Small-plane pilots feel unfairly targeted after Sept. 11

Thousands of pilots ponder a future of background checks, flight-path restrictions.

As Richard Karp looks out his office window at the rolling hills surrounding Lincoln Park Airport, he finds himself caught between patriot-ism and profound frustration with the US government.

A private pilot, he says he'd help patrol the skies at his own expense, if asked. But his primary business, which is selling airplanes, has ground to a near-standstill because of restrictions imposed in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

He's got plenty of company within the $20 billion dollar industry that involves private planes, known as general aviation (GA). Consisting mostly of mechanic shops, small airports, and flight schools - GA is reeling financially from its initial grounding and the remaining restrictions on private air travel.

While most everyone in the general aviation community favors some steps to improve security, many say the restrictions imposed so far make little or no sense.

For instance, student pilots are free to fly in some restricted airspace around major metropolitan areas, but most seasoned veterans like Mr. Karp, who own their planes, cannot.

Therein lies their frustration, and the challenge of balancing freedom and security in a vast country full of small businesses and fiercely independent entrepreneurs.

"We're getting to the point of paranoia on the part of government," charges Karp. "What happened was a terrible tragedy, but we have to go on with our lives. We can't change everything, or we'll end up creating a police state."

Supporters of the government restrictions point out that there are no security mechanisms installed at most small airports. By mid-November, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Security Agency expect to present a new set of requirements. These will likely include metal detectors or other deterrents like those at major airports, and explicit procedures for hand searches of luggage. But right now, anyone with a license and a credit card or cash can rent a plane and do with it as they will.

"There is a potential threat that the GA sector of the economy could still be used by terrorists," says Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University at Bloomington. "You could lease a business jet and fill it full of explosives, but it wouldn't have the same impact as a 767."

Private pilots note that the same is true for truck or boat rentals, which could wreak as much havoc as a small plane. "Anyone who wants to commit mayhem, will commit mayhem," says Karp.

With some exceptions, the so-called "Class B" airspace around the nation's 30 major metropolitan areas is now open only to pilots who are qualified to fly on instruments. These "IFR-rated" pilots must file detailed plans with local air-traffic control, which then guides and checks of their movements.

Of the nation's 645,000 licensed pilots, only 1 in 13 is IFR-rated, and most of those are commercial pilots. The vast majority of private pilots fly under what's under what's known as Visual Flight Rules (VFR). Since Sept. 11, the tens of thousands of VFR pilots with planes at airports within 25 miles of a major city had been simply grounded.

Last week, the FAA announced it was temporarily easing that restriction in certain areas, but only for three days so VFR-rated pilots could move their planes to other airports.

It also decreased the highly restricted airspace around both New York and Washington, cutting it from 25 to 18 miles. That will allow planes to fly more easily out of those cities' feeder airports, like Teeterboro near New York. Lincoln Park, although now out of the highly restricted air space, remains within the Class B air space. So most VFR pilots there are still grounded. But they also are wary of the coming government restrictions.

Linda Scully owns a flight school and rental company here. Soon, her students may have to pay for a full background check before they can take lessons. That will add to the already significant cost of gaining a license to fly.

She also believes it puts the onus of security on the wrong people. "Our intelligence and immigration services failed: They let the terrorists into the country," she says. "So if we pay for background checks, what good is that going to do? It will just turn up the same faulty information that got past the government."

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