Terrorists can find a way into the sky

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Terrorists can find a way into the sky

Terrorists have easy air access

David Lazarus Wednesday, October 10, 2001


Now that we're bombing Afghanistan deeper into the Stone Age, officials say it's inevitable there will be additional terrorist attacks on the United States. Hopefully, all that new-and-improved security at the nation's airports will go a long way toward preventing more incidents involving passenger jets.

But after spending a day at Oakland's Sierra Academy of Aeronautics, the largest flight school in the West, I'm convinced that a determined terrorist would have no trouble finding himself aloft in a small, low-flying plane above a heavily populated region like the Bay Area.

And I won't be putting ideas in anyone's head when I factor in explosives, or, worse, biological and chemical weapons. Federal authorities are aware of the danger. But we'll get back to what they're doing -- or not doing -- in a moment.

You can't learn to fly a jumbo jet around here, but Sierra Academy can qualify you for a commercial multiengine instrument rating -- the certification to fly light twin-engine planes -- in just over two years. Tuition runs about $50,000.

"We don't accept casual pilots," stressed Dan Shaffer, Sierra's vice president. "If you came to us, you would have a goal of being a professional pilot. This is an airline training center."

On the normal aviation career track, this would lead to about three years with a regional airline such as SkyWest, which in turn could lead to a job with one of the major carriers.

But if your goal simply is to be alone in a cockpit, soaring over the water toward San Francisco, say, or San Jose, Shaffer said a flight student typically begins flying solo in as little as three weeks.

At least this was the case before the terrorist attacks. Federal authorities now require students to be accompanied by an instructor at all times near urban areas, although no one expects this restriction to remain in place for very long.

In other words, a reasonably bright terrorist could gain the skills necessary to be airborne in less than a month. The rest would be up to him.

The Federal Aviation Administration is aware of the potential risk, which is why it shut down flight schools such as Sierra and grounded all small planes immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. Those restrictions were lifted shortly afterward.

"The security concerns from earlier have been resolved," said Jerry Snyder, a spokesman for the FAA. He declined to elaborate on the specific nature of those concerns or how they'd been put to rest.

Frankly, I don't know how the FAA can be breathing easier about the prospect of potential nasties climbing into the cockpit of a small plane. If a terrorist arrives in this country with some prior flying experience, as was the case with last month's hijackers, he's all but assured of gaining access to the unfriendly skies in a matter of hours.

Snyder told me that because of international aviation accords, anyone with a pilot's license from one of nearly 200 other countries would simply have to ask the FAA for a permit and he would be allowed to fly light aircraft anywhere in the United States. He wouldn't even have to pass a test.

A small plane can be rented at pretty much any airport for as little as $100 per hour. Or, if the terrorist has a few thousand dollars to burn, a brand-new plane can be purchased with about the same ease as buying a new car, and without the background checks required to own a gun.

If there's a smart solution here, I'm not sure what it is. It certainly wouldn't hurt for the FAA, at the very least, to require background checks whenever anyone rents or buys a small plane. But then what do we do about the more than 1,500 flight schools throughout the country? Can we afford to make it tougher for people to receive pilot training?

In a word, no.

According to airline-industry figures, nearly a third of today's commercial pilots will face mandatory retirement during the next 20 years. In the past, the openings might have been filled by former military pilots, but that's unlikely with today's bare-bones armed forces.

"The major carriers are looking to the regional airlines for replacement pilots," said Sierra's Shaffer. "The regionals are looking to flight schools. We'll probably be supplying 100 percent of the pilots from now on."

He spoke to me in the school's administration building, a former hotel on the edge of Oakland International Airport, where the likes of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh once stayed. Sierra was founded in 1965 and now has about 270 student pilots and almost 400 student mechanics.

The school also attracts clients from around the world. On the day I visited, a classroom of Air China employees was busy learning American flight techniques.

The bottom line is that a welcome mat is out in the skies above us, and that's not going to change any time soon. In fact, America's looming pilot shortage can only mean that flight schools will have to churn out increasing numbers of new aviators. (The roughly $300,000 annual salary for senior commercial pilots ensures there will be plenty of candidates.)

So how do you keep bad apples out of the bunch? Shaffer, for one, said stopping terrorists ultimately comes down to an act of faith.

"I have a lot of faith in our system to do the right thing, to prevent things like this from happening again," he said.

"But, historically," he added, "people who are intent on doing bad things find ways of doing it."

And that, it seems, is just something we'll have to live with.

David Lazarus' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Send tips or feedbacks to dlazarus@sfchronicle.com.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 10, 2001

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