Alarm at Austin plane crash troubles pilots

Many in the general aviation community urge regulators not to overreact to Thursday's crash.

By , Staff writer

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    Firefighters and investigators look around the area by the damaged remains of a small aircraft inside a building, Friday in Austin, Texas. Joseph Stack flew his small airplane Thursday into the building that houses several offices of the Internal Revenue Service.
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The crash of a small civilian plane into the side of a government building is raising the hackles of general aviation pilots who fear the government will crack down on them in the name of national security.

Distressed over his financial situation and angry at the IRS, Joseph Stack flew his Piper Cherokee into the side of a building in Austin's Echelon office complex Thursday, killing himself and one other person. Mr. Stack appeared to be working alone and was not thought to be part of a broader terrorist or anti-government plot. And most experts agree no regulation or law would have prevented the incident.

Yet it was an obvious reminder of what thrust the US into the “war on terrorism” more than eight years ago. Some security analysts have already raised national security concerns about general aviation, pointing out that the incident reflects broad national vulnerabilities at the hands of individuals flying small planes with ill-intent.

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Indeed, Rep. Mike McCaul, ranking Republican on a Homeland Security subcommittee, called the incident an act of terrorism, even as he recognized that it was not part of any organized plot.

All that’s enough to rally the troops within the general aviation community who guard their liberties vigilantly.

'General aviation is a small community'

“General aviation is a small community, mostly misunderstood by the general public and more unfortunately, our government,” said one pilot in an e-mail.

“We are perceived as a bunch of rich people with expensive toys that now can be used to kill people,” he wrote. “Frankly, we’re tired of it.”

Many pilots are quick to compare the perils posed by any large truck loaded with a bomb – witness the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

“We saw two people rent a truck and blow up a federal building but no call to require more restrictions on truck rental,” wrote another in a different e-mail.

“Our major concern in the wake of the situation in Austin is always overreaction,” says Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Md. Mr. Dancy recalls the safety issues posed by a midair collision last year in New York when a plane and a sightseeing helicopter collided, resulting in calls to severely clamp down on the airspace. Instead, a compromise was found.

Congress may hold hearings

The incident in Austin this week may push lawmakers to hold hearings to look at safety within the general aviation community or to consider ways to further regulate the industry.

Mr. McCaul says that while such incidents do raise national security concerns, nothing about this particular one should in and of itself force new regulation.

“There are legitimate homeland concerns, but Congressman McCaul opposes any further regulation of general aviation,” said spokesman Mike Rosen. “He does not think that any regulation of any type or of any form would have prevented the kind of attack that happened yesterday.”

But when it comes to national security, emotion can muddy the regulatory waters. One expert predicts that there will be an attempt to create “cosmetic” fixes that improve the look of general aviation security even if such improvements don’t actually have an effect.

Instead, argues Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law in San Antonio, the government should use its limited resources not to buy expensive security equipment for airports but instead to focus on identifying schemes and gathering intelligence that can stop plots before they occur.

“They need to focus their energy toward techniques that are aimed at identifying these people long before they begin their murderous attack,” says Mr. Addicott.

Ulimately, some acts of violence will happen no matter what is done to prevent them, says James Carafano, a senior analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation and an expert in homeland security. “These things are going to happen. The notion that we can child-proof America is just ridiculous.”

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