Airport ponders possible security enhancements

LAWRENCEVILLE - Officials at Gwinnett County Airport-Briscoe Field are still reviewing potential security improvements after the nighttime landing of a stolen charter jet raised concerns about easy accessibility.

Airport Director Matt Smith said a subcommittee of the airport authority is looking at raising the chain-link perimeter fence height from 3 feet to 6 feet. The officials are also considering improvements to the air field lighting and increasing the security presence at the airport. They hope to avoid dipping into the county's piggy bank for the expenses by seeking out alternate funding sources such as grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or Federal Aviation Administration.

Smith declined to go into specifics about the security changes.

"The security plan itself is not subject to open records and probably shouldn't be," Smith said. "We don't want to say this is what we're doing, so if you're a bad guy here's what you do to avoid it."

One change that officials were happy to discuss is the possible addition of a Community Oriented Policing Services program tailored especially for the airport tenants. Much like a neighborhood watch involving homeowners or apartment dwellers, tenants at the air field would take an active roll in communicating with police about suspicious activity. But an airport presents its own unusual set of challenges, said Maj. Alan Doss, homeland security director for Gwinnett County.

"It's a bit different in an airport because you don't know who's supposed to be in there and who's not," Doss said. "There are a lot of people who have access to an airport. What might be suspicious in a neighborhood might not be suspicious in an airport."

By teaching the airport tenants to increase their vigilance and showing them how to better secure access to the facility, officials hope to gain another pair of eyes and ears to monitor airport activity.

Need for security improvements at Briscoe Field came to light after 22-year-old Daniel Andrew Wolcott was accused of stealing a $7 million Cessna Citation VII charter jet from the St. Augustine/St. Johns County Airport in Florida and then abandoning it in Gwinnett on Oct. 9.

Upon landing in Briscoe Field, police said Wolcott met five of his friends and took them for a brief "joy ride" to Barrow County airport and back.

Wolcott flew into the Gwinnett airport during the predawn hours of a Sunday morning while the air traffic control tower was closed, said Officer Darren Moloney, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Police Department. He would have been able to signal the airport to turn on the runway lights as he approached, Smith said.

To further avoid detection, Wolcott also disconnected the jet's transponder - vital cockpit equipment that tracks the plane in case of an emergency, according to an arrest warrant.

Wolcott would have been able to walk out of the airport after landing because the gate opens automatically for people inside, Smith said in an October phone interview. His friends could have easily gotten onto the air field by jumping over a 3-foot high portion of the perimeter fence.

Another point of entry may have been the automatic gates. Wolcott might have told them the code for the key pad at the gates, since he was familiar with the airport, Smith acknowledged. Several other entry gates are sometimes unlocked or left open by tenants, he added.