THE MAGAZINE

Very Light Jets: A Very Real Threat?

By Joseph Straw

The degree of risk posed by general aviation is set to increase in coming years with the emergence of VLJs.

Last year’s crash of a small private plane into a New York City high-rise reminded the public of the threat to homeland security posed by aircraft.

Before the crash, which occurred just five miles north of the World Trade Center site, small planes had free rein in the air corridor above New York’s East River. The day after the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that pilots in that area would have to check in with regional air traffic control.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which represents the general aviation industry, labeled politicians’ calls for airspace restrictions a “knee-jerk” reaction. The association maintains that general aviation planes “are ill-suited for terrorist use.”

Other experts say that small planes do pose a threat but that restricting airspace is not an effective countermeasure given that suicide bombers won’t care about those restrictions.

Whatever the current threat level, the degree of risk posed by general aviation is set to increase in the coming years due to the emergence of very light jets, or VLJ’s, according to Vahid Motevalli, head of the Aviation Institute at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The two-engine aircraft, which seat between three and six passengers, are slightly larger than propeller-driven private planes, but are smaller than “corporate” jets manufactured by companies like Bombardier Aerospace and Gulfstream.

In a recent paper, Motevalli and co-author Christian Salmon note expected growth in general aviation, spurred by expansion of the “air taxi” services fostered by the FAA and NASA in the hope of cleaning up clogged airline jetways. Much of this growth is expected to come in the VLJ fleet. Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Eclipse Aviation, for example, had received 2,500 orders for its six-passenger Eclipse 500 as of late last year.

The small jets fly far faster than their propeller-driven counterparts. A two-seat Cessna 150, for example, cruises at about 123 mph; VLJs cruise at between about 400 and 610 mph. That means that if someone wanted to fly a VLJ into a building such as the White House, military jets would have far less time to get airborne and intercept it, while helicopters, which top out at between 150 and 230 mph, could not catch up.

Motevalli points out that a VLJ could be used as a missile in a suicide against fixed targets, or to take down an airliner in flight—although the probability of such an attack “is very low.”

How well would such aircraft be secured? On the ground, the greatest threat of aircraft theft exists at small, nontowered airports, and securing the thousands of such sites nationwide would be “highly costly,” Motevalli notes.

Motevalli’s suggestions: Background checks for all pilots and aircraft owners flying out of nontowered airports, careful review of flight paths and “examination of potential threats to high-value targets within range of aircraft,” and automatic alerts for flight-path deviation.

AOPA spokesman Chris Dancy notes that background checks are currently conducted on all non-U.S. citizens enrolled in flight training in the United States, while all pilot’s license applicants are subject to background checks and checks against terrorist watch lists.

David Almy, spokesman at the National Air Transport Association, raises questions about the report’s proposals as well. To consider all the potential threats within an aircraft’s range might be pointless, Almy says, given that most VLJs could cover a 1,000-mile radius on a single load of fuel. Automatic alerts for flight-path deviation, Almy says, would present “a great technical challenge.”

Motevalli notes that flight-path-deviation alert technology could be incorporated into the new jets, which will nearly all rely on Global Positioning System technology. “It is a technical challenge, but VLJ’s aren’t out there yet, so we’re looking to the future…and the technology is out there,” he says.

Thefts of single-engine propeller- driven planes are rare; typically fewer than ten occur each year. Most of the planes employ a key start, while corporate jets’ doors lock, and jet engine ignition requires a strict sequence of actions.

In 2004 the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued guidelines for general aviation airport security, recommending use of fencing, lighting, locks, alarms, and signage, with measures and procedures scaled on the basis of current threat level and the airport’s proximity to sensitive sites. The problem is that the TSA guidelines remain voluntary.

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