Ask the pilot

Middle Eastern radicals hold no monopoly on the long history of terror in the air.

Published August 30, 2004 6:38PM (EDT)

Thanks for bearing with me through the Annie Jacobsen five-parter. For what it's worth, feedback was split about 50/50 between gratitude ("thanks so much for sticking with this") and frustration ("one more of these and I'm canceling my subscription"). Jacobsen's crusade really struck a nerve, embarrassing me as an American while violating all that I find sacred and meaningful about aviation. It was my obligation, I concluded, as aggrieved citizen and cockpit ambassador, to stay on the offensive.

An ongoing game of chicken wasn't going to work, however. The sad truth is, histrionics sell. Annie winds up hiring a publicist to handle her appearances (with Bill O'Reilly and Joe Scarborough, among others), while counterpoints like mine are cast to the ghettos of blogs. Annie's brand of mongering, call it "nonsense to power," is ripe for mainstream pickup in a society caught in the throes of a three-year, terror-induced hangover.

One of the ironies of the Jacobsen affair has been its capacity to spawn debate on the issues of terror and security. Ironic in that beneath a veneer of two-bit provocation -- void of precedent and ignorant of the past -- it addresses almost nothing of relevance. One of the worst things about our post-Sept. 11 mindset is the total forfeiture of historical context when it comes to airplanes and terrorism.

Below is a letter from Beth Quinn, a reader in Oregon, which helps to provide a natural and, I hope, instructive segue:

"In 1974, I was a college student, flying with my family to Lahore, Pakistan. On the way, we stopped in Istanbul, Karachi, New Delhi, Bombay, Tehran, Isfahan and Rome, flying on a half dozen airlines. The security measures overseas were far more stringent than anything in the U.S., so it was a real eye-opener. My mother was a reluctant flyer at best, and a spate of recent hijackings added to her unease. Raising her alarm were security precautions in Istanbul and Beirut that included armed soldiers surrounding the plane. Boarding our 747 in Beirut, my mother took special note of a young Middle Eastern man who was visibly uneasy. As my mother grew nervous, I sought out a flight attendant. The attendant immediately engaged the young man in conversation, then made her way to our seats. The man was a Palestinian, the employee explained, who had never flown before. He was on his way to Australia to join his brother and begin a new life. He was apprehensive about flying and sorrowful at leaving his family. With that explanation, my mother's fear evaporated and she made a point of befriending the young man."

Granted, Annie Jacobsen ought to chisel out the obvious, touchy-feely morals about stereotyping and jumping to conclusions, but the real value of Quinn's story, for the rest of us, is its recollective splash of cold water. Sept. 11 stands, thus far, as terrorism's most defining spectacle, but acts of political violence against civilian planes are, to say the least, well-documented, the majority unfolding in the 1970s and 1980s, a period I've called the golden age of air crimes.

The attacks of 2001 themselves paid tribute, intentionally or otherwise, to the "Black September" skyjackings some 30 years earlier. I've talked about Black September several times in this space, partly in fascination with its oddly prescient boilerplate. Over the span of three days in 1970, five jets, including ones belonging to TWA, Pan Am, and El Al, were commandeered over Europe by a group called the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Three of the five planes were diverted to a remote airstrip in Jordan, rigged with explosives and blown up. A fourth was flown to Egypt and destroyed there.

Black September, however, belonged to an era when expressions of political outrage emphasized symbolism more than blood. To the old-school terrorists, carnage and body count weren't what mattered, necessarily; it was about attention. All of the Black September passengers, it's imperative to note, had been freed before the aircraft were demolished. In contrast, reasonable people can argue whether Sept. 11 belongs in the context of air crimes at all. Was the use of jetliners critical to the perpetrators' intentions -- symptomatic of a well-established criminal pathology -- or incidental to an emerging and more simple-minded philosophy: to kill and destroy as many and as much as possible?

Prior to autumn 2001, the two most deadly attacks against Western airliners were the 1988 destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and that of UTA (Union de Transports Aeriens) Flight 772 over the Sahara Desert less than a year later. Both were orchestrations of Mohamar Khaddafy's regime in Libya. Two-hundred and seventy people were killed at Lockerbie; 170 on the French DC-10 on a leg from N'djamena, Chad, to Paris. No martyrs required; the crashes were caused by explosives stashed in lower deck baggage compartments.

In the weeks immediately after Lockerbie, suspicion fell on a Palestinian liberation group based in Syria and backed by Iran, presumably avenging the accidental U.S. shoot-down of an Iran Air jet over the Persian Gulf the previous summer. The investigation later shifted to Libya, and after one of the most fascinating and exhaustive criminal investigations in history, two Libyans were extradited for trial in The Hague. More than 10 years after Pan Am 103 fell to earth, the trial began. One of the men was acquitted, the other convicted. Meanwhile in France, a court convicted six Libyans in absentia for the UTA disaster, including Khaddafy's brother-in-law. In early 2004, Tripoli would at last acquiesce to blood money reparations to the families of those killed.

Thanks to countless images and headlines -- from the footage of Lockerbie in flames to the dead-eye stare of Mohammad Atta -- Americans, if not Westerners in general, have come to view air terror as the exclusive province of Middle Eastern radicals. Consider, in addition to the examples already given, the logbook of pan-Arab aggression directed at U.S. targets:

1970: A Pan Am 747 bound for New York is skyjacked after takeoff from Amsterdam. The flight is diverted to Cairo where all of the 170 occupants are released. Radicals then blow up the plane.

1973: As passengers board a Pan Am 747 at the airport in Rome, terrorists spray the plane with gunfire and toss grenades into the cabin, killing 30.

1974: A TWA 707 flying from Athens to Rome (part of Tel Aviv-New York service), falls into the sea near Greece, the result of an explosive device hidden in the aft cargo compartment.

1985: Shiite militiamen armed with grenades and pistols overtake TWA Flight 847, also traveling Athens-Rome. The purloined 727 then embarks on a remarkable, 17-day odyssey to Lebanon, Algeria, and back again. At one point passengers are removed, split into groups, and held captive in downtown Beirut. The sole casualty is Robert Stethem, a U.S. Navy diver who is shot in the temple and dumped on the tarmac. All remaining hostages are eventually released, but not before the Israeli government agrees to free more than 700 Shiite fighters captured in southern Lebanon. The photograph of TWA captain John Testrake, his head out the cockpit window, collared by a gun-wielding terrorist, was broadcast worldwide and became an unforgettable icon of the siege.

1986: As the plane descends through 10,000 feet toward Athens from Rome -- opposite routing of the flights just discussed -- a bomb goes off in the cabin of TWA Flight 840. Four people are ejected through a tear in the 727's fuselage.

1986: At Karachi international airport, a Pan Am 747 is preparing for departure when four heavily armed members of the Abu Nidal terror organization seize the aircraft. When Pakistani forces storm the plane, the terrorists begin shooting and lobbing grenades. Twenty-two passengers are killed, including two Americans, and 150 are wounded. (Although all four terrorists were captured and sent to prison in Pakistan, they were released in late 2001.)

And not to forget, of course, what might have been. Once again I'll remind you of Ramzi Yousef, al-Qaida conspirator linked to the 1993 World Trade Center prelude, and master mixer of hard-to-detect liquid explosives. Yousef's chemistry projects were part of so-called Project Bojinka ("Big Bang"), a plan to blow up a dozen widebodies simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean. Before he was apprehended in Pakistan in 1995, Yousef completed a test run on a Philippine Airlines 747, killing a Japanese businessman with a small under-seat bomb.

To be sure, Arabs have targeted airlines of many nationalities, including those of their own presumably corrupt and unsympathetic governments. There's plenty of hate, obviously, between many violent groups and the monarchs and generals they consider puppets of Western policy. Some of the most lethal attacks have come against Middle Eastern carriers like EgyptAir, Iraqi Airways and Gulf Air.

No surprise, we've also seen Europe as a central theater for Arab terror. Getting back to UTA in 1989, that same Chad-to-Paris flight (part of a service originating in Brazzaville, Congo) had been bombed five years earlier, the first time while still on the ground, demolishing the plane but with no deaths.

One of the most spectacular skyjack ordeals was that of Air France Flight 139, commandeered by members of the PFLP and Baader-Meinhof gang in 1976. After leaving Athens -- intermediate stop of a route from Tel Aviv to Paris -- the Airbus A300 was routed to Entebbe, Uganda, where, with the support of Idi Amin's soldiers, more than a hundred Israeli and Jewish passengers were held hostage for several days. As negotiations stalled, Israeli commandos arrived secretly aboard four military aircraft. In "Operation Thunderbolt," they stormed the Airbus while blowing up 11 Ugandan fighter jets parked on the tarmac. All but three hostages were saved, and the commandos returned home as heroes. The lone fatality among the rescuers was Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu, brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Raid on Entebbe" and "Victory at Entebbe" were two Hollywood films made of the event.

In 1994 another Air France A300 was grabbed by a foursome of extremist Muslims in Algeria. The plane was forced to Marseilles where seven people died when French troops rushed aboard for a rescue. In a Testrakian (see TWA above) moment of drama, an Air France pilot is seeing hurling himself out the cockpit window while an explosion flashes behind him.

In 1985, the Abu Nidal group killed 20 people in a pair of coordinated ticket-counter assaults at Vienna and Rome.

Yes, that's quite a legacy, and the above list is hardly exhaustive.

Thing is, though, neither is the next one. What each of the following tragedies share, along with many others I don't have room for, is that none came at the hands of Arabs.

1962: In the first successful sabotage of a commercial jet, a Continental Airlines 707 is dynamited over Unionville, Mo., as part of a suicide-for-insurance scam. All 45 passengers and crew are killed.

1964: Forty-four die after a man shoots the flight crew of a Pacific Air Lines turboprop over California.

1965: In another insurance swindle, a Canadian Pacific (CP Air) DC-6 crashes after a passenger ignites a mixture of acid and gunpowder, possibly in one of the plane's toilets.

1967: A BOAC Comet explodes over the Mediterranean southwest of Turkey. Although no motive was officially determined, the crime was believed to be an attempt to assassinate a Greek military leader mistakenly identified as a passenger.

1971: A man using the name DB Cooper skyjacks and threatens to blow up a Northwest Orient (Northwest Airlines nowadays) 727. He parachutes out the back of the plane with a hefty ransom and is never seen again, dead or alive.

1972: A JAT (Yugoslav Airlines) DC-9 en route from Copenhagen to Zagreb explodes at 33,000 feet. The Ustashe, aka Croatian National Movement, admits to the bombing.

1972: Explosion aboard a Cathay Pacific jet flying from Bangkok to Hong Kong kills 81 people. A Thai police lieutenant is accused of hiding the bomb in order to murder his fiancée.

1972: In the arrivals lounge of the Lod airport near Tel Aviv, three men from the Japanese Red Army, recruited by the Palestinian PLFP, open fire with machine guns and grenades, killing 26 people and injuring 80.

1973: Eighty-one perish as an Aeroflot jet explodes over Siberia during an attempted skyjacking.

1974: A man detonates two grenades aboard an Air Vietnam 727 when the crew refuses to fly him to Hanoi.

1976: A Cubana DC-8 crashes near Barbados killing 73. An anti-Castro exile and three alleged accomplices are put on trial but acquitted for lack of evidence.

1977: Both pilots of a Malaysian Airline System (today called Malaysia Airlines) 737 are shot by a skyjacker. The plane crashes into a swamp.

1985: An Air India 747 on service between Toronto and Bombay is bombed over the North Atlantic by Sikh extremists. The 329 fatalities are (and remain) history's worst single-plane act of terrorism. A second bomb, intended for another Air India 747, detonates prematurely in Tokyo before being loaded on board.

1987: A Korean Air Lines 707 disappears over the Andaman Sea en route from Baghdad to Seoul. One of two Koreans suspected of hiding a bomb commits suicide before he's arrested. His accomplice, a young woman, confesses to leaving the device -- fashioned from both plastic and liquid explosives -- in an overhead rack before disembarking during an intermediate stop. (Although condemned to death, the woman is pardoned in 1990 by the president of South Korea.)

1987: A recently fired employee, David Burke, sneaks a loaded gun past security and boards a Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) regional jet on its way to San Francisco. During cruise, he gains access to the cockpit and shoots both pilots and himself, the latter after aiming the plane toward the ground in a vertical dive.

1989: In an attempt to kill police informants, members of a cocaine cartel blow up Avianca Flight 203 bound from Bogota to Cali. There are no survivors among the 110 crew and passengers.

1990: A young man claiming to have explosives strapped to his body forces his way into the cockpit of a Xiamen Airlines 737 and demands to be flown to Taiwan. Running out of fuel, the crew attempts a landing at Canton (Guangzhou), when a struggle erupts. The plane veers off the runway and collides with two stationary aircraft.

1994: Riding along as an auxiliary crewmember, Auburn Calloway, an off-duty Federal Express pilot scheduled for termination, attacks the three-man crew of a DC-10 with a speargun and hammer, nearly killing all of them. His plan, before he's finally overtaken by the battered and bloodied pilots, is to crash the huge airliner into FedEx's Memphis headquarters.

1996: An Ethiopian Air Lines 767 is skyjacked over the Indian Ocean. The jet runs out of fuel and heads for a ditching off the Comoros Islands. Skyjackers wrestle with the pilots, and the plane breaks apart upon hitting the water, killing 125.

1999: A deranged 28-year-old forces his way onto the flight deck of an All Nippon Airways 747 carrying 503 people and stabs the captain to death with an 8-inch knife.

1999: Air Botswana captain Chris Phatswe steals an otherwise empty ATR commuter plane and slams it into two parked aircraft, killing himself and destroying virtually the entire fleet of his nation's tiny airline.

2002: Fire erupts on a China Northern Airlines MD-80 flying from Beijing to Dalian. The plane crashes into the sea, killing 112 crew and passengers. Investigators blame a passenger who purchased seven separate life insurance policies just before departure.

And as I put the finishing touches on this column, news reports are trickling in about the mysterious crashes, less than 48 hours ago, of two Russian Tupolevs, speculation being that separatist operatives within that country are responsible for the downings. Also not included are the numerous airplanes diverted to and from Cuba over the years, or the assumed pilot-suicides involving EgyptAir and SilkAir.

As we see, some of the most memorable tragedies challenge our very conception of terrorism, a word whose meaning has become increasingly nebulous. Entangling every facet of airside security with only the most blatant and dramatic expectations -- the next collapsing skyscraper or nuclear-sized fireball -- is a path of substantial peril. Note also, in both lists, the preponderance of bombs, guns and hand grenades, and the comparative dearth of boxcutters, corkscrews and umbrellas. Take what you will from the data, but somewhere therein we should recognize our assorted follies. If the call is for more and greater security, so be it, but what kind? Specific threats notwithstanding, many, if not most of the events I've listed take to task the knee-jerk concepts peddled by politicians -- racial and ethnic profiling, or the confiscation of silly metal objects -- while highlighting the waste and ridiculousness of a zero-tolerance standard.

Some of the ideas bandied about in the wake of Sept. 11 would be humorous, if only people weren't taking them so seriously: sealing off cockpits from the rest of the airplane; flight deck software to prevent overflight of government buildings; airliners landable by remote control. Others advocate outfitting every last airplane with technology to thwart shoulder-fired missiles. The International Air Transport Association estimates the price tag for industry-wide missile defense at somewhere between $50 and $100 billion. A hundred billion dollars, potentially, to combat a weapon that has yet to bring down a Western plane. Neither of the two latest rocket strikes, mind you -- one against an Israeli charter flight in Kenya, another against a DHL cargo jet over Baghdad -- caused a crash or fatality.

Knock on wood, obviously. But even then, does a successful downing oblige us to install every plane on earth with extremely expensive technology that may or may not preclude disaster? Some of us say no, a voice almost certain to be unheard in the cacophony of panic should rockets strike successfully any time soon. Anathema as it sounds, the reaction to global terror should not be to batten every hatch, avenge every death and sign off on every profligate safety program. That's not to be lazy, cavalier or resigned to our own destruction. It's to be pragmatic, accepting the inevitable rare catastrophe in exchange for the preservation of our fiscal and civic sanity. Protection should be based on effectiveness and practicality, not on emotion or a relentless obsession with worst-case fantasies.

In some areas, congratulations are due. Our cockpits are fortified, our suitcases are sniffed and scanned for explosives. On the concourse, those metal detectors and X-ray machines owe more to the exploits of DB Cooper in 1971 than to marauding gangs of Arabs, real or imagined. Even with Sept. 11 punctuating the calendar, the past 15 years show a declining number of terrorist incidents. We're much safer than we were two or three decades ago. Yet thanks to one day's events and a relentless campaign of warnings and hype, we're five times as frightened.

The "new reality" of flying, post-Sept. 11, is more or less the same reality we've always had. Air travel has been, and shall remain, a high-value target for terrorists and crackpots, and the day will come, like it or not, when saboteurs again succeed. Sadly, it seems, we are cocked and ready to greet that reality not with the measured response it deserves, but with full-scale hysteria.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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