Fifteen years ago, this month, the unprecedented terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, triggered a series of actions that pushed the agricultural aviation industry and the National Agricultural Aviation Association to the limit. The importance of having a strong national association could not be any more evident than amid those dark days when NAAA mobilized to get aerial applicators back in the air and to convince the U.S. government and the American public that agricultural aircraft did not pose a threat to national security.
While economic hardships pale in comparison to the nearly 3,000 lives that were lost at the hands of the 9/11 terrorists, AgAir Update readers who worked in the industry at the time undoubtedly can recall the multiple ground stops that cost the U.S. agricultural aviation industry more than $38 million in lost business, according to NAAA’s economic analysis of the crisis.
A season’s worth of crops wasn’t the only thing in jeopardy when aerial applicators were grounded after 9/11, however. When the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers fell, it shattered all pretenses of aviation security and ushered in a new era of security vigilance for airlines and agricultural aircraft alike. Moreover, the agricultural aviation industry unwittingly found itself thrust into the spotlight amid concerns that the suspected 9/11 hijackers may have had intentions of using ag aircraft as a potential means for carrying out a terrorist attack.
Agricultural aircraft were grounded three times in September 2001. The first time was during the nationwide ground stop of all aircraft in the U.S. shortly after the hijacked airliners hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on 9/11. Due in no small part to NAAA’s extensive government relationships, on Sept. 14, 2001, the federal government allowed aerial applicators to fly again, the only general aviation operations permitted to do so at that time.
Any special dispensation proved to be short-lived, as the pendulum quickly swung back in the other direction. The FAA grounded agricultural aircraft two more times—first, on Sept. 16, 2001, in response to information the FBI received about the arrest of a suspected terrorist who possessed information about ag aircraft, and again on Sept. 23, 2001. At that time of the Sept. 16 ground stop, NAAA provided the FBI and the FAA with a list of all licensed agricultural operators in the U.S. The federal government performed background checks on ag aviation operators throughout the country and did an inventory of ag planes. Operators were allowed to resume operations again on Sept. 17 except in Enhanced Class B airspace, a 25-mile area around over a dozen major metropolitan areas throughout the U.S.
The FAA grounded agricultural aircraft for a third time on Sept. 23, 2001, citing “serious, credible threats,” which coincided with a Washington Post exclusive that suspected 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta allegedly tried to rent an ag plane in Belle Glade, Fla. Pressure from NAAA, the ag aviation industry and agricultural interests prompted the federal government to reopen the airspace to agricultural aviation on Sept. 25, 2001.
Even though an aerial application plane has never been involved in any terrorist activity, the scrutiny became white hot after the Washington Post’s story broke. NAAA and its membership responded by adopting and aggressively promoting a set of enhanced security procedures, many of which had already been in practice in the agricultural aviation industry. The recommendations are listed on NAAA’s website and were sent to all licensed ag aviation operators shortly after 9/11. The security measures include:
• Storing aircraft and crop protection products in locked hangars with electronic security systems when not in use.
• Parking and disabling loader trucks, forklifts, or other equipment to block aircraft.
• In cases where the aircraft must be left outdoors, using propeller locks, propeller chains or tie-downs on aircraft.
• Removing batteries from planes and disabling engines from unused aircraft.
• Encouraging operators to install hidden security switches to prevent unauthorized startup of the aircraft.
• Establishing contact with federal and local law enforcement agencies to coordinate responses to security breaches at ag aviation facilities. Encouraging operators to list the appropriate law enforcement agency telephone numbers in a prominent place within their operations. Also, outdoor security lighting around hangars and operations is encouraged.
On Oct. 15, 2001, aerial applicators were allowed back into Enhanced Class B airspace. The airspace has remained opened to all ag aviation operations since that time.
One of the reasons aerial applicators were able to stay in the air and address the many regulatory proposals affecting the industry in the aftermath of 9/11 has been by educating the government at both the state and federal level about the important need for agricultural aviation and by taking a proactive response on the security front.
Along with the aforementioned security measures, NAAA launched the Ag Airfield Watch program. Similar to the neighborhood watch concept, the overarching tenants of Ag Airfield Watch are threefold: Secure your aircraft, lock your facilities and beware of unusual activities.
The security recommendations also formed the basis for a new security module that NAAA’s sister organization, the National Agricultural Aviation Research and Education Foundation, added to the PAASS Program, the premier safety education program for agricultural aviators. The security module was added to PAASS’s drift mitigation and aviation safety modules and presented to more than 1,700 ag pilots in over 33 states during the 2001–2002 PAASS season.
NAAA and NAAREF have continued to preach security vigilance in the 15 years since 9/11. The stakes are too high not too. As if we needed more evidence, within the last 12 months, deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere, and “lone wolf” mass shooting sprees in San Bernardino, Calif., and at an Orlando nightclub have served as chilling reminders that terrorism is a very real worldwide threat that cannot be taken lightly.
The operational security module that NAAREF added to the PAASS Program right before its fourth season began continues to be an important component of PAASS. During the 2015–2016 PAASS Program, the operational security module highlighted different safeguards operators have implemented to secure their operation, equipment and materials, including fences, locks, lights, security cameras and alarm systems. NAAREF will explore the security adjustments aerial applicators made after 9/11 further in the 2016–2017 PAASS Program, which gets underway next month starting in Michigan and Kansas.
After 9/11, NAAA established relationships with the FBI, the CIA, NYPD and later the Department of Homeland Security and TSA. The association was able to obtain permission from the FAA to install hidden ignition switches to help deter unauthorized use of ag aircraft without requiring an FAA Form 337 or field approval, but rather a simple maintenance record entry. NAAA also developed ag aviation security brochures and posters after 9/11 and will continue to urge operators to implement security procedures at ag aviation operations.
In many respects the agricultural aviation industry dodged a bullet on Sept. 11, 2001. Terrorists were toying with the idea of using ag aircraft as a means to express their hatred for our country and deliver death to Americans. Terrorism hasn’t abated since then.
Terrorism can happen anywhere, especially where security vulnerabilities might exist. Ensuring tight security at agricultural aviation operations is a must so that the industry is protected. Remember the PAASS mantra, “Upon the performance of each rests the fate of us all!”
To read more about NAAA’s and the ag aviation industry’s response to the aftermath of 9/11 and the threat of terrorism, check out Agricultural Aviation magazine’s Summer 2016 issue at AgAviationMagazine.org/agriculturalaviation.
Working for You in Washington
NAAA’s crisis response and vigorous defense of the industry after 9/11 demonstrates why we need a strong national association for agricultural aviators working on the industry’s behalf in Washington, D.C. If you aren’t a member already, we invite you to join the cause of preserving and protecting the aerial application industry and your livelihood by joining NAAA. To join, call (202) 546-5722 or visit or visit AgAviation.org/membership to join online.