Some of our readers and colleagues in the aviation media were full of righteous indignation last week when AOPA published a highly-charged account of a glider pilot who'd been arrested after flying over a nuclear power plant.
Of course, anyone who reads AOPA or us knows just about how much damage a glider pilot with evil intent could actually do to the concrete containment structure of a nuke plant so the notion that it was a security threat is laughable to us. The fact that there is nothing illegal about flying at normal altitudes over this facility added fuel to white hot vitriol around the notion of individual freedoms, not to mention the remote possibility that one of the sheriffs involved might have considered taking a shot at the glider.
But as I saw it, there was a gaping hole in the story that I wanted to fill before presenting it to our readers. AOPA writer Sarah Brown did try to get comment from the Darlington County Sheriff's Department for the original story but as is so often the case with police departments caught acting absurdly they did not return her calls. I left a message on the public phone number, not really expecting a return call and I wasn't disappointed. No one called.
But I guess I wasn't the only one filling up their voicemail box and, based on the few notes we received from our readers on the story, I can imagine what was on that tape. It did prompt Sheriff J. Wayne Byrd to call Brown to give his side of the story and it's pretty much what I expected.
You had to read quite a ways through a long story focused mainly on arcane regulations and flight restrictions, the actions of the sheriffs and the apparent civil rights violations that occurred (not to mention the bizarre scenario of a bevy of siren-wailing police cars chasing a rapidly decelerating glider down the runway) to find out that it was officials at the nuclear plant who called the sheriff and who characterized the overflight as a "security threat."
If there's anything the average person knows less about than aviation it's probably nuclear energy and when someone at the local nuke plant presses the panic button I'm guessing the local sheriff takes it pretty seriously. No one wants to be the one who drops the ball in responding to that kind of threat.
Once at the airport, the responding officers were faced with a steep learning curve about airplanes and the rules that govern them in the context of getting a call about a perceived security threat to a nuclear reactor.
Sheriff Byrd said as much in AOPA's followup story and he allowed that his troops likely should have been able to turn the temperature down a lot faster than they did. The FBI and the TSA's interest didn't help. But that's where it stopped being an aviation story.
What happened to the pilot after his unjustified arrest smacks of the type of heavy-handed ass covering that only law enforcement and government agencies can employ. It should result in a civil rights investigation and the Darlington County folks should have a hard look at the manner in which they are policed. The FBI and TSA might also want to look at their procedures.
But I doubt the incident has any implications for aviation beyond Darlington County (and maybe not there) because aviation is so thoroughly misunderstood by those outside it and, thanks to the horrible events of 9/11, an airplane, any airplane, can turn into a perceived weapon of mass destruction.
I don't think there's much we in aviation can do to change that perception but we can perhaps be a little more generous in our judgment of those who occasionally mistake us for the enemy and maybe a little less insecure about them. Isolated incidents like this, scary and annoying though they may be, are not a fundamental threat to our freedom to fly.
What might help, however, is a little training for nuclear power plant personnel to fine tune their threat meters. Anyone with the authority to call in a perceived security threat should have the knowledge necessary to better judge those threats.
Maybe AOPA should start there.