International Security and the Corporate Aircraft

Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.
(Published in the International Business Aircraft council monthly magazine in 1986.)
Paper presented to the Flight Safety Foundation in Acapulco, Mexico.

Note: The date of this article is 1986 when the only recommendation for a hijacked flight crew was “comply, comply, comply”. I was nearly run out of town on a rail by suggesting that a gun in the cockpit might be worth considering. It was heretical thinking at the time. Now, years later, an armed flight crew is completly acceptable.

When Captain Mouden and I first discussed the idea of my presenting a paper to this seminar, the topic was along vague lines of cockpit and cabin awareness, VIP service, and corporate operations in the Middle East. When his letter arrived, he had changed the topic to “International Security and the Corporate Aircraft.” I was a bit dismayed at first and perplexed by the fact that he had chosen a topic about which I knew almost nothing. Then I began to review how I, as an individual, had been operating a worldwide Gulfstream II for nearly three years from a Middle East base. Oh, I was aware of the basics of security – try to park in a lighted area; lock the airplane when leaving it unattended; hire a guard if the gunfire sounds close enough. Fortunately, I have not been around any gunfire to feel it necessary to hire a guard. Unfortunately, since I have been researching this paper, I realize that even without the gunfire I have been in several places where I should have hired a guard. Places where the appearance of security at first glance seems sufficient but when you look closely, it’s just eyewash, a sham that gives us a false sense of security and protects us only from the spur-of-the-moment nut and not at all from someone who is really out to do us or our passengers harm.

Let’s face it. Being brought up in a small town in the middle of the United States in the forties and fifties is hardly the background which contributes toward a high degree of security awareness. All the time I lived in Farmington, Missouri, I can’t ever remember locking the door to our house. Even when we left for a two-week vacation, we didn’t’ lock the door because then the neighbor who was watching the house had to keep track of the key. He would probably lose it since he didn’t lock his house either, and then he would have to break something to get in to see if everything was all right, which of course it would be. But then we would be as bad off as if a burglar had broken in. Nothing would be stolen, because there really wasn’t anything worth stealing, and we would have to get the window fixed. So the easiest solution was not to lock the door. Right? Even in the Army, I led a sheltered life. I stood guard duty a couple of times in basic training, but I think it was just so THOSE IN CHARGE would be assured I could walk a perimeter without tripping over my rifle or my own two feet. My first introduction to security came after my initial training as a communications specialist whereupon I became one of the guarded and began to look upon security as a bit of a nuisance coming between me and the completion of my job.

The reason for going into my background and attitude toward security is not a sort of confession of sins of omission in an attempt to cleanse the intellectual soul, but more to let you, as managers, know that I think there are a lot of guys like me out there flying for you. Civilian or even military trained pilots, who have not been exposed to a hostile, violent environment, are not going to be aware of security requirements unless you, as managers, motivate them. Plain common sense in security matters is better than nothing and perhaps provides a decent base upon which to build your fortress of protective information. But common sense is just that, a foundation to start with. The awareness and the admitting of a deficiency is where real security begins.

After the initial shock of Captain Mouden’s security bombshell wore off, I sat down and plotted my plan of attack to gain more knowledge without revealing my stupidity. Basic information was readily available and I was surprised to realize that I knew a bit more than I had at first thought. To call for up-to-the-minute information, such as the Airman’s Information Manual, were just not enough. They didn’t get down to the basic gut level of security that I wanted. What I was looking for were answers to questions like, as corporate aircraft operators, are we really potential victims? And if so, where are we most vulnerable? So next came the books – The Terror Network by Clair Sterling, Deviance Terrorism & War by John Burton, books on the CIA, the KGB,  the Red Brigades – anything to find out what sort of people we would be dealing with in a hijack or bomb threat situation. Then came personal interviews with a security specialist I encountered on the road, from European airport security directors to a security specialist for a Middle East Royal Family, not by the way, the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. It was interesting that many of them did not want their names to be used and all of their comments were strictly unofficial and off the record, but they were all most enlightening.

The discussion of security principles is fascinating. I had a pre-dinner interview with a security adviser one evening that was to last one hour. Instead we talked straight through dinner until 9:30 that night, and then both of us went to the adviser to the Royal Family and talked till 1:30 the next morning. The time limitations of this paper prevent a great deal of in-depth discussion of security at any one level, nor does it permit me to cover the vagaries of host country security regulations which largely govern what you are permitted to do to protect yourself, but here, in a short of capsule view, are some of the points that were brought to me.

First of all, does your company have a person who is specifically assigned the responsibility of overall security for flight department and its aircraft? This would, of course, be the final responsibility of the chief pilot or the aviation manager, but the actual day-to-day activity should be delegated to someone experienced or highly trainable in security matters. If your company is large enough to have a security department, are they aware of the special requirements of security in aircraft operations? Most corporate security men are quite conscious of problems on the ground, to and from the airport, but I think among many of them there is a sense of relaxation once they have their passenger at the airport. Not on the airplane itself, but just the airport. Perhaps they too have the false of security obtained from airport fences and gate guards. It appears to me to be an international quirk of security that the airline side of airports is closed guarded, while the general aviation or corporate side of the same airport is rather loosely monitored at best. Much can be related to the unwillingness of corporations to expend money for a service which may be considered marginal to corporate objectives. We could pick a number like one out of a thousand people who might be unbalanced or violent enough to cause problems. Logically, since there are more people going through the airline side, the security will be tighter because the odds are greater.  But this really shouldn’t make us feel all that secure on the other side of the fence where, due to a less secure atmosphere, the odds of a successful takeover of an aircraft are much greater.

To give an example of the loose monitoring to which I’m referring, let me cite an experience I had at a major European airport not too long ago. I drove up to the airport gate and pointed over to the aircraft that I was flying. I didn’t get out of the car and explain who I was, show any identification or anything else. The guard opened the electric gate and I drove across the ramp, illegally, and straight to the aircraft. I got out of the car, opened the door and spent several minutes inside the airplane. I then closed the aircraft and drove off the airport, never having been checked. What an ideal way to plant a device! And what an eye opener!

Does your company have a crisis committee? It should consist of management-level members of the major departments – legal, fiscal, security, employee relations, transportation, etc. If you have such a committee, have they thought out a response plan to a hijacking or a bomb or extortion threat? In addition, this committee should realistically assess the possibilities of your company being selected by either a kook or a professional terrorist. In my opinion, any company that is in a financial position to own and operate a corporate airplane is in a position of vulnerability from either one or both. There is always the disgruntled ex-employee, an injured product user, the political radical, or the terrorist who has no interest in your company other than its being a source of funds to pursue other goals.

In 1976, which was a busy year for violence associated in aviation, our chief pilot issued a memo covering basic security of the aircraft and its environment. With his permission, the following is submitted:
1.    The aircraft will be locked any time a member of the flight department is not in the vicinity of the entrance door or actually on board the aircraft.
2.    It will be absolutely necessary that a crew member be able to identify each person traveling on the aircraft every time the aircraft departs. If a person objects to identification, he will not be allowed on board the aircraft until he is positively identified by the senior passenger on that flight.
3.    Absolutely no hitch-hikers to be allowed on the aircraft at any time unless, in case of emergency, that a person is cleared on the aircraft by the chief pilot or higher authority.
4.    All baggage, packages, clothing or any other items of personal nature will be identified by the owner prior to being loaded. In the case where baggage for a VIP arrives before the VIP, it is imperative that that baggage will not be loaded until its owner has personally identified it. It will be the captain’s responsibility to brief the VIP of this requirement if it appears a delayed departure will result.
5.    A very thorough interior preflight inspection will be made prior to each departure. Particular emphasis should be placed on such areas as the wheel wells, engine intakes and tail pipe area, and any opening or area that would be accessible to unauthorized persons.
6.    All persons entering the aircraft for service purposes, such as catering delivery or cleaning, must be accompanied or supervised at all times by a crew member until that person leaves the aircraft. All catering delivered must be verified before being loaded aboard the aircraft.
7.    A guard will be contracted for and assigned 24 hour surveillance of the aircraft any time it is to be on the ground away from the home station for an extended period. An extended period will defined by the captain of the flight and must be determined by such factors as airport security measures, parking position in relation to ramp lighting and any other factor that would have bearing on both aircraft security while stationary, and passenger safety during the boarding and/or deplaning phase.
8.    When away from home station, plan to visit the aircraft once daily even if a guard has been assigned.
9.    Adopt the policy of keeping to a minimum the number of people aware of your profession, company affiliation, passenger list, departure plan and flight itinerary. This is particularly important while away from home station.
10.    All flight crew members should periodically review the special emergency section of the International Flight Information Manual.
11.    As paranoid as it may sound, it’s a good policy to take a suspicious attitude toward anyone around the aircraft who is not known to a member of the crew. It’s necessary to account for everything that takes place around the aircraft and flight operations facility to insure a maximum effort is being taken to avoid a security breach.

In addition to those points, here are a few more bits of information gleaned from both discussions and personal experience.

In many countries throughout the world, taxi drivers, waiters, butlers, porters and hotel room staff are cultivated by subversive organizations. Learn to monitor your conversations and think before you speak.
Always assume that your telephone conversations are monitored and frequently, especially in less developed countries, your hotel room will also be bugged. If you are certain of being bugged or just suspect, you might consider checking out of that hotel and trying another. Often, however, you might find that is the only decent hotel available. In that case, you might try a bit of acting that a fellow pilot and I did in a less developed country in South East Asia a few years ago.

We had delivered an aircraft to the government of that country and had just checked into the recommended hotel when a visitor from the American Embassy dropped in to see us. The plane was part of some sort of government-to-government program so we were being briefed on what to expect. While he was talking to us along a normal conversational line, such as how did the trip go, etc., he was writing on a yellow tablet. While he continued to talk, we read the note that all the rooms in the hotel were bugged and to be careful of what we said. During a walk in the park that afternoon, the other pilot and I decided to see if we could use the bugs to our advantage. We returned to the hotel room and had a discussion that centered around our hosts. We carried on about their hospitality and consideration, which had really been nothing special. That evening we were invited to dinner by government officials and for the next few days, the more we raved about them, the more they tried to do for us. A very interesting and successful experiment in practical psychology on our parts.

If your aircraft locks work, you probably feel pretty safe and secure. To ruin your day, show your $10 lock for your $$$$$ airplane to a locksmith and ask him how difficult it would be to pick.

A well-travelled and justifiably paranoid friend of mine used to carry a bit of candle wax in his flight kit. Before he left the aircraft, he would rub the candle was across the lock, filling the key hole. Should the wax be tampered with when he returned, he would go off and have a cup of coffee while the copilot opened the door. He’s a survivor! I heard from him recently and now he prefers waxing the door crack. It would be difficult to see by the unitiated and would be disturbed if the door had been opened. 

All of the security men I talked to had one special concern in common. The handling of baggage. They recommended that it be accompanied from the hotel room to the aircraft hold. One adviser even goes as far as to utilize a color and numerical code in order to control the movements. Have you, as flight crew members, left your baggage unlocked and unaccompanied at the hotel lobby while you go off in search of breakfast? We don’t really accomplish much if we closely control passenger baggage, and not our own.

When you get down to basics in security, it’s really a game. It’s a contest between good and bad guys and kooks. It’s an international arms race in miniature, and security advisers are in agreement that our security measures should be obvious even to the casual observer. They recommend obvious burglar alarms on facilities; but they also insist that these alarms, bells and whistles, whether on the airplane itself, or facilities, should be only a first line of defense, backed up closely by a human element. Destructible stickers over fuel tank covers and other aircraft openings, along with “No Entry” signs for aircraft doors, are recommended for a dual purpose. They alert the casual observer or the potential threatening individual or group that your organization is alert and security wise, while also providing an everyday reminder to your own people to maintain an attitude of security awareness.

Let’s just say that your company is security alert and always on top of all activities around your aircraft. But the worst case scenario does have a nasty habit of occurring from time to time and even the best are brought down. Let’s say you are hijacked in your corporate jet. In the United States and many other parts of the world your chances for survival are really pretty good because, given the range and performance considerations, you’re probably going to remain in radar contact and it will be relatively easy to keep track of you. Probably the airport you land at will have some sort of security plan to follow and after negotiations, you could quite likely be released.

Let’s now move our same corporate jet to a Middle East, African and Southern Asian location and, in my opinion, it’s a whole new ballgame. If the hijacker successfully gets you out of range of terminal radar before you are able to alert someone, your destinations become almost limitless. You can put a business aircraft down almost any place where there is a relatively straight piece of road. You probably won’t be able to take off again, but that’s not a concern of the hijacker. Something of great concern to me would be my relative value to the hijacker once the plan is down. He’s not going to take me for a ransom. He wants the man in the back and at that point I’m redundant to his needs. Just another body to guard. This was discussed with all of the security advisers, and their answers were underwhelming at best. There really isn’t anything anyone can do for you at that time. Perhaps at least our knowledge of the aircraft and its systems could be our own best defense. In talking to various pilots about possible defensive actions they could take through manipulations of systems, the one most often mentioned was pressurization. If you get the chance, and to make it as difficult as you can for the hijacker, at least run the cabin altitude up as high as possible before red lights come on. Combine the high cabin altitude with free drinks from the bar. 

The one question guaranteed to draw extreme reactions from everyone I talked to was, should a flight crew have a handgun available in the cockpit? After sorting through all the answers, I have formed my own conclusion. I think that it could be acceptable if: 
1.    You are one-airplane operation with the same crew flying all the time.
2.    There must be an obvious requirement for the gun, such as a previous threat or occurrence.
3.    The crew must attain a high level of proficiency in using the weapon.
4.    The crew must be of stable and mature character.
5.    The crew must be trained to recognize when and how to use the gun by a reliable agency.
Pretty heavy requirements as far as I’m concerned and almost impossible to meet adequately. Several of the individuals recommend an aerosol can of mace until I mentioned the potential problem of a can of that stuff floating around the cockpit during a very possible pressurization problem. We all agreed in the end that mace might be great idea when walking down the street, if you remember to stay up wind, but it has no place in the cockpit.

How can we defend ourselves against violence in the airplane? I don’t know. I haven’t found the answer yet. But I’m left with a great feeling of unease after reading a quote in Claire Sterling’s, The Terror Network. Petra Krause, a retired female terrorist, made the statement to “Newsweek” that “Non-violence is a bourgeois luxury.” You and I are the bourgeois she was referring to and when the preventive precautions fail, we are at a complete disadvantage because we haven’t the ruthlessness or the training to react to the violence with which we are confronted. There is a need for management and for ourselves to plan for the day when prevention fails. How far can we morally go, with proper training, in the defense of the aircraft, our passengers, and ourselves? Granted, the vast majority of the time the best policy is to sit tight, be patient and wait out the situation. But once things get completely out of control, I don’t think adrenalin is enough.