The inherent danger of flying

Shoe bombs and suicidal 15-year-olds are heightening fears about airline security. But aside from creating more chaos at airports, what can we do?

Published January 15, 2002 7:51PM (EST)

As airplane nuts in junior high school, my friends and I spent virtually every weekend between Grades 7 and 9 roaming the terminals of Boston's Logan International Airport. I came to know that airport with as much intimacy as I knew my own house. From the 16th-story observation deck of Logan's control tower, equipped with binoculars and notebooks, we logged the registration numbers of arriving and departing jetliners. "Plane spotting," it was called.

But I'll admit that since we were kids on the verge of our teens, these innocent pursuits sometimes gave way to pranks and unauthorized snooping. Logan became a kind of amusement park of harmless but dastardly challenges. We would ride the luggage belts into the airside tarmac areas. We crawled through hatchways, sneaked into elevator shafts and fire escapes. At one point we knew the doorway combination codes to several of Logan's most secure areas, our intelligence gathered simply by spying on employees as they punched in the digits.

Our most cherished activity, though, was gaining access to the airplanes themselves, something we did routinely and with hardly a suspicious glance from guards or employees. We would pass through security and stake out the gate of an arriving flight. Then we'd ask an agent or crew member if we could take a peek at the cockpit. Or, more daringly, when all passengers had disembarked, we would simply walk down the enclosure and step aboard unseen. On some occasions we were told to go ahead, unsupervised, often by the captain himself: "Just don't monkey around with anything."

We would roam the cockpits and aisles, helping ourselves to cans of soda, magazines, passenger briefing cards, playing cards -- whatever souvenirs we wanted. At the very least, cordial captains would give us tours, both inside and out, of all our favorite planes. Once, as eighth-graders, two friends and I spent more than a full hour in the cockpit of one major airline's DC-10 parked at the gate, utterly unbeknownst to a single person besides us. Finally a mechanic came aboard for a routine check and found us in the pilots' chairs, seat belts on, pretending to be airborne over the Atlantic somewhere.

This was the late 1970s. The threat of terrorism, mind you, was not some nascent fear in people's minds, but as real and frequent a phenomenon then as today, if not more so. For the sake of precedent, one might recall that on a single day in September 1970, four New York-bound passenger jets were hijacked simultaneously by Palestinian terrorists and blown up (albeit after the release of the passengers).

Our memories seem unfortunately short, outrage not brought on until fireballs and a high death count are televised. Now, in the wake of the sad death of 15-year-old Charles Bishop, the student pilot who, just last week, stole a single-engine Cessna and flew it into the side of a Tampa skyscraper, a new round of outrage and furor has erupted, this time over an apparent lack of security in the low-profile, low-security world of general aviation. The incident, with its eerie copycat blueprint of the September attacks, has some people reeling, calling for the tightening of airspace restrictions and the battening down of small-town airfields.

Did you know there are 600,000 licensed pilots in the United States? Did you know there are thousands of small airplanes housed at thousands of small airports across the country, many of which are flyable by novices with little skill or experience? And many of these are tied down on unsecured grass fields, their engines startable with the flip of a switch. Not even a key is required. Do we ground them all? Do we station the National Guard at small, single-runway airstrips around the nation?

There's a beautiful -- and perhaps instructive -- element of poetic futility to the idea of securing the very air above our heads. Some are proposing cockpit technology that would make it impossible to fly airliners into restricted and prohibited airspace. Another suggestion is to make jets landable by remote control in the event of a hijacking. Perhaps we can string enormous nets over our cities, military bases and power plants, the way London proposed protecting itself from Nazi bombardment during the Blitz.

Let us stop instead, and catch our breaths.

There are lessons and examples from the past that could have taught us something.

In December of 1987 a Pacific Southwest Airlines jet on its way to San Francisco crashed, killing everyone onboard. It was later determined that a recently fired employee, David Burke, used his airline credentials to bypass security with a loaded gun and board the doomed flight. En route, he gained access to the cockpit and shot both pilots and himself, the latter after aiming the plane toward the ground in a vertical dive.

In October 1999, Air Botswana Captain Chris Phatswe commandeered an otherwise empty ATR commuter plane and slammed it into two other parked aircraft, killing himself and destroying virtually the entire fleet of his nation's tiny airline.

On April 7, 1994, an off-duty Federal Express employee, Auburn Calloway, boarded one of his company's DC-10s at Memphis armed with a hammer and a spear gun. Riding along as an auxiliary crew member, Calloway attacked the three-man crew after takeoff for Los Angeles, nearly killing all of them. His plan, before finally being overpowered by the battered and bloodied pilots, all of whom were critically injured, was to crash the huge airliner into FedEx's Memphis sorting hub.

And in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 1994, crack-addled pilot Frank Eugene Corder flew his Cessna into the side of the White House.

Surely these events represented a breakdown of security on some level and were paid a sad homage by the September skyjackers, who seemingly borrowed a little bit of strategy from each. What have we learned? What do we do?

The truth is, however, there is only so much we can or should do. Not until now has the public demanded a top-to-bottom overhaul of the system, but hysteria has knocked effectiveness out of the picture. Nobody will argue that improvements are not needed, but somewhere a line must be drawn, and we must come to our senses over what is useful security, and what is not.

Our priorities, for now at least, are misplaced and irrational. In the cockpit after Sept. 11, any pilot will tell you the conversations were all about knives and box cutters. And the cockpit door was once the hottest topic in town -- how to make it stronger, how to make it bulletproof, how to make it unopenable to anyone without a jackhammer. It was rare -- and remains so -- to hear pilots discussing the danger of bombs and explosives in the luggage bins down below. We ignore the reality that the likelihood of another kamikaze-style attack is tiny, while the threat of explosives is much, much greater.

Then on Dec. 21, 2001, Richard Reid climbs aboard a 767 with a bomb in his sneakers. We are shocked. How did we miss this? Reid's flight, mind you, departed on the 13th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, a vicious irony that, like recollection of the Pan Am event as a whole, was scarcely mentioned in the press. It's interesting to note that when ground casualties are excluded, more people died that night in 1988 over Scotland than were aboard the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Pennsylvania aircraft combined. It remains the single worst incident of terrorism against a civilian American vessel of any kind. But then, not a single coherent program of airport security emerged after Lockerbie in the United States. In Europe, methods of passenger and bag matching and routine explosives screening were put in place. But domestically, nothing. After Reid's failed sneaker bomb, suddenly we find ourselves scrambling, the airlines and FAA in a panic over the idea of stealthily stashed explosives.

The immediate response to Reid? Passengers are asked to remove their shoes prior to screening. At the risk of sounding flip, dare it be suggested that strip searches or body-cavity probes are to follow? A smart terrorist will see that sneakers are out, and what's more fiendish than a bomb inside a body?

One important irony, of course, is that Reid boarded his flight at Charles de Gaulle in Paris, an airport, like most major terminals of Western Europe, known for excellent security and equipped with all the fancy equipment for sniffing out explosives. Which brings us to what is perhaps the most important lesson to be dug -- whether we face up to it today or years from now -- from the rubble of Manhattan: No system is, or will ever be, foolproof.

We will, hopefully before the next bombing, buy and operate better, more widespread explosives screening equipment. Will it be 100 percent effective? No, not nearly. But statistically we will be safer, and far less pained by the makeshift procedures and ludicrous mayhem found at the airport today, something airlines are beginning to measure economically as, in the words of one airline executive, "hassle factor." And in the meantime, let's not humiliate the traveling public by asking people to take off their footwear and tiptoe barefoot through the metal detectors.

In an atmosphere charged with trauma, we've come to view security as a phenomenon of pure cause-and-effect, which is at heart both dangerous and distracting. With, it seems, little sense of history or perspective, we view every follow-up event, from the mundane to the serious, as evidence of some glaring weakness in our already overstressed system. Whether a routine breach at the X-ray scanner or a disturbed man with a shoe bomb, the cry is to bolt more doors, deny more access, call out more soldiers. Lost in the outcry is the realization that incidents of terror are just as likely the inevitable work of statistics and politics as they are examples of carelessness or incompetence.

Some of the results are just plain sad. Observation decks are locked up tight, rooftop parking lots closed off. Airliner buffs are shooed away from perimeter fences where they once gathered to plane spot, just as I did as a youngster. Even the act of photographing a jetliner from a concourse window is now banned in many places, a policy you would have found in Moscow or Bucharest a generation ago. Are the airports safer because of this? No, not really.

And, as many pilots will lament, gone perhaps forever is one of the single greatest flying experiences in the world, the "Governor's Island Departure" from Newark International Airport, by which commuter planes once zipped northbound up the edge of the Hudson River, wings seemingly scraping the upper floors of the Manhattan skyscrapers. After taking off from Newark's Runway 22, we'd make a sharp left turn directly toward the World Trade Center before. That familiar view of the twin towers growing larger in the windshield of my turboprop is something I'll always remember. And it is, doubtless, the very same view Mohammed Atta and some of his conspirators had seconds before impact.

Our biggest mistake has been to declare yet another policy of zero tolerance. But something as inherently dangerous as flying will never be made inherently safe. As we attempt the impossible, especially in the heat of panic, we do so at our own peril, all the while turning our airports into stages of absurd comedy while inconveniencing millions of travelers, many of whom might be laughing if it weren't for the delays and nervous stares from young Guardsmen with automatic weapons.

In reality, all the locked doors, sneaker checks and get-tough promises in the world will not stop somebody who is hellbent on destroying an airliner. Further, the events of Sept. 11 were not the result of a breakdown within the jurisdictions of airport security. Had the airplanes been bombed it would be a different story, but as it happened, it was not a crime to step aboard those aircraft with box cutters. To address what went wrong that day, we need to examine the landscapes of politics and immigration and the oversight of individuals with terrorist links. We needn't scapegoat airport workers, the FAA or anybody who wears the uniform of any of our nation's air carriers. Had box cutters been banned aboard aircraft that morning, which they were not, Atta and his men, clever and determined, probably would have found another way.

And just as the war on drugs will never completely eliminate the supply of illicit narcotics, the war on terror will not eliminate the supply of angry radicals or otherwise dangerous airline passengers. Reasonable, effective security, in conjunction with longer-term programs beyond the realm of aviation itself, will be our best bets for the future. It's time to make the move from panic to process.

By P. Smith


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