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Message to NAFI members and Aviation Enthusiasts Regarding Jan. 5 Incident in Tampa

On Saturday, January 5, a 15-year-old took a Cessna 172 without permission from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater (Florida) Airport and subsequently flew the aircraft into the side of the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa. The teenager had been washing aircraft and doing other odd jobs to offset the costs of flight instruction. Because of his age, he was not yet old enough to obtain a student pilot's certificate but had received instruction from an FBO on the field. (FAR 61.83 requires a student pilot of a powered aircraft to be at least 16 years of age)

The teenager apparently obtained the key for the aircraft when he was given permission to preflight the aircraft prior to a lesson. The student then started the aircraft and departed the airport, reportedly without the knowledge of the FBO, nor with approval from the local air traffic control tower. The tower reported the aircraft stolen and a US Coast Guard helicopter intercepted the aircraft and attempted to get the "pilot" to land.

NAFI has been monitoring media coverage, along with it's affiliate EAA, and is concerned over the initial public perceptions to the accident.

The incident in Tampa has caused some in the media to question security measures for general aviation aircraft. It is the responsibility of all of us involved, but particularly the flight instructor community in general aviation, to acknowledge these concerns and respond to them in a positive way explaining why general aviation is not a significant threat to national security.

As a flight instructor, it is very difficult to comprehend that a person you are teaching could do such a thing. You are focused on instilling the values and skills that you personally have held in such a high regard throughout your career to your pupil. The passions and love for aviation run so deep in yourself that it is incomprehensible that someone could choose to end their life in such a manner as happened in downtown Tampa.

Fortunately, the majority of the media coverage has been balanced, understanding that this was not a terrorist act and that no significant breaches of national security occurred.

This unfortunate incident did highlight several things:

Small aircraft are a minor threat, as related to structural damage to buildings.

The person at the controls was not authorized to fly the aircraft and FAA and national security authorities responded immediately.

This incident was not a case of a person avoiding or circumventing airport security measures. It is not possible, at this time, to determine the motivation for this specific incident or why the fatal accident occurred.

It is extremely hard, if not impossible, to predict a person's mental state based upon casual contact.

NAFI President Sean Elliott said, "The flight instructor community is very concerned that this incident occurred and will be looking at each student with yet another necessary scrutiny." NAFI joined its affiliate organization, EAA, in supporting submitted proposals to the government on December 12 for increasing general aviation security. EAA President Tom Poberezny said "EAA and NAFI will continue its efforts to balance necessary security measures with the basic freedoms represented by flight."