The crime seldom makes headlines – unless the authorities leak their worries of a potential “terrorist” link in their minds (you could legitimately ask- “What doesn’t?” these days). Essentially- the theft of your airplane is as likely to make news as the theft of your family sedan. Airplane thefts thankfully remain relatively rare- and they seldom rise to the level of attention-getting – absent that imminent-risk factor.

Dave Higdon  |  01st October 2010
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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Stealing The Sky:
Theft potential is small- but powerful...

The crime seldom makes headlines – unless the authorities leak their worries of a potential “terrorist” link in their minds (you could legitimately ask- “What doesn’t?” these days). Essentially- the theft of your airplane is as likely to make news as the theft of your family sedan. Airplane thefts thankfully remain relatively rare- and they seldom rise to the level of attention-getting – absent that imminent-risk factor.

Yet that perspective ignores the very real mental anguish and inconvenience of an owner or operator who finds the hangar emptied of the airplane so carefully tucked away after completion of its last mission; or the owner who returns to the airport being visited to learn that someone slipped in- and slipped away with the company wings.

Between being smart and being tech savvy- an airplane can be accorded a level of protection that may well make it unattractive enough to make the thief move on – remembering- that is- that no system or device can thwart 100 percent of the theft prospects all of the time.

Regardless of the item – a priceless object d’art in a well-guarded museum or a business aircraft on a secured ramp – the dedicated- devoted- professional thief generally finds a way to succeed- however briefly. So protecting the huge investments a corporate airplane represents requires less in the way of high-technology help and more in the way of smart-thinking.

With this in mind- let’s examine the scope of the problem and some of the protections offered by technology before we inventory on the common-sense methods for securing and protecting the company plane.

According to the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute in Ormond Beach- Florida- the theft of aircraft components has long been a nagging problem for aircraft owners- even as actual aircraft thefts in the past decade showed a significant decline from epidemic levels of the 1990s.

For example- between 1991 and 2000 the total value of general aviation aircraft thefts totaled just under $32 million; between 2001 and 2010- the total- so far- amounts to about $5.8 million- including four thefts worth $210-000.

More worrying for many is the unauthorized access to an airplane that could result from someone engaging in anything from sabotage to simply stealing valuable components. Component thefts showed a similar trend – with- however- the value of components stolen over the last 10 years exceeding the value of whole aircraft stolen in the same period.

While rare- thefts of turbine-powered aircraft generally befall operators of utility propjets or of small jets capable of operating from small- usually unimproved strips – the kind of operations favored by drug smugglers for surreptitious border crossings- or for moving people and goods between production sites outside the U.S.

In October 2005 a Cessna Citation VII disappeared from the ramp at St. Augustine- Florida- sometime after its crew arrived late-morning on a Saturday. With no outbound mission- the crew retired to RON- returning to SGJ on the following Monday morning.

That’s when the jet was first missed- by its crew- nearly 48 hours after they last saw it. Interestingly- news of the jet’s disappearance struck a chord with folks at Briscoe Field (LVL) a few hundred miles away in Gwinnett County- Georgia who on that same Monday morning found a Citation VII sitting on the ramp – and no one claiming it. Of course- the first question authorities try to resolve is whether an aircraft theft may relate to a potential terrorist attack.

Such concerns evaporated quickly as word spread of the jet’s mysterious disappearance and reappearance – and five people came forward to volunteer that they’d been passengers on part of the ill-fated jet’s relocation from SGJ. Shortly afterward authorities arrested – and eventually won convictions against – a 22-year-old Commercial-rated pilot who those witnesses “credited” with giving them a lift in the business jet.

Interestingly- the guilty party was not type rated in jets. Such high-profile thefts are rare- though – partly because stealing wings isn’t as easy as it might sound.

In another instance of opportunistic aircraft theft- a young man known as “The Barefoot Bandit” frustrated authorities for months with- not one- but a string of piston aircraft thefts. Before his arrest in the Bahamas – where he had flown and ditched what was believed to be his fifth stolen plane – 19-year-old Colton Harris-Moore had been on a long-running theft-spree involving bikes- cars and boats… in addition to the airplanes.

Again- instances like this stand out because of their relative rarity. But rarity doesn’t mean it’s not smart to take some basic steps to ensure the security of the company plane.

Of course- in today’s world of business aviation- with electronic flight decks- computerized systems and digital hardware resident all across the corporate aircraft arena- technological solutions seem a natural. Of several available- Blue Green Technologies’ Vigiplane system employs a number of interesting traits in its three-component package.

First- an aluminum-and-composite wheel chock goes around the nose-wheel and gets clamped under the gear – a process that takes about two minutes.

Second- a PDM peripheral detection module integral to that chock provides the system with a 360-degree field of detection while a GPS module delivers real-time location and weather forecast services.

Third- the Vigiplane system taps into a secure web server accessible by the user who can define their own use profile- alarm parameters and alarms via cellular and satellite links.

Thanks to the system’s automatic forwarding- Vigiplane can transmit alarms and alerts directly to a cell phone or via e-mail to any designated computer. Thanks to its power battery and low current drain- the Vigiplane system can run autonomously onsite for up to 15 days. During operation- the system can see- and record everything that happens around the jet in images with clarity enough to allow positive identification of suspects.

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Securaplane from Pacific Scientific offers a variety of security-monitoring systems for business turbine aircraft- ranging from small jets and propjets to large cabin aircraft. Employing all-metal reed switches- infrared sensors- a central processing unit with transceiver- and an outside-the-aircraft control panel small enough to be hidden behind an exterior access panel for arming and disarming the system- Securaplane lets the user monitor the aircraft remotely as well as providing alarms as generated.

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For the bizliner operator- Airbus invented and patented its own anti-terrorist/anti-hijacking system involving a trap – a buffer zone between the main cabin and the cockpit door.

Anyone who attempted to gain access to the flight deck would be trapped in this buffer zone and subject to a variety of anti-terror/anti-hijacking steps- including a ‘lighting master shut-off’- a ‘high intensity glaring or blinding light unit’- a ‘high intensity strobe light’- or a ‘window darkening device’- as well as a ‘high intensity noise generator’- ‘fogging gas’- or ‘knock-out gas’- –even a tranquilizer dart gun aimed via a night-vision video camera.

These steps trap and incapacitate the aggressor until you drop them through a trapdoor into an on-board confinement cell resistant to gunfire or explosives – and also equipped with knock-out gas.

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Of course- one of the simplest steps an aircraft owner can take involves merely replacing the locks on any door or panel that provides access to the cabin- luggage or avionics spaces of an aircraft. For this job the high-security locks and keys available from Medeco can render those access panels inaccessible – without a proper key- that is.

Normal aircraft locks can be more-easily picked or simply drilled out and thrown away. Medeco locks and keys are double cross cut bi-directional units that defy picking; only the correct key – cut for the bi-directionally cut tumblers – can open these locks. Other elements employed in Medeco’s locks include four anti-drill-out pins set in solid brass and key blanks available only from the company – thus assuring no one but an authorized key holder can get replacement keys- and then only from the company.

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While attractive and great for providing a feel-good buzz to go with the money they cost- technological solutions should be considered an augmentation of some simple steps that require no technology at all. For one- you can block tracking services from seeing your aircraft registration number. Contact the NBAA for help to file a Blocked Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) - telephone (202) 478-0035.

Meanwhile- there are other small steps you can take to help avoid becoming a victim. Following is the top five:

1. Always lock the door and install any use-inhibiting tools like prop or wheel locks – especially when visiting a remote airport where the airplane will sit outside.
2. Ask to have the airplane hangared- if at all possible- when visiting a remote airport.
3. If hangaring is not possible- request the aircraft be parked under bright lights and in full view of the FBO desk or Ramp Staff office.
4. Store any items that might tempt a break-in so they can’t be viewed through the windows.
5. Consider obtaining locking covers for pitot tubes or angle-of-attack (AOA) vanes- and consider installing a hidden switch that disables the starting system and avionics totally.

The Aviation Crime Prevention Institute offers the following tips in the event that your aircraft or aircraft equipment are stolen: Immediately notify the local law enforcement agency of the theft. Request that such information be entered into the computer system of the National Crime Information Center of the FBI- and have the law officer taking the report notify the nearest FAA Flight Service Station (FSS) for them to issue a nationwide stolen aircraft alert.

The report to the Flight Service Station must be done by the law enforcement officer handling the case because Flight Service is prohibited from issuing a stolen aircraft alert based solely on notification by the aircraft owner.

Notify the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute (ACPI)- P.O Box 30- Hagerstown- MD 21741- telephone 1-800-969 5473; fax (301) 791-9791. With all available information- ACPI has the ability to issue Industry Alerts and Theft Broadcasts. Notify your insurance company or agent - and last- but not least- notify your boss and your home-field FBO – just in case.


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