Official, pilots cite airport safety precautions

Published 5:00 am Monday, September 11, 2006

Brookhaven Municipal Airport officials and pilots say there islittle to worry about from terrorist attacks here as the UnitedStates draws close to its fifth commemoration of the attacks on theWorld Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they haven’t takenprecautions.

“Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security visitme every 60 to 90 days to inspect the airport and review ourpolicies and procedures,” said Manager Clifford Britt.

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The airport has made few noticeable changes in the past fiveyears, but those changes have improved security significantly, hesaid.

The first improvement was to install a new fence across thefront of the airport with an electronic gate. The gate requires acoded entry number on a keypad to open.

Presently, few codes are used, but the keypad is capable ofaccepting up to 500 different codes.

“I’m thinking of going to individual codes for each of ourpilots and one general code that would change monthly for otherpilots to use when they are visiting the airfield,” Britt said.

Although more codes would be in use, he said, the change wouldfurther restrict access to the airfield because of the expirationeach month of the general code.

Unfortunately, there is no computer connected to the keypad tolog access, Britt said, so the codes cannot be used to recordpilots’ entries and exits.

However, aviation and security officials do not view most smallairports like Brookhaven’s as a threat. Small engine planes do nothave the energy or fuel capacity to cause extensive damage if usedas a weapon, said Airport Advisory Commission Chairman PaulBarnett, who is also a pilot.

Phil McCandless, of Jackson, and David Entrekin, of Madison,both pilots visiting Brookhaven on business, agreed.

“These little planes are not capable of the necessary damage tomake them a threat,” McCandless said.

There are two areas of flight operations at the Brookhavenairport that do remain of interest to aviation and securityofficials, however, Britt said. Since Sept. 11, 2001, flighttraining and cropdusters have been closely monitored.

The pilots of the doomed aircraft in the World Trade Centerattacks took flight lessons in the U.S. before embarking on theirflight of destruction.

“One thing Homeland Security has stressed to us is to know whois taking flight lessons,” Britt said.

Two flight instructors from Hattiesburg travel to Brookhavenregularly to provide lessons to locals, he said. Fortunately, boththe instructors and the students are well known to the pilots andhave never sparked any undue interest.

Airport officials and pilots do, however, pay close attention tocropdusters and other aircraft, such as helicopters, which have thepotential of spraying chemicals over a wide area.

“Before 9-11 you wouldn’t think anything of someone using an(agriculture) plane for any terrorist act, but now you realizethere’s a possibility of that,” Britt said. “I think ag planes andhelicopters with chemical spraying equipment would be the mostlikely targets.”

Cropdusters can carry up to one ton of chemicals, he said. A tonof explosive chemicals or even viral agents could pose a seriousthreat.

Cropdusting pilots here are usually repeat customers who sprayeach year for several companies and are well known by airport staffand pilots, Britt said. They know how to secure their aircraftsafely.

When flight operations for a logging company spraying itsproduct earlier this year were shut down, precautions were taken toensure the safety of citizens and the aircraft, he said.

“They had to shut down because of bad weather and they removedtheir fertilizer truck from the airfield to prevent access to bothchemicals and aircraft,” Britt said.

The Airport Advisory Committee is constantly monitoringactivities at other airfields and noting security options theycould employ here, Britt said. Some options under discussion thatmay be introduced in the future include closed-circuit televisionmonitoring of the airfield and outdoor cameras to monitoractivities around the ramp and runway.

However, officials and pilots are agreed that the most effectivedeterrent is the pilots.

“General aviation is such a close-knit community that we sort ofinterview each other when we see someone we don’t know,” Entrekinsaid. “We’re truly self-policing. No other country in the world hasthe freedom we do in aviation and we do what we can to protectthat.”