Aviation enthusiasts from all 50 states and 22 foreign countries met in Fort Worth, Texas, on October 10-12, as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) held its AOPA Aviation Summit. On tap was the usual fare: representatives from companies selling everything from spare parts to complete airplanes, flight instruction, flying safety seminars, organizations of volunteer pilots for benevolent purposes and, of course, seminars on dealing with government agencies. In the past, most seminars on dealing with government agencies covered such topics as how to improve communications between pilots and air traffic controllers and how pilots could keep from violating the FAA’s flying regulations.
Federal Agents Stopping Small Aircraft
But something has changed in the last few years. Starting around 2008 or 2009, pilots started reporting being approached by federal agents, sometimes with fully automatic weapons pointed at them. Sometimes the agents brought drug-sniffing dogs or otherwise indicated they were looking for drugs. Sometimes the federal agents worked on their own and sometimes with local law-enforcement agencies. Sometimes the pilots have been told why they are under suspicion and sometimes not. The reasons for suspicion, when given, have been as trivial as telling the pilot they knew he made a stop in Colorado, where marijuana has been legalized, or a federal monitoring agency noticing the plane landed at a relatively remote airport after flying more than a certain distance. Of course, pilots of small planes frequently stop at small airports to refuel their planes or use the restroom facilities when they are traveling. Smaller airports usually have less air traffic, making such stops faster.
Matters came to a head earlier this year when an AOPA member was stopped twice on a round trip and reported it to AOPA. AOPA responded by asking members to report such stops. Within two or three weeks, 43 members filed reports of similar stops, some of them having occurred in previous years. There would have been more reports filed, but some pilots expressed fears of retribution and didn’t make the formal reports. For those incidents that were reported AOPA filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the agencies involved to determine if these stops were legal and constitutional. In general, the federal agencies have not responded to the FOIA requests, but state and local law-enforcement agencies have typically responded. Local law-enforcement responses have typically referenced these incidents as tips by which federal authorities identified an inbound small plane as being suspicious.
One of the leaders at a seminar on government relations noted there are at least eight government surveillance agencies watching small planes inside the United States. They use radar information and data mining from government computers that keep information on Americans to look for something suspicious.
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