What kind of security regulations govern the 15,000 private airstrips in the U.S.? Do they fall under TSA jurisdiction?

I'm a freelance writer working on a story and wondering how senior Al Qaeda operative, Adnan Shukrijumah, was able to fly unhindered from Mexico to Cielo Dorado in Anthony, New Mexico.

Is this kind of laxity uncommon or par for the course at all private airstrips?

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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, in the western US it's perfectly possible to land a light plane on dry lake beds or such. Elsewhere a straight stretch of road (without adjacent powerlines :-)), or a mowed hayfield will work just fine. I'd think the major obstacle would be radar following over the border. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to aviation.SE! Saying that private airfield security is "lax" implies that there isn't enough security, but it isn't at all clear that's a real issue. You can't secure every airfield in America any more than you can secure every parking lot or boat jetty, for both practical and legal reasons. And you also have the point that @jamesqf made: it's convenient and safer to land on a runway, but not at all necessary. Google "backcountry flying" if you want to see pilots landing in some really remote places :-) $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ Smuggling an individual into the U.S. by light aircraft is no more difficult than smuggling drugs by light aircraft, and a great deal of information has been published on that subject. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ The problem here is not security at the field, but rather security of the airspace over the border. The flights should be tracked on radar and intercepted if they don't follow proper immigration procedures. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ Respectfully, anyone who asks such fundamental questions has no business writing about the state of security at small airports. I suggest spending a few bucks on some flight lessons so you can see what goes into airport security, even at tiny remote fields. I've seen this before. An alarmist article gets "the community" in a tizzy over nothing and needless oversight is implemented to combat an imagineered threat. Also, most of those 15,000 "private" strips are actually public fields, many of which use TSA funds to implement security features like coded gates and CCTV. $\endgroup$
    – acpilot
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 5:31

2 Answers 2


Private airports have very little security and light aircraft flying within a country typically aren't required to file a flightplan and aren't required to have transponders for secondary radar. You can get in a private aircraft and fly off pretty much as easily as you can get in a car and drive off.

Private aircraft crossing international borders are subject to much stricter requirements. In the case of flights from mexico to the USA they will be required to have a transponder, to file details of the flight with the authorities in advance, to land at the first available airport of entry and to maintain a certain altitude so they remain visible on radar. At the airport of entry CBP (customs and border protection) will gather will check passports/visas, gather customs declarations and may inspect the plane. If you want to know the gory details take a look at http://www.cadds.com/bcpilots/docs/CrossBorderManual.pdf .

There is a section of airspace surrounding the USA and Canada called the North American ADIZ. All aircraft in that zone are required to identify themselves. If an aircraft is spotted in the ADIZ cannot be identified then it may be intercepted by fighter jets.

But a small plane flying low with the transponder turned off is pretty hard to keep track of on radar and if the criminal can slip undetected through the ADIZ he can easily find a quiet private airstrip to land at.

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    $\begingroup$ In the case of the Mexico border, the ADIZ starts at the border itself. The U.S. can't require any aircraft flying in Northern Mexico to identify itself and certainly can't intercept them there (well, not without permission from Mexico or causing an international incident, anyway.) Once they cross the border, it's fair game, though. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ Even small aircraft flying low with their transponder turned off can be seen by look-down radar from the aerostats and UAVs patrolling above the U.S.-Mexico border. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ "to land at the first available airport of entry" -- so if you're legitimately flying a light aircraft from Mexico home to your house in the US, basically you'd be required to land near the border, subject yourself to inspection much like anyone else crossing the border, and then resume your journey to your home airstrip? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ @SteveJessop -- exactly. You'd land at the first international airport in the US along your route, have CBP give you the all-clear, (maybe get some fuel/etal while you're at it), and then fly to your home airstrip. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Steve Jessop: Exactly, just as if you were driving, you'd have to cross the border at one of the defined crossings, and stop for customs &c. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 20:02

The US government would require international GA flights to land at ports of entry into the United States, designated airports which have customs personnel to meet arrivals, check passports, screen for contraband, etc. This procedure is common and said destination airports would have to be designated on the flight plan and the US dept of state notified of your intentions prior to departure. Violation of this would alert law enforcement and, most likely, cause the plane to be intercepted by military fighters.

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    $\begingroup$ Some mention of the ADIZ and how it works would make this answer a lot better. This page from the FAA is also good reference. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 20:22

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