October 13, 2004

For fifty eight years my airplane has sat peacefully at airports all over the northeast. It has no ignition lock and no door lock, and it never did; that's the way planes used to be built. The things that I know of her past suggest that she is no different than most small airplanes, and has seldom been secured behind locked hangar doors. The plane is sheltered under a hangar roof, and I shrug my shoulders about worries of a hangar collapse. My concerns about theft are even less.

New York State has just become very concerned about someone stealing my plane, though. A decree has been disseminated, holding the airport's owner responsible if I fail to place two padlocks upon my plane. Since terrorists lurk behind every countryside fence-post as well as within every dark shadow, this rule applies even if the plane is away from home, parked while I am having lunch at the diner next door.

It is difficult for me to sit here and make a rational explanation of all the ways that I am upset by this legislation and its manner of interpretation and implementation. I will start with the least obvious, but probably the most significant part of the law. It is the now- familiar part where someone else is responsible for what I do.

There are a lot fewer airport owners than there are pilots, and it is much more convenient for the State to harass them than it is to deal directly with pilots. Airport owners will now have to purchase a permit from the State, and the permit can be revoked at will by an administrator, rather than at the conclusion of a legal process. As significant, this sort of second- party responsibility creates an extra pair of pockets for personal injury lawyers to pick.

Aviation is a small and somewhat misunderstood world. To place this law into a more common arena, imagine how many restaurants would remain in business if the proprietor was responsible for the same things that are being asked of airport owners. Imagine a restaurant owner running out to the street and checking that each patron's car was locked prior to seating them. How long would it take for every proprietor, far and wide, to close up shop and work someplace else for a W-2?

Auto theft is a problem, aircraft theft is not. In other parts of the world, misguided people are killing and maiming hundreds of people a month almost at will, using cars. Why go to the trouble and risk of stealing a small airplane when a car can be legally acquired for a few dollars? Why go to the trouble of finding a half-trained pilot for a suicide mission when there are so many fools and idiots, any of them capable of driving a car, standing around with nothing to do?

It is an airplane though, a plum to be picked by those who find it too difficult to be rational, and too convenient to generalize. It is so easy to enact laws which affect few people but make great press. It is too satisfying to stand before the masses and proclaim that "we have done something for your protection", even if it is only ceremonial. Perhaps after only one more generation of adults have been raised on the empty calories of "newthink", there will be no one left who knows the difference anyway.

My airplane when it is fully loaded weighs less than an empty Yugo, and a Yugo can go faster than I cruise. A non-pilot who attempted to steal my plane would meet the same fate as many licensed pilots who might try the same thing... If the plane didn't end up in the tall weeds when full power was applied, the first bump on the narrow hilltop runway would send it on a short but exciting tour of the surrounding real estate. There is no question that my plane is a terror instrument, for a very terrorized individual would emerge from the wreckage!

I am only one voice, and in terms of contemporary culture I am probably "wrong". None the less, I ran across this quote from the Skeptical Inquirer, printed two years ago. It goes directly to my deepest concerns:

"Inconvenience sounds innocuous, but it means lost time and money, lost productivity as well as increased frustration and cynicism. Disproportionate efforts take time and resources away from other more productive enterprise. Moreover our civil liberties are eroded by the involuntary nature of this inconvenience. When a person irrationally fears elevators, and takes the stairs instead, only that person suffers the inconvenience of their personal response. When everyone is forced to suffer because of the fears of others, then such measures become tyrannical"

Plane Talk Archives
Return to Home Page
E- mail Bob Tilden at