Stolen plane raises safety issues

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sometimes news comes in the form of a drama that proves the axiom that truth is stranger than fiction.

Such was the case of the Canadian student pilot who apparently stole a Cessna 172 from a flight school near Ontario. The young man, who was originally from Turkey, flew the plane into the U.S. where F-16 fighter jets were dispatched because of the potential threat of terrorism.

After several hours in the air and nearly out of fuel, Adam Leon landed the plane on a stretch of old U.S. 60 at Ellsinore, Mo., a small community between Poplar Bluff and Van Buren in Southeast Missouri. The man was arrested by federal authorities.

Monday-morning quarterbacks assessed Leon's flight and the restraint on the part of his military escort. Officials quickly determined that the pilot posed no security threat. Yet there was cause to wonder how easy it might have been for terrorists to use the same methods.

In 2006, the year with the most complete statistics, 1.2 million vehicles were stolen in the U.S. Only six aircraft were stolen that year. There are several reasons so few planes are stolen, including the fact that not everyone can fly a plane, while most adults can drive a car.

Another reason could be a precautionary program of the Transportation Security Administration and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association called the Airport Watch Program, which encourages vigilance and basic safety procedures.

News reports indicated that Leon was able to take a plane from his flight school because keys were left in the aircraft.

That may be the case at some U.S. airports too, but under the Airport Watch Program airplane owners, including flight schools, are encouraged not to leave keys in the planes.

The reasons for Leon's flight are unclear, but the flight served one purpose: Authorities are more sensitive to the possibility of using a small plane for no good.

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