A purple bandana wraps Emily Perez’ brown curls as she mounts her horse Kee, who trots off down a tree-shaded trail near Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Moments later, Perez, 41, and several other riders burst through a wooded area and head across an open field. Among them is David Poynor, shielding his eyes to watch planes roar down the runway to go skyward. His gaze quickly drops to the wire fence separating grass from concrete and he scans the landscape for irregularities.
Wearing bright orange vests and red T-shirts, theirs is an equestrian coalition with a mission. Poynor, 67, is coordinator of the Houston Airport Rangers, a group of 800 volunteer citizens who patrol and secure the airport’s 12,000-acre wooded perimeter.
“It’s a great place to get away and do something I like while providing an important service, too,” says Perez, a business planner from New Caney (pop. 3,000), who rides on one of the airport’s four marked trails several times a week.
Ranging in age from 18 to 78, volunteers include lawyers, doctors, accountants and retirees. They come to enjoy the scenery, work alongside fellow riders and keep the nation’s ninth busiest airport safe.
For decades, equestrians used the woods near the airport for recreational and training rides. But after Sept. 11, 2001, access to the land surrounding the airport was closed. Then in 2003, owners of a local stable approached airport officials about leasing the perimeter property, and Richard Vacar, director of the Houston Airport System and a horseman himself, saw an opportunity for government and private individuals to work together.
With startup costs to the airport of less than $50,000, which included training for volunteers and cutting 50 miles of trails, the Airport Rangers program has become a win-win for the airport and riders. Maintenance costs amount to keeping water troughs filled and picnic tables in good shape. “For next to nothing, we get additional eyes and ears for our security programs,” says Vacar, 59.
Likewise, Ranger Daniel Amidon, 53, is thankful the airport is letting riders assist in surveillance. “We could have lost all the trails,” he says. “Instead, we have great facilities for riding.”
With training provided at no cost by the FBI and Houston Police Department, rangers learn what to watch for in the woods and how to respond safely. After undergoing background checks and signing liability waivers, riders receive badges. The rangers have reported holes in security fences (sometimes caused by roaming coyotes), hazardous material dumping, unauthorized vehicles (including a suspect driving into the woods to escape police), target shooters, and even stray animals on runways.
When riding trails, rangers sign in and out and record the direction they plan to ride. Dressed in attire ranging from blue jeans and cowboy hats to fashionable black spandex pants and protective helmets, they carry cell phones to report anything suspicious rather than taking action themselves. About 50 off-duty law enforcement officers ride on a voluntary basis and are the only members who carry firearms.
Amidon has seen the results. He recently noticed two suspicious men on the property and later heard gunshots. Within minutes of contacting airport authorities, five patrol cars and eight Houston police officers arrived and arrested both men. “We get quick responses when we call the airport,” Amidon says. “There’s no question this program works.”
Despite the maze of terminals and runways, much of the surrounding airport land is undeveloped piney woods and wetlands navigable only on horseback or by foot. “The horses can go where vehicles can’t go,” Vacar says. “Their presence alone is a deterrent to unauthorized activity.”
Pam Thonsgard, 51, regularly travels an hour from her home in Alvin (pop. 15,250) to ride with fellow rangers, and stays vigilant about keeping the airport property secure. “Almost every time I come I find something illegal, like four-wheelers, deer hunters or poachers,” she says. “The more we’re in the woods, the less likely someone will do something illegal.”
Mark Mancuso, Houston Airport System’s deputy director of aviation for public safety and technology, calls the mounted volunteers a huge asset. “There’s an element of security that needs to be done by humans,” he says. “In addition to high-tech equipment, much of security is high touch.”
While riders enjoy the pristine setting and opportunity to keep their horses and themselves fit, they take their responsibility seriously. “We’re on standby for anything, any time,” says Terry Stevens, 52, who owns a farm four miles away. “If there’s a problem or accident, we’re available quickly to assist as needed.”
“Once we requested that rangers ride a particular trail,” Poynor recalls. “Even though they didn’t know exactly why the request was made, 30 people responded within three hours to scout the area in question.”
About 70 percent of the rangers are female and most are looking for a way to give back to their community. Although Jill Sisler, 36, hadn’t ridden since she was a child, the Kingwood (pop. 42,000) financial analyst bought a horse just to take part in the program. “It’s a great service,” she says. “I can participate in something bigger than just horseback riding, and it brings out the best of the riding community.”
Airport Rangers has been so successful that it recently received an award from the American Society for Industrial Security, an association for security professionals. “The award is affirmation of its solid purpose,” Vacar says of the Airport Rangers. “It’s an innovative yet serious program.”
Its success has prompted airport officials in Nashville, Tenn., to implement a similar program this year, and other cities also have contacted Poynor to learn more.
“It shows that given the opportunity to get involved in security, the public can help a lot,” Mancuso says. “The Airport Rangers program has received more recognition than any other program we’ve instituted.