Tuesday, December 30, 2003

On Getting Pulled Over...in the Air


I got pulled over today, in a manner of speaking.

A buddy (Yak-52) and I hooked up today for some formation and general flying around. I flew into his airport and met up with him, and we "formated" towards the northeast. We were using 123.45 for air-to-air.

We were flying around east of Meriden when we spotted an R/C aircraft field. We were circling the area well above 1500 feet when we heard someone on the freq say "airplanes in formation east of Meriden, are you on this frequency?" Both my buddy and I shut up, said nothing; after all, we were doing nothing wrong. But we were thinking that someone on the R/C field was pissed (remember, we were well above 500 feet AGL). The person repeated that call a few times. My buddy was lead and began to head east and descend; we got about 500 feet over the trees and headed for the CT river to ditch them.

We crested the hills surrounding the river and noted we were right at the de-commissioned CT Yankee nuke plant. We both banked south and went down the river. Halfway to the mouth of the river we started chatting in code and I took over lead; I banked westward to head for Sky Acres for lunch.

I noticed all of a sudden that my buddy was very quiet. I looked back and couldn't see him; I figured he was back there somewhere; he hadn't called a break. I made 10-degree left and right heading changes looking for him and I suddenly noticed a Cessna back about a mile on my six. I put the O-360 coals to the fire and made more small heading changes to see what he would do; the Cessna was trying hard (completely unsuccessfully) to hide in my six. It was also obvious that he wasn't going to be able to catch me, I could easily ditch him.

Expecting it was either someone in authority or someone trying to screw with me, I decided set the autopilot to the current altitude (I think it was 2500 by then) and to a standard rate left turn, all to allow the pursuer to catch up. All the while, I was broadcasting in the blind on Guard, 123.45, 122.75, and Chester's 122.72 (we were orbiting right over Chester) asking for the Cessna's intentions. I got no response.

Let's remember that FARs do not allow formation flying without proper briefing. So whoever this was, was busting FAA regs. 
I continued to think it might be someone I know screwing with me, but since my buddy was AWOL I thought it better not to screw back.

The Cessna finally caught up with me, and slotted into the Number 2 position, about 150 feet off my right. Finally, getting frustrated and very angry, I again broadcast in the blind on Guard asking for any responding official agency so I could determine who this guy was and what he wanted. The Cessna pilot finally responded, asking if I was the Grumman Tiger over Chester. On getting an "affirmative" he responded "This is a State Police Aircraft. I wish to speak with you."

What? I responded, "Fine, would you like to land at Chester?" He responded affirmatively (and then gave me the wrong CTAF freq for Chester Airport.)

I landed and pulled into the concrete tie downs at the extreme north end of the airport (away from the FBO), and waited for him to arrive. He parked next to me and got out of the airplane; he was an older man, 50s or 60s, and was dressed in casual shoes, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. I walked up to his airplane, stuck out my hand to shake his, introduced myself as "Greg", and asked him for his official identification.

He told me he didn't have any, that he was a civilian! I just about burst a vein right then and there.

I asked him, "you're a WHAT???"

"A civilian."

"But you told me you were a State Policeman."

"No, I didn't. I said this was a State Police aircraft."

"What in the hell is the difference? The implication was crystal clear! Under what authority do you have to intercept and detain me?"

"I don't. I told you I wanted to talk to you, and you suggested we land at Chester."

As you can imagine, I was livid beyond imagination. I told him right then and there I was done with him and I was leaving. He said something to the effect of 'fine, but a state trooper is on his way to talk to you.' I asked him what a State Trooper wanted to talk to me about, and if I was under arrest; he said no. I asked if I was free to go, he said I was "but we can do this the hard way or the easy way."' I said, "Do what the hard way?", and he said "talk about this."

"Talk about what? Did I break any regulations?"

"No," he said, "you didn't, but we're looking for the other airplane that was with you."

I was pissed off beyond belief at this time. I didn't know what in the hell to do, and my attempt to call AOPA Legal was met with voice mail because it was a Saturday. The guy told me that he was "dispatched" from Skylark airport on a call of someone circling (or was it "loitering"?) around the CT Yankee nuke plant. He told me that the airplane described by that report matched the airplane that was flying with me, and that he wanted me to give him the identification of the airplane and the pilot.

I asked again what authority he had to be making these inquiries, and he told me he was working as an "employee of the State Police". I asked if I was required by law to give him this info, or even talk to him at all, and he said no. I asked again if I was free to go; he went back into his airplane to make a radio call, I'm assuming to find out the status of the State trooper.

All the while he was trying to pull this "good cop" thing with me, acting as if he were an FAA counselor, telling me 'they' wanted to 'do this without getting the FAA involved'. I didn't bite, and my cynic radar was on full alert. I basically clammed up and told him I had nothing left to say to him. At that point I told him I'd wait for the State Trooper; I'd be glad to listen to whatever he had to say, but I was not going to offer him any further information. I did offer that I was with the other airplane the whole time from lift-off and that he did not circle the plant, but the guy's response was, 'well if you guys didn't do anything wrong then there's no reason to withhold the information.'

The trooper arrived, I'm guessing, about 10 minutes after that (probably 20-30 minutes after our landing), and the civvy pilot met him at the FBO and walked him over. I could see the civvy briefing him. The trooper came over, introduced himself, and told me that someone at the nuke plant called in reporting an airplane circling the plant two or three times. The airplane was described as having a blue bottom with retractable gear (Civvy had told me that it was a "fighter-looking airplane with a bubble canopy and partially-retracted wheels", but I suspect he was going from his visual hit of my buddy's airplane). The trooper told me this matched the description of the airplane observed with me, and asked me for its identification. I once again refused in the same manner, asking if I was required to cooperate; he told me no. I further asked what they planned to do with this information, and he told me they were going to submit it to Homeland Security. I again refused, especially given that info. I also asked him to tell me if I had broken any laws or regulations, and he told me I had not.

I further explained to the trooper that I was with that airplane from the moment of its departure to the moment we split up and he most assuredly did not circle the plant. Further, the report was of a single airplane, and since we were together the whole time it's obvious they had the wrong airplane. He was non-responsive.

Then I began to question the State Trooper on the process of having a civilian flying a State Police aircraft, with no authority for law enforcement, implying to other aircraft that they were being intercepted by a Connecticut State trooper. I further asked him under what authority the man had to fly in close formation with another aircraft, clearly in violations of FARs, without prior notification and permission. Somewhere in there he asked me for my identification; I assumed he meant my pilot's license so I handed it to him (making it very clear I was not surrendering it to him). He walked back to Civvy and made some calls on the radio, I'm assuming  looking for information. Soon thereafter I walked up to him, handed him a slip of paper with my current contact information that I had written down, and told him that I was leaving and that if anyone wished to speak to me they could contact me at this information. He walked me away from Civvy, handed that paper and my license back to me, and told me that he's going to report back that the other aircraft was not found and that the aircraft they had was not the one they were looking for. Either out of concern for my anger or some other latent reason, he asked me if I had been treated in any rude or dangerous manner (I replied "no", despite knowing how dangerous un-briefed formation flying can be), and implied I was free to go.

Being the cynic, I felt like I was being set up, so I did a pre-flight that wold have impressed my first instructor, made sure everything was in order, and taxied away and flew off as the two of them stood next to the State Police Aircraft and watched me depart.

Based on the time line and Civvy's telling me when he was dispatched, I suspect that Civvy was already in the area, looking for the other airplane that was there about a half hour earlier. I also suspect that my buddy and I stumbled into his 'search'. I'm guessing he was the one calling us from around the R/C field and trailed us down the river, nabbing me as we departed west. I also suspect that he had full visual on us the whole time and that it was obvious to him that we did not circle the nuke plant. Hell, the closest we got was a mile or so (there were no nuke TFRs active at the time).

In hindsight, I could have done things differently. First, when he told me over the radio that he was a State Police Aircraft, my first question should have been "Are you a law enforcement officer?" Given the negative response I would have told him he had no authority to detain me. Second, it's obvious his sole goal in pursuing me, prior to my suggesting landing at Chester, was to obtain my tail number. I probably surprised the hell out of him by pulling back and circling to allow him to catch up; as the old joke goes, "do you know why I stopped you?" "Because I let you.") Further, even though he was 30 yards off my 8 o'clock in formation he still couldn't get the number, because he asked me for it as we were descending for Chester. Given all this I should have put the power back in, descended in a straight line, and lost his butt. I don't see how he had any authority to detain or question me, no authority to intercept or formate on me, and I had no responsibility or requirement to comply.

I am very unhappy with these tactics, and I will be doing investigations to find out if this is legal. Further, I will be requesting RADAR tapes, logs, and frequency transcripts to be able to prove my positions and timeframes should it come to that. I'll be calling the AOPA Legal Services Plan first thing Monday AM.

I don't know if anything will come of this, but if I suddenly disappear send my Christmas card to Greg Amy c/o New Auschwitz, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.



After a long conversation with a counsel at AOPA Legal (worth every penny) I was told that as far as they could tell I'd done nothing wrong or illegal. However, he said that if Homeland Security wishes to make an issue of it I might get pressed for my friend's identity. While he sees no legal authority for anyone to compel me to divulge that info, short of a subpoena, it will be up to me what to do about it.

He suggested that I file an ASRS in regards to the close flight to the nuke plant, reiterating that we did not loiter or circle.

He confirmed that the pilot had no authority to track and/or intercept me. The pilot operated in violation of FAR 91.111, hazard of flight, by flying in such close proximity to me. He noted that there are no exceptions in the FARs even for law enforcement purposes, but that military and Coast Guard operate under different rules. Bottom line, what the guy did was wrong, even if he were working in an official capacity with the State Police.

The counsel suggested that if this were to happen in the future I should inquire if that person is a law enforcement official, ask why I am being contacted, and ask if I have any legal obligation to comply with their request. Based on those responses I should make a judgment decision as to what to do.

He also said that I could possibly step this up and find out if this is official policy with the state, and/or file a grievance with the FAA on this operation.

Frankly, as long as the state doesn't pursue this any further, I going to let it drop. However, I've got significant concerns about what happened. if I had not been aware of the proximity of this airplane, or had I not been an experienced formation pilot, this very well could have escalated into a very serious situation. I'm torn about what to do, because I'd feel horrible if something bad happened to someone else as a result of my inaction.

Let me know if you find this information interesting, and let me know if you have any thoughts on a course of action. I at least want to get the word out to other pilots to prepare them for the possibility of this happening to them.

Greg Amy