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    Probe to focus on security at small airports

    Which state or federal agency is in charge of security at small airports? As it turns out, none.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 11, 2002

    The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has dispatched agents to more than 100 small and mid-sized public airports to look for security gaps and offer suggestions for improvement.

    The order from FDLE Commissioner James T. Moore comes less than a week after a 15-year-old student pilot crashed a single-engine plane into a Tampa high-rise Saturday night.

    But the FDLE can offer only suggestions and cannot enforce security measures. The agency has no authority over security at the airfields.

    No one else does either.

    While the Federal Aviation Administration regulates security at the 19 commercial airports in Florida, the agency does not regulate security at the state's 103 non-commercial public airfields.

    Neither does the Florida Department of Transportation. Security is left to the airports, said Chuck Arnold, administrator of aviation development for DOT.

    Arnold said security at the airfields is not exactly tight. Many do not have fences. People can come and go. Planes, which are fairly easy to hot-wire, are left unattended.

    "If someone wants to commandeer an aircraft, it probably wouldn't be that difficult," Arnold said. "I've seen a number of airports that had parked aircraft that were unattended."

    Agents who visited the airfields are meeting with operators to "discuss common sense security measures that must, or should be, taken to ensure an incident like this doesn't happen again," said Al Dennis, an FDLE spokesman.

    Agents, who are being assisted by local police and DOT workers, will issue reports on their security observations to the state's regional domestic terrorism task forces.

    Dennis said those reports, which are still coming in, will be reviewed by the task forces.

    Arnold said there are discussions in Tallahassee about creating security requirements for non-commercial airports, although he said DOT has not yet been consulted about recommendations.

    "I know the topic is being discussed. They're sure considering it. It's speculation, but there probably will be something coming," Arnold said.

    Any decisions about security regulation will have to take into account the costs absorbed by the airports.

    "Even to put up a security fence is kind of cost-prohibitive," Arnold said.

    Earlier this week, the FAA issued several new recommendations aimed at providing closer scrutiny of student pilots.

    The recommendations, which do not have the power of a regulation, were directed at flight schools and companies known as "fixed base operators," which provide fuel, maintenance and rental planes.

    While improved security was being urged this week, the National Transportation Safety Board investigators were looking into the Tampa crash.

    Investigators have found no mechanical problems with Charles J. Bishop's airplane, but lead investigator Butch Wilson said Thursday it is too early to rule the crash a suicide.

    Wilson said he analyzed the engine and airframe and found no evidence of any mechanical problems before the plane smashed into the 28th floor of Bank of America Plaza.

    "I feel comfortable that there is nothing wrong with the airplane," he said.

    However, Wilson said he still wants to analyze radio transmissions, interviews with people who knew Bishop and the radar track of the flight path. The FBI has been analyzing a note found in the wreckage that indicated Bishop sympathized with Osama bin Laden and intended to commit suicide.

    "In spite of the fact that we have a note, we still have to go through and do a thorough investigation," Wilson said. "We could find out later that the note was a fake."

    Wilson said he had not received any results from the FBI's analysis of the note.

    Crash investigations typically take about six months. Wilson will make a recommendation to the five NTSB board members who will then determine the probable cause.

    Wilson said he would like to know why the East Lake teenager did not communicate with air traffic controllers or a Coast Guard helicopter that tried to get him to land. But the plane's radios were so badly damaged in the crash that Wilson could not determine if they were working before impact.

    Wilson emphasized that he needed to do a thorough investigation in spite of the evidence suggesting a suicide.

    "It makes it a lot easier having a note," he said. "But I have to wait until I get all my data and all my interviews. You can't walk into any of this with a preconceived idea."

    He said the NTSB is studying the boy's medical history, including his prescription for the acne drug Accutane.

    For several years, federal health officials have been exploring whether Accutane was a factor in some teen suicides, but there has been no conclusive link.

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