Passing security - the only way to fly

Procedure: In order to have access to small airports in the Washington area, pilots must be fingerprinted and clear background checks.

February 09, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- They call it the Cradle of Aviation. But this week, College Park Airport looks more like Central Booking.

On the grounds where Wilbur and Orville Wright taught Army officers to fly, pilots pack into a room and wait for humorless men in suits to call their numbers. They then place their hands on a counter along a white wall while a woman with the U.S. Secret Service takes their fingerprints. Then they sit for an interview with a different set of men in suits.

And so it goes for the pilots seeking to again enjoy the privilege of flying from the oldest continuously operating airport in the country, which cleaves to that distinction, though -- as of Sept. 11, it barely operates at all.

Along with Potomac Airfield in Fort Washington and Washington Executive/Hyde Field in Clinton, College Park Airport -- opened in 1909 -- has been closed since the terrorist attacks. The Secret Service has resisted opening the airports -- the only general aviation fields in the country still closed after the terrorist attacks -- because they are within 15 miles of Washington's restricted airspace.

The Federal Aviation Administration is working with the airports and the security agencies to outline a plan that would enable the airports to reopen with the Secret Service's approval. The FAA and the security officials came up with a solution: conduct background checks on all 300 or so pilots using the three airports.

The fingerprinting began Thursday and ends today. Next week, the FBI will begin conducting background checks to make sure the pilots have committed no felonies and haven't turned up on any watch lists.

If all goes according to plan, the airports could reopen by the end of the month.

"We want to see people flying again," said Secret Service Agent George Luczko, who was at College Park this week overseeing the fingerprinting. "But we want to know who's up there."

A quick survey of the graying crowd in the waiting room gives an idea. There are a few doctors, a retired NASA engineer and an octogenarian couple (both flight instructors). There's a U.S. Army National Guard major who endured a 5-year background check for his security clearance. And a retired Air Force pilot who once transported government dignitaries.

Many of the pilots say the fingerprinting seems silly -- especially for those in defense-related jobs who have top-secret clearances. But if it opens the airports, they'll do it.

"There's a certain amount of grabbing at a procedure so they can say, `OK, we've done something.' If they could do haircuts, they'd probably be asking everyone to get a haircut," said David Wartofsky, who manages Potomac Airfield. "Most people are laughing about having to do it. They're willing to put up with all types of weird stuff."

Reacting to scrutiny

Take the Bielstein family. Gary, 40, is an aviation mechanic at Hyde and a former commercial pilot. His brother, Lee, a Continental Airlines pilot, landed one of the first planes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport when it re-opened.

Their father, John, taught them both to fly. He's a retired major in the U.S. Air Force who once flew for the Special Missions Wing at Andrews Air Force Base. John Bielstein's resume lists his 19 years in the U.S. Air Force, 11 years flying commercial planes and six years operating a county airport in South Carolina.

As an FAA official studied those credentials, Gary said, "I find it highly ironic and slightly infuriating that the government doesn't trust its own people."

He added: "We know each other, but the Secret Service doesn't know general aviation. The Secret Service is the problem."

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which has been lobbying to open the airports, isn't wild about the fingerprinting. But like the anxious pilots, it won't object too fiercely if the procedure will hasten reopening.

"Overall, it's not something we're happy about, and we don't want it to become precedent but we're dealing with reality here," association spokesman Warren Morningstar said. "Frankly, the Secret Service would be just as happy to see the three airports shut down."

Some in the aviation community have feared that's exactly what would happen.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the FAA closed the airspace around Washington, Boston and New York to general aviation. But gradually, most restrictions were lifted, and most airports could operate as they did prior to the attacks. By December, only the three airports remained closed.

The airport managers still spend their days wearing out their telephones with calls to the FAA. And the pilots still wait, amusing themselves with work and hobbies.

David Haykin, the retired NASA engineer, focuses on carpentry and playing the organ.

Valentines adjust

Edna Dragoo, the 83-year-old flight instructor, volunteers with Meals on Wheels and at the College Park Aviation Museum. She and her husband, Don, also 83, planned to fly out of the airport for Valentine's Day. They are giving up on that now.

"I've gotten excited too many times with this," Don Dragoo said.

The Hyattsville couple's interview with the FAA took longer than most of the others because Edna's medical certificate had expired and the FAA has yet to grant her a waiver.

"The FAA is so slow," she whispered, rubbing her hands with an alcohol-dripped towel to clean off the ink from the fingerprinting.

The process took so long that Maj. Herman Valentine had to forgo lunch. Valentine, 37, who wore his fatigues, works in the aviation safety division of the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va. He has a security clearance, not to mention a deputy sheriff's badge.

Like most, he considered the inconvenience a small price if it meant flying again.

"I just wish," he said, "that it hadn't taken from Sept. 11 until now to come up with this procedure."

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