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« Denver Post: Free Speech = "Loopholes" | Main | Elizabethtown »

How To Make a Plane Disappear

B Relevant is asking questions about a Cessna Citation that was stolen from St. Augustine, Florida, showing up at Gwinett, Georgia. The question I'd be asking is why anyone would take a plane to Gwinett?

B Relevant asks:

What is particularly troubling is that police have "narrowed down" the plane's arrival time at Briscoe Field in Gwinnett County to between 9:00 PM Saturday and 6:30 AM Sunday. That is a mighty big window of time. How is it possible that we can't say more precisely when this plane landed?

and Michelle Malkin asks:

Ok. How does a $7 million charter jet just disappear from Florida and mysteriously appear in Atlanta without anyone finding out until after the plane has landed and the pilot(s) disappeared?

To answer B Relevant, because the towers at both Gwinnett and St. Augustine are only open from 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM. It may sound like a big deal that Gwinett is Georgia's third-busiest airport, but almost all the traffic runs through the Atlanta airport, and Peachtree-DeKalb, which has twice the traffic of Gwinnett.

That also begins to answer Ms. Malkin's question. The plane didn't land in Atlanta, it landed well outside Atlanta. If the plane took off under Visual Flight Rules, it wouldn't have needed to file a flight plan. It could simply have taken off from St. Augustine and flown to Gwinnett. At 275 nautical miles, that would just about have been enough time for a Citation to get its engines warm.

It wouldn't have needed flight following. This means that it would just have shown up on Jacksonville and Atlanta regional radar as another blip, more or less indistinguishable from any other plane, except perhaps for its speed. And again, given the distance, it wouldn't have to be flying that fast to begin with.

Why do they say it was a pilot familiar with Gwinnett? Because there are obstructions at both ends of the single runway. And because you need to know where to park the thing once you land, so as not to arouse suspicion.

In fact, if I had made this flight in a Cessna C172, there would have been nothing at all unusual about it, except for the fact that my medical is out of date, and I live in Denver. What is unusual (other than someone desperately wanting to get to Gwinnett) is that they did this in a Citation, whose almost always flies under Instrument Flight Rules.

Let's also remember that the tower is not responsible for airport security: it's responsible for maintaining separation between planes on the ground and in the air. When the Gwinnett controllers reported for work in the morning, assuming the plane wasn't parked in the middle of the runway, they would have probably shrugged. And the St. Augustine controllers almost certainly wouldn't have even noticed that one was missing. Trust me on this: controllers are plenty busy booting up systems and looking over the morning's departures & arrivals without having to take inventory of the hundreds of airplanes based on the field.

This is a charter jet, evidently not based at St. Augustine. It was a holiday weekend. It isn't the kind of plane you take out to practice turns about a point. So again, it's not surprising that the pilots parked the thing, went home, and didn't notice until they arrived Monday that their ride was gone. (Memo to Pinnacle Air: make sure your pilots lock the doors when they park the plane. Maybe get some better locks.)

To be honest, I don't want a system where the airport or the government is responsible for the planes.

Hat Tip: InstaGlenn. PhotoDude also has a good post and some good comments.

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