Dec. 20, 2003, 12:07AM
Mounted `Rangers' set up to patrol Intercontinental
By BILL HENSEL JR.
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
The Old West phrase "riding the fenceline" is taking on a whole new meaning when it comes to security at Houston's largest airport.
The Houston Airport System on Friday announced the formation of a mounted security patrol made up of volunteers, including off-duty law enforcement officers.
In return for keeping an eye out for bad guys, equestrians will have a new place to ride -- along trails being created around the perimeter of George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
The mounted patrols will be called "Airport Rangers."
They won't be paid, but finding new trails is a big plus these days as urbanization spreads outward.
The fact the new program is steeped in Texas history probably won't hurt, either.
The idea was the brainchild of Airport Director Rick Vacar, a longtime horseman. He noted that the airport contains some 11,000 total acres to keep an eye on.
With threats such as terrorists toting shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles looming large in the minds of airport managers since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Vacar said the mere presence of the mounted trail riders likely will act as a deterrent to outlaws.
No other airports in the country have similar programs, according to Houston airport officials, who expect that success in this program could spawn similar programs in other parts of the country.
The program is not just open to anybody who happens to have a horse, said Mark Mancuso, head of security for the airports.
Background checks will be conducted of all participants before photo identification airport badges are issued for access to remote airport property.
The riders must be equipped with cell phones, so they will be able to call for law enforcement if they spot suspicious activity. The trails are well-marked to give them points of reference, Mancuso said.
Airport officials said the cost of installing the trails should be minimal. A forester who already works with the airport and other employees will provide the necessary trail maintenance.
"This is a win-win situation," Vacar said. "Local horsemen and women have a pristine location to ride, and the airport has extra eyes and ears in areas that most security patrols cannot easily access."
The airport director made the announcement from the saddle of his horse, Lad.
A study was launched earlier this year by Houston airport officials to look at every aspect of security in the airport system.
"So much focus is centered on the terminals and baggage, we wanted to make sure all areas of airport security are covered," Mancuso said.
Airport officials approached the local equestrian community before proceeding with the project and received an enthusiastic response.
"This is probably one of the better things that has happened to the Houston equine community in a long time," said Jerry Thames, president of the Texas Horse Council. "Without a doubt."
Thames' sentiment was echoed by Les Chow, who owns and operates Aldine Westfield Stables at 19907 Aldine-Westfield.
"I am very supportive," Chow said. "This area has seen a lot of urbanization and the trails were slowly disappearing; but this will bring back quite a bit."
Pam Wiman, a reserve captain with the Harris County Sheriff's Office Mounted Patrol, called the trails put in so far "awesome."
The initial trail is 5.1 miles. Plans call for another five-mile trail to open soon, with the ultimate goal of having 25 miles spanning almost the entire perimeter of the airport.
Along the trails, airport officials are installing watering troughs, portable toilets, trash containers and large granite stones for sitting. Parking for horse trailers also will be provided.
"We kept the trails very rustic," airport system Deputy Director Tom Bartlett said. "But we did add some amenities that include areas for the horses and riders to stop for a break."