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Twin Cities' 'no-fly' order strands area pilots
By Bob Collins
Minnesota Public Radio
October 9, 2001

Dozens of Lake Elmo pilots are among 41,000 pilots, who are stranded on the ground in the name of homeland security. Ironically, while this group, which includes a retired White Bear Lake police officer, a Northwest Airlines pilot and a former FBI agent, can't fly over the Twin Cities, people seeking flight training - as many of the terrorists in the September 11th attack did - can.

Under restrictions since the terrorist attacks, student pilot Marlon Gunderson of Lake Elmo, left, can fly over the Twin Cities. Licensed pilot Tim Farrell of St. Paul, right, can't.
Hot coffee, scrambled eggs and the sound of 160 h.p. engines lumbering to life are a Saturday morning tradition in hangar 25B at Lake Elmo airport.

But since the September 11th suicide attacks, the only sound at Lake Elmo are words about restricted airspace, terrorists and a secretive agency that has grounded these and 41,000 other pilots around 30 major U.S. cities, including Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Airliners, like those used in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, are back in the sky. Propeller aircraft, however, are mostly idle in the Twin Cities.

While commercial airline operations are gradually getting back to normal, smaller planes that are not commercial or military - known as general aviation - still operate under tight restrictions that have prevented many planes from flying. The grounding has placed airports that cater to general aviation in danger of bankruptcy and led to layoffs and shutdowns in the aviation manufacturing business.

The hodgepodge of new rules is filled with irony. The government has allowed student pilots into the no-fly zone - many of the suicide terrorists were flight students - but has expelled experienced pilots like those in Lake Elmo's Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 54, which includes Navy veterans, a Northwest Airlines pilot, a retired White Bear police officer and a former FBI agent.

"What bothers me is how they can do this arbitrarily, without going through the proper procedures," says pilot Dale Rupp of Mahtomedi. "Within a millisecond they've done it and now they won't even talk about it."
Many pilots feel they've been singled out, while not posing a direct threat. "If we were to fly into the IDS tower, we might not even break a window," said Dale Rupp of Mahtomedi, who says his 1943 plane can hold no more than a dozen gallons of gas.

"That wasn't a light plane that crashed into the World Trade Center," Rupp said. "That was a fairly heavy plane going 500 mph, full of fuel. They picked that airplane on purpose, because it was full of fuel."

"You can do more damage with an Econoline full of dynamite," said Marlon Gunderson of Lake Elmo, who's restoring a Piper J-5.

At the heart of the issue is what's called Class B airspace - an imaginary circle drawn around the Twin Cities, within which pilots need permission from air traffic controllers to enter and where aircraft have to meet certain standards, such as radio, and a transponder, a device that provides details of the flight to an air traffic controller's radar screen.

Class B airspace is designed to protect arriving and departing traffic from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Up until September 11th, the restricted airspace encompassed an area bordered by Target Center east to the High Bridge in St. Paul, south to Burnsville and north to the fairgrounds. In areas where jet traffic would be at a higher altitude, the "floor" of the controlled airspace increased. Around Lake Elmo, for example, pilots could fly if they stayed below 2,300 feet until outside the metropolitan area.

Pilots Art Edhlund, left, of Stillwater and Bill Schanks, right, of St. Paul sit in a hangar at Lake Elmo Saturday lamenting the regulations that have grounded them.
After the attacks, however, a no-fly zone was extended between 25 and 30 miles from the 30 major cities and extended from the surface to "infinity," according to the FAA, effectively grounding about 90 percent of small aircraft. What complicates the situation is the no-fly zone now includes every reliever airport operated by the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

The economic impact of the current restrictions has mirrored that of commercial aviation.

The flying ban, according to Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, is having a tremendous economic impact on the infrastructure that supports general aviation. "Businesses that sell fuel, maintain aircraft, flight schools, etc. are suffering significant losses and many have had to layoff or fire employees," he said.

"Being shut down for 10 days was pretty devastating," said Nancy Olson, the president of Thunderbird Aviation at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, which operates a flight training school, rents aircraft, hangar space, and sells aviation fuel to general aviation customers.

Olson says Thunderbird initially laid off its entire staff of flight instructors, administrators and mechanics. "The airlines got their bailout money," she says, "while we were still shut down. We're down (revenue), but I can't say how much," Olson says.

"Anyone who has visited a general aviation facility knows that security is often poor or, more often, nonexistent,"

- Joseph Kinney
Security Consultant
Last week, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was among the sponsors of legislation that would provide relief to those general aviation businesses damaged by the airspace shutdown and subsequent restrictions.

"The perception is it's only hobbyists who are affected," says pilot Tim Farrell of St. Paul. "An awful lot of the flying that's done is small business. We want to get the economy back on its feet, but this is just sand in the gears for a lot of small businesses."

Thunderbird's staff of flight instructors is back on the job now. Although the new regulations allow student pilots to fly alone, their instructors cannot. Even the most experienced pilots have to hire a flight instructor at rates between $30 and $50 an hour to fly from or into the six reliever airports around Minneapolis-St. Paul - Lake Elmo, St. Paul Downtown, Anoka County, Crystal, Lakeville, and Flying Cloud airports.

Some think it's a small price to pay.

"Anyone who has visited a general aviation facility knows that security is often poor or, more often, nonexistent," according to Joseph Kinney, a security consultant in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Most of these facilities have no aircraft control towers or patrolling security officers. Worst of all, there is no requirement at these facilities that aircraft be locked, and many are left open or are protected by locks that can be opened in a matter of seconds. In most cases, starting a plane is easier than igniting the engine of a stolen car."


Federal Aviation Administration
Airplane Owners and Pilots Association
Experimental Aircraft Association
EAA Lake Elmo chapter
Kinney was among those who recommended the airspace around major cities be restricted. "Such measures might make life more difficult for the general aviation industry," he says. "But if security experts continue to focus strictly on commercial aviation, we may find ourselves guilty, once again, of fighting the last war only to see ourselves outsmarted by a more creative foe."

Pilot Farrell of St. Paul, however, says most small aircraft are "too small, too uninteresting, and too incapable to be a threat."

The forced grounding of small planes was also aimed at cropdusting operations, which Kinney says could be used to spread biological agents. "Eighty percent of the airline pilots in this country couldn't get in and fly one; it's that hard," according to Bill Schanks of St. Paul, a retired chef, former cropduster pilot, and head of the EAA chapter at Lake Elmo, who refers to flying only as "therapy."

The Metropolitan Airports Commission has been upgrading security at its smaller airports, but has yet to upgrade Lake Elmo, which doesn't have a control tower. Pilots at Lake Elmo, however say pilot fraternity is so close-knit, suspicious activity and strangers would stand out far more than in the general population.

That, some state officials suggest, is a key to combating terrorism. Last week, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver said vigilance by average citizens is the biggest weapon in the fight against terrorism. Weaver cited the example of Robert "Bubba" Aguirre, a driver's license examiner in Eagan, who became suspicious the week after the attacks when a man with a Syrian driver's license, who was getting flight training in Arizona, seemed in a big hurry to get a Minnesota driver's license.

Many pilots think the restrictions have little to do with safety. "It's just a simple matter of grandstanding among bureaucrats," said Farrell, a retired 3M worker and now a consultant. "The premium we're paying for virtually no additional protection is high, to create the impression that the authorities are doing something."

Still, there's little concern among most Minnesotans for the plight of the pilots, partly because most people think the skies have reopened, and partly because of the perception that pilots are "rich boys with expensive toys."

"We've been negligent in letting the public know what we do," Art Edhlund of Stillwater said. "The EAA has been working so long to be a factor in the community and let the citizens know what real aviation is. That's all been shot down now."

Two weeks after the September 11th attacks, the Lake Elmo chapter held a "flying start" day, to introduce more young people to aviation. Nobody showed up.

The pilots in Lake Elmo are part of the nationwide "Young Eagles," program, which gives free rides to area youngsters. Those flights, too, are prohibited now.

Edhlund wonders what the reaction would be in Minnesota if the threat of bioterrorism on the water supply had prompted a shutdown of boating, or what would have happened if motor vehicle traffic were suspended in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, in which a truck was used to carry explosives to federal building.

"It's introducing about as much public safety as forbidding nail clippers on airliners," he said.

Federal Aviation Administration administrator Jane Garvey says she's negotiating with the National Security Agency for guidelines that would restore the remaining airspace around the Twin Cities to pilots. A working group, made up of representatives of multiple government agencies, met through the holiday weekend to conduct security assessments and develop procedures to address the pilots' plight.

In the meantime, Lake Elmo's pilots say they want to heed the call for the nation to return to a more normal routine. They say as long as their feet are on the ground - not in the air - they can't.