off from ATC. He may have been on flight following, but it is still a mystery. He was subsequently detained overnight at his own expense in a motel because he had neglected to have a copy of his sales document with him. His aircraft was otherwise legal.
He voluntarily permitted a casual look-around search. They expected him to roll over and allow them to take his airplane apart to search. That did not happen. My friend knew his rights and refused to be intimidated. He got safely on his way the next day after he showed the FAA his paperwork pertaining to the sale, which had arrived overnight by fax.
I read another similar story about a guy flying his Bonanza from the West Coast to the East Coast not too long ago. He was similarly questioned when he landed for servicing en route and asked if they could search his aircraft. He refused. These guys also were DHS guys, black SUVs, no markings, common license plate. They were armed when approaching the pilot but did not draw their weapons.
They were also backed up by the sheriff and other local cops who also showed up at the scene.
The third case I ran into was a another similar story from a local pilot who I knew who was en route to Oshkosh. He was on his way in his C182 to a Midwest city and was treated in a similar fashion at a remote small airport where he stopped for fuel. He was also flying East to West, which seems to be a “profile” item for an automatic stop, when other unknown profile items are present. Again these were DHS officers. These people are all new at this game and are obviously learning their trade at general aviation pilots’ expense and inconvenience.
The pilot also pointed out that they are also very uninformed about general aviation flying and the rules we fly by, but he said they fake it and try to appear knowledgeable but turn out to be in error when it comes to the rules. He said further that they are ill-informed about the paperwork and details of private cross country flying. We can only speculate on the number of aircraft en route to Oshkosh that have been investigated this year.
Finally, the most recent story I ran into was written up in a popular publication. It has been traveling around the internet and is another real scary episode for the pilot concerned. Find it on the internet and read it. He also refused to allow DHS officers to search his airplane; they did not have a warrant. Keep in mind that the 4th Amendment to our U.S. Constitution is still black letter law.
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