Plane crash in Austin points to vulnerabilities from small planes

Thousands of civilian aircraft fly within the general aviation system every day. But there are few regulations, laws, or security procedures that would prevent a pilot with ill intentions from using a plane for evil purposes.

By , Staff writer

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    Part of the Piper Cherokee aircraft is seen where it struck an office building in Austin, Texas, on Thursday Feb. 18.
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The crash of a small civilian plane into a building in Austin, Tex., points up national vulnerabilities as US officials begin to investigate the incident.

The crash was an obvious reminder of what a pilot with ill intentions can do with an aircraft, and it undoubtedly raises questions about the ability of the US military and Department of Homeland Security to respond quickly and effectively.

Thousands of civilian planes fly within the general aviation system every day. But there are few regulations, laws, or security procedures that would prevent a pilot with ill intentions from using the plane for evil purposes. The pilot, named by officials as Joseph Andrew Stack, was apparently disturbed and had ranted about various concerns before posting a suicide note online and flying his plane into an office building in Austin.

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Few ways to prevent a suicidal attack

“There are no security measures for this,” says Fred Burton, a counter-terrorism expert and vice president for intelligence at STRATFOR, a terrorist tracking firm based in Austin. “There are no counter measures to put into place that can stop this from occurring.”

The response of the US government after 9/11 focused primarily on commercial aviation, not general aviation, he says. “We need to rethink how we’re looking at this threat.”

Although it is virtually impossible to protect American infrastructure from such attacks, a higher level of security around even small airfields and a different mind-set about general aviation could diminish the risk, says Burton.

He notes the extent of the damage the plane had on the building, blowing out windows and setting it afire even though it hit the concrete slabs between floors. The crash reveals the vulnerabilities across the country, he said.

For example, Texas alone has hundreds of airports, including small airfields and airstrips on ranches that can be used as a launching pad for any terrorist threat against “softer” targets such as state capitol buildings or other office buildings that typically aren’t protected to the extent that many federal buildings are.

NORAD launched two F-16 fighters

North American Aerospace Defense Command launched two F-16 fighters to patrol the skies over Austin, Texas for a few hours after the plane crashed – a routine measure in the wake of 9/11. A spokesman for NORAD said the command responds to about 200 incidents per year, including a variety of violations and air incidents.

The military jets were sent from an airfield near Houston to conduct a patrol within minutes of the crash at a federal government building that houses Internal Revenue Service offices. The planes have since returned and landed, officials at NORAD said.

“This response from NORAD is a prudent precaution and consistent with our response to recent, similar air incidents,” said Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for NORAD.

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