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Kings Seek Learning Opportunity in Security Blunder

John and Martha King
John and Martha King in an earlier photo with the misidentified Cessna Skyhawk.

September 1, 2010 — Last weekend’s incident in which the Santa Barbara Police Department detained and handcuffed John and Martha King at gunpoint revealed a number of shortcomings within the system that John, commenting in his blog, said need to be fixed before a tragedy occurs. As was previously reported, John and Martha were placed in custody upon landing after the airplane they were flying, a leased Cessna 172 Skyhawk from Cessna Aircraft Co., was wrongfully identified by the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) as stolen because it carried the very N-number -  N50545 - of a C-150 stolen eight years ago from McKinney, Texas.

Even though the FAA had canceled the registration and reassigned N50545 to the Cessna-owned C-172, flags apparently went up at EPIC when the Kings filed their IFR flight plan through FltPlan.com and EPIC alerted the SBPD, and the incident ensued on the taxiway at the Santa Barbara Airport last Saturday, August 28. (Click on the above link for the Kings’ incident report.)

Originally formed in 1974 to improve drug- and border-enforcement operations along the Southwest border, EPIC is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and is run jointly by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), with liaison officers from 15 Federal agencies. Its vision, according to the EPIC website: “To continue to provide timely and expeditious support to Federal, State, local, tribal, and international law enforcement agencies and to remain the premier tactical operational intelligence center in the nation.”

Meanwhile, John and Martha are attempting to turn the page the best way they know how – by making this a teachable moment. In their blog, John writes, “This could, of course, have happened to any pilot. The important point is to turn this into a learning opportunity for everyone involved so this doesn’t happen to innocent pilots again.”

He listed several “failure points” that resulted in the misidentification of the stolen airplane:

  • The FAA should not re-assign numbers of stolen aircraft unless the system is changed to protect the users of the aircraft the number is re-assigned to. (The FAA has reportedly removed N50545 from the list of stolen aircraft.)
  • El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) should check the FAA database before notifying agencies that a stolen aircraft in the IFR system is inbound.
  • There needs to be a system for correcting the stolen aircraft database and better coordination between agencies.
  • Police departments should be given Standard Operating Procedures and training regarding meeting suspicious aircraft.


“One thing that still bothers me about this case is that the Santa Barbara Police Department is still treating this case as if it were no big deal,” John wrote. “I guess it isn’t a big deal if you are on the aiming end of the gun. And I have to admit that nobody was hurt and we and the police returned to our homes that night. Their reports to the press characterize us as ‘laughing afterwards’ and ‘completely understanding.’ The truth is that we were completely cooperative, and what we understood is that it is never wise to argue with a law enforcement officer. There will always be plenty of time for argument later on if you survive the incident.”

“We were not insulted or offended personally. We just feel that drawing guns on people is dangerous business—not to be done unless it is absolutely necessary. And it will continue to happen to other pilots unless the system is changed.”

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