9/7/10 Story has now gone mainstream in Jeff Stein's Washington Post blog SpyTalk.
8/31/10 See UPDATE at bottom. You may have heard that John and Martha King were detained over the weekend at gunpoint after they landed in Santa Barbara to visit a friend. According to an AOPA story, “upon landing at Santa Barbara, the airplane was directed to a remote part of the airport instead of the FBO where the Kings planned to park. There, four police cruisers were parked. After shutting down the engine, King was ordered out of the aircraft with his hands up and told to back slowly toward the officers, who had guns drawn. After he was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser, Martha was ordered to similarly exit the aircraft. She too was handcuffed and placed in a separate cruiser.” What the story doesn’t say is that this is...
In January 2009, Jim Pitman, a friend of mine who was a Cessna employee at the time, posted an account on Facebook of his run in with police. While he was handcuffed, he was detained in a far less threatening manner than the Kings were. Here’s information from his posting: “So I got to spend some time handcuffed in the back of a police car on the ramp in Wichita today.
“Here's the story... I pick up my new Skyhawk (N50545) at the factory in Independence Kansas and head for Wichita for some company meetings. As soon as I land the cops are there to greet me, saying they need to ask me some questions. I first think some of my friends are playing a practical joke, but they assure me they are serious and proceed to handcuff me. By this time I knew it was not a joke, and of course, was completely cooperative.
“Apparently N50545 is a tail number that used to be assigned to another airplane that was reported stolen several years ago. The officers were very friendly and it only took about 20 minutes to clear everything up. I was smiling the entire time knowing what a great story this was going to be :-)”
The incident over the weekend with the Kings was far less cordial and is getting far more attention. AOPA President Craig Fuller was understandably outraged. “Simply put, this incident is as outrageous as it is inexplicable and raises serious questions about the coordination of information among federal and local authorities. A $2 app for an iPad and 30 seconds would have discovered sufficient information to raise serious doubt that John and Martha King, who filed an instrument flight plan in a Cessna 172, were instead flying an older stolen Cessna 150 whose N number had long ago been retired and reissued by the FAA.”
I followed up with Jim a few minutes ago by phone, broke the news to him about this second incident, and asked for his thoughts. He said that “it was shocking that this could have happened again years later. My flight was the plane’s very first flight away from the factory in Independence and I then flew it for several months around the West, including into Santa Barbara, without incident.” Asked about the difference in the way he was treated versus the Kings he said “The police in Wichita were totally cool with me and there were no guns drawn.”
So pilots beware. In the post 9/11 era, small planes continue to be regarded by the public and sometimes law enforcement as objects of terror. If confronted by law enforcement, remember to use the words “Yes sir” frequently until things get sorted out. Hopefully there won’t be a third incident in which pilots are detained for flying N50545. You can hear Martha describing the incident in a 15 minute podcast at avweb.com.
Update: Jim Campbell of Aero-News Network is reporting the Santa Barbara Police Chief called John and Martha King today and "apologized clearly and profusely for the incident." My guess is that this is the kind of call that Police Chiefs don't make often.