As aviators or aviation enthusiasts, I hope you have heard the story of Robin Fleming, a harmless 70-year-old sailplane pilot who was arrested, charged, and interrogated by the FBI after flying his glider – in accordance with all applicable FARs, using current aeronautical charts that depict no airspace restrictions – over a nuclear power plant.
After AOPA publicized the story recently, the Darlington County Sheriff was inundated with letters, phone calls, and emails from aviators outraged by this egregious violation of an innocent pilots’ civil rights by police officers unfamiliar with the applicable aviation regulations.
The Sheriff explained that his officers were (a) responding per procedure to a call from the nuke plants’ security alleging (inaccurately) that Fleming was only 100 feet above the reactor dome; and (b) that his officers, and law enforcement generally, are not very familiar with aviation and aviation law. Protocol for nuclear security calls apparently requires that the federal authorities be notified, and that suspicious persons be detained…and in order to detain someone they must be charged with something.
The sheriff’s department was trying to do their job. A panic call from a nuke plant in the post-9/11 era is sure to get testosterone and adrenaline flowing in law enforcement types. We live in a paranoid time, where everything is suspicious and the TSA frisks elderly women to make sure they’re not suicide bombers. Our era is marked by overreaction and security theater. In that light this reaction makes sense.
That said, a glider is a threat to nobody. I’m glad law enforcement responded quickly to a panic call from a nuke plant, but common sense and cooler heads should have prevailed at the scene when it became clear that Mr. Fleming was no threat. Detaining an innocent 70-year-old flying a non-powered aircraft is completely absurd.
AOPA’s has made a goal of “ensuring that a similar incident [will] not happen again,” and they plan to “[focus] on what federal agencies can do to educate law enforcement officials about critical infrastructure sites and on airspace and jurisdiction.”
I hope the efforts work. If flying an airplane in accordance with the FARs and charted airspace is suddenly going to get me arrested, that is Very Bad News. Hopefully everyone can learn from this ugly little incident and we can avoid having any more aviators questioned by the FBI just because some panic-stricken security guard freaked out.