Aircraft Security: Serious Business

It’s counterintuitive, but statistics clearly show that you’re more likely to have an accident or incident on the ground than in the air. Think about the hangar rash, ground loops, runway overruns, gear up landings, blown tires, and other maladies you’ve probably seen.

As I often remind students when we’re talking about flight safety, the worst aviation accident in history occurred on the ground when two Boeing 747s collided in the fog at Tenerife Island in 1977. (You might say 9/11 was worse — and you’re definitely correct — but nothing that happened that day was an accident.)

The propensity for problems on the ground applies to security, too. Since 2001, general aviation has become necessarily familiar with key controls, door/canopy/prop/hangar locks, airport access restrictions, gate codes, SIDA badges, and more. It’s a major part of our flying lives on the ground, like it or not. And for the record, I definitely do NOT like it. Every time I walk up to a Cub, TravelAir, or Stinson, the very way the airplane was designed speaks to the innocence of its era. It’s as if those who built these elegant flying machines couldn’t conceive of a world where someone would want to harm them.

Anyway, the same security concerns exist for corporate and charter operators, which are far more closely related to the rest of general aviation than to the airlines. Instead of a couple hundred airports, we fly to thousands of different ones around the country — indeed, around the world. Airliners often fly 18 or more hours per day, plying a limited route system and stopping only for maintenance or at well-lit terminals and jetways.

Business jets? Not so much. We’re as likely to end up on a dark, quiet ramp of a small reliever airport as anyplace else, and the aircraft will often sit there for days while we lay over at our destination.

That’s why security is so important to us. And unlike the airlines, biz jet pilots take care of most security precautions personally. Even at my company’s home base — one of the largest and most prominent business aviation airports on the planet — in the past couple of years, aircraft have been attacked by taggers, iPads have been stolen from inside the cockpits, and mentally unstable people have snuck onto the airport in an attempt to access our airplanes. The stories I could tell…

If that’s what happens in the nice areas, imagine what a prominent target that shiny multi-million dollar jet makes when alighting in some of the world’s most blighted places abroad. The threats are real, and on a side note, they extend to the people as much as the aircraft. Two months ago, a business jet crew was enroute to a Marriott Courtyard hotel near Mexico City when a van cut out in front of their taxi. The kidnappers then exited the van and proceeded to pull the crew from their vehicle. The crew was held for approximately six hours before their release only after the kidnappers received some form of ransom either from the crew or the company/entity they fly for.

When something like this lands at a small airport or a third-world country, it can become a target for the curious as well as the malignant.

To counter these threats, we take extra precautions to secure the aircraft. We’re helped by the fact that the manufacturers of these jets usually include security mechanisms which are typically lacking in the older reciprocating GA fleet, like internal window locks to prevent the emergency exits from being opened from the outside, beefy locks on the many access panels, ports, and doors, etc. Many of these airplanes came with an electronic security system built into the airframe as well, though it’s not always utilized by operators.

We’ll also apply tamper-proof security tape over larger entrances like the main door, baggage door, and aft equipment bay door. At some locations, private security is hired to provide another layer of protection. Our destinations are rated for their level of safety as part of the dispatch process, too. Local handlers are mined for their expertise and knowledge. And as pilots, we do our own homework about each airport and city.

When we return to the airplane to get it ready for the next departure, the interior and exterior are swept to check for any sign of tampering. Even if nothing intentionally nefarious has occurred, a curious kid who hops the airport fence at 3 a.m. and starts poking around in a landing gear well can do plenty of damage to exposed tires, hydraulic lines, or electrical wiring. If you’ve ever put your airplane on display at a public airshow, you probably know all too well how the best of intentions are no defense against enthusiasm and/or ignorance. As any pilot can attest, airplanes are amazingly strong and yet surprisingly fragile. Too much torque or pressure applied at the wrong place can break an air data probe, pitot tube, or other component as easily as a trained martial arts expert snapping an adversary’s limb.

For me, the hardest part of aircraft security is just leaving the jet sitting on the ramp while we go to a hotel. No matter how many steps we’ve taken, in lousy places it’s almost hard to rest because I’m responsible for this multi-million dollar piece of machinery and I can’t see what’s going on. It’s the “type-A”, PIC command personality that exists in most aviators.

At the end of the day, there’s no getting around the fact that a bulletproof solution to worldwide aircraft security does not, and probably never will, exist. But as the proverb tells us, forewarned is forearmed. On the ground as much as in the air, smart pilots and operators will utilize every tactical advantage to keep their aircraft and passengers safe.

  15 comments for “Aircraft Security: Serious Business

  1. Mark
    February 21, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    (Ignorant hobbyist pilot speaking…) How about carrying your own surveillance equipment with you? In other words, what about leaving some sort of time-lapse camera pointed at your aircraft while it’s parked? Or several old iPhones running time-lapse software pointed in different directions from inside your aircraft? A quick review of the surveillance footage would tell you if anyone even approached your plane and, by extension, what they might have done to it.

    • February 21, 2017 at 3:59 pm

      That is a novel idea. There are many ways to skin the surveillance cat these days. Video cameras are small and inexpensive, so what you’re proposing would certainly be possible.

      But leaving a plane on the ground for several days with cameras running would suck up a lot of storage space. I suppose it could be overridden in the same way that voice and flight data recorders do, but then you tend to lose the data you really want to review. If a system like that could feed into a DVR it might hold on to more information. On the other hand, if a bad guy gets aboard the airplane, they would probably disable, disassemble, or steal a system like that in the first place.

      I would love to see a solution where the cameras that are built into modern day business jets – – which are designed for the pilots and passengers to see the exterior in midflight — could be operated on a permanent basis for security purposes and have that data stored.

    • Serge
      February 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

      Camera. I was just about to write just that.

  2. February 21, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    Again, not something I’d ever thought about before! Aviation usually feels so globalised and standardised that it’s easy to assume every airport has the same fences, cameras and regular patrols of the major metropolitan fields. Almost as easy as forgetting that the big selling point of business jets is often point to point travel to off-piste destinations.

    Off course, you’ve also gone and vandalised the illusion that flying shiny G.IVs is a glamorous, pinnacle of pilot-hood. Even more than for the rest of us who fly, the Flight Levels must be the most relaxing place on Earth for you guys. 🙂

    • February 21, 2017 at 9:24 pm

      Your remark about the flight levels being the most relaxing place is spot on! People often ask what we do during the long hours of cruise flight; the real answer is “not much”. We monitor course and weather, make an occasional radio call, but aside from that it is usually pretty sedate. We chat, eat some pretty good food, and enjoy the peace and quiet.

      The majority of our work takes place before the flight departs. Filing flight plans, computing weight & balance, assessing weather and risk, dealing with customs, catering, deicing, fueling, briefing, programming FMS boxes, obtaining clearances, reviewing charts, and so much more.

      After the flight is over, it can be busy as well. There’s a lot to do, but we have the luxury of time. Large jets are a lot like a house: we have to take out the trash, clean the galley, dining tables, chairs, floors, secure the airplane, complete flight logs, offload our own baggage, check oil levels, etc.

      But when we’re in the flight levels? That’s the Good Life.

  3. February 21, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    It’s a great point that tampering can happen that might go unnoticed. Even in small General Aviation planes, it’s easy to let preflight become mundane, but if you take the approach to preflight of “who messed with my plane?” It will likely breathe new life into it.

    • February 21, 2017 at 9:28 pm

      So true. As they say, “you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you”. One of my big challenges as a pilot is to attack every preflight inspection with that same dose of skepticism about who or what may have come in contact with my airplane. It’s tough to maintain that attitude as the hours pile on in one’s logbook, but safety demands that we do so.

  4. Doug
    February 22, 2017 at 5:22 am

    I would like to see a rating organization such as ARG/US step up with a rating system for security at international FBOs and private flight handlers perhaps NBAA already has a program. Also there are security resources that can help with unannounced spot checks prior to your arrival but those resources have to be vetted. Large companies have the luxary of well staffed security departments with expert security professionals addressing such issues. Frankly, if in doubt reposition the aircraft and build the cost into the trip estimate.

    • February 22, 2017 at 9:49 am

      I like that idea, although the sheer number of international airports and handlers would probably require a large effort to build and maintain a complete database. Repositioning the airplane is always a possibility, but it can be a logistical challenge when you’re trying to visit a dozen countries in as many days.

      Perhaps instead of trying rate all the international FBOs and handlers, they could do it on a voluntary basis, the way the current safety system operates. In other words, the handlers and FBOs would go to the ratings organizations instead of vice versa. The burden would be on them to prove that their ramps and facilities were safe.

  5. Joe Miller
    February 22, 2017 at 8:34 am

    Many years ago the oil company I flew for had a large yacht in Nassau. There were no handlers at this time and all of our pilots used only one person to handle the baggage. This person was old and totally connected to everyone on the airport, his name was Uncle Bill. Uncle Bill handled the baggage from plane to car and customs would be a breeze. My main point being that NO ONE would go near or touch our company aircraft (their were 17 Jets) because everyone knew and respected Uncle Bill in Nassau and his word was law. This was during the time when drug running was big time in the area. Uncle Bill was the best security money could buy.

    • February 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

      Yes, things used to move quite smoothly when you knew the right person. They were connected and could get things done. I’m sure it still works that way in some places, but for the most part everyone now deals with the same bloated bureaucracy. Every office and agency wants their fee, their paperwork, and must put their own stamp — literally — on everything that comes through the door.

  6. Maharani
    February 22, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    Even in the early days, open planes weren’t always safe. There was more than a strong suspicion that the planes flying in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby were sabotaged, and the pilots worked together to prevent it to the best of their ability.

    • February 22, 2017 at 3:11 pm

      I’m not surprised. As I recall, air races during the Golden Age had some serious money behind them; Shell and other large oil companies, for example.

  7. Joe Miller
    February 22, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    Ron, just for laughs now. Long ago were hired guards with guns & bullets (they asked if we wanted bullets for and extra $5 a day) to protect one of our BAC1-11’s (we had 3 brand-new in our large fleet). We went out to see how well everything was being protected – well they (2 guards) were cooking their meals in the wheel wheels with cans of sterno so to keep out of the wind. Sometime you get what you pay for. It’s funny now not so much then.

    • February 22, 2017 at 6:02 pm

      Classic story, Joe! And I can only imagine how NOT funny it was (at the time) walking up to your sparkling new airliner only to find guys with open flames in the wheel wells. I guess you couldn’t yell at them too harshly, seeing as how they were the ones with the guns and ammunition….

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