Same Time, Same Place, Same Level – Chapter 14

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Security and its guardians

Some of my gentle readers will remember well the times when airports were still places to visit, with no barbed wire and armed guards patrolling around. Try telling children who are only allowed to watch from behind thick glass windows how you had spent countless hours sitting on the grass in the shade of those huge wings, now and then even having a chance to chat with the pilots … Nowadays all sorts of crazy people seem to have all kinds of crazy reasons for wanting to attack airports and airplanes, with predictable consequences. Aviation fights back the best it can and so your freedom of movement is restricted (way beyond what would be normal from an operational point of view), they search you while they are X-ray your bags, armored cars lurk behind fuel-browsers and there are soldiers in full battle dress, armed to the teeth, leaving on ticket counters. What is this world coming to?

The life of people responsible for airport security is far from easy. The very fact of countless terrorist incidents committed over countless numbers of years with never any long lasting victory for anyone is obviously not enough to stop those loonies and this in itself shows just how crazy an enemy aviation security experts have to face. One of them was once overheard decrying the good old times, when the most dangerous adversary had been the odd guy trying to blow up his beloved mother-in-law …

Security measures tend to differ from airport to airport and often there are a number of organizations responsible for various operational areas. Screening of passengers and luggage, guarding the perimeter fence, patrolling the departure hall or transit area all fall under the general heading of airport security, lending themselves to colorful local arrangements.

Although security is a dead serious matter, yet even there the craziest things can happen, even without the good offices of some obscure liberty "army". The trouble is, by definition, security people have to act not only when something has happened, but also if they suspect something is about to happen or that something might happen. Air traffic control is rarely involved directly, mainly because would terrorists have not yet realized the havoc they could create by closing down a busy control center. But a hijacked flight or security operations on the ground do create disruptions in the normal operation of ATC, so the following stories do have legitimate claim to being included here. Mind you, the stories told here happened decades before 9/11 …

Armed and careless …

At this airport the perimeter guards had always been held in pretty low esteem, a result of a few funny characters having managed to crawl through the screening procedure, ending up being more a threat with their machine pistols to each other than to anyone trying to jump the fence from the outside. Added to this had been a bit of a drinking problem also, and on one occasion this had led to one of them falling asleep atop a switched on hot-plate, giving some unusual work to the fire brigade … On the whole, though , they did a pretty good job of keeping us safe.

These perimeter guards had their own radio net and since their comings and goings were not a matter closely followed by the tower. As they could also tune into the tower's ground control frequency, it was assumed they would call in when circumstances warranted. There was no such call, however, when controllers heard distant gunfire on this dark Saturday night.

The sounds seemed to come from pretty far away, though clearly from within the airport grounds itself. The Tower Manual had precious little to offer by way of advice as to what one should do if a local shoot-up were to break out. Had the controllers known that the guards were shooting at each other, their confusion would have no doubt only increased. As it was, however, they did the only sensible thing, halting all movements both on the ground and in the air, at the same time calling the airport supervisor for further instructions. This general state of crime lasted for the better part of an hour, at the end of which one dead, one seriously injured and a terribly shaken guard were brought in from one of the farthest sentry posts, together with a jeep which appeared to have some bullet holes in its metal. Normal operations were resumed once a careful search revealed that there were none terrorists, nor extra-terrestrials about.

As you would expect from a responsible guard force, a careful investigation followed, which at first revealed a lot of contradictory facts. Everyone appeared keen to protect their own ass but slowly, bit by bit, the truth emerged. Though it is hard to believe, this is what had happened.

At the customary time of changing guards, these two fellows had set out in their jeep to drive the four odd kilometers to the other end of the field, to relate the sentry at the most remote of the sentry posts. Although the paved service road ran all around the perimeter fence, the jeep had to stop a few hundred meters from the sentry post itself, this latter's off-pavement location has been dictated by "strategic" considerations. Although the guard on duty had been informed via his radio that his relief partner was on his way, in the dark, moonless night all he could see was a car stopping on the road with a figure climbing out and walking towards him. So far it had been sight seen by him on countless previous occasions. What he could not see was the driver, who had also illustrated on the other side of the vehicle to attend to a call of nature … There should have been nothing out of the ordinary in this, had his machine pistol safety not been left accidentally in the "fire" position. As the weapon got driven against the jeep's side, it promptly fired a handful of slugs into the ground, no doubt frigthening the hell out of its owner, with his pants down …

It took only a few seconds for the other two sentries to engage in a vicious gun battle which was halted only by the frantic shouts of the driver, by now cowering behind the assumed protection of his vehicle. The rest you already know.

Caught in jet-wash

To be shot up by your own kind is bad enough, to be blown away by the blast of jet engines is even worse. And this is exactly what had happened to one of the unfortunate guardian angels. He had been assigned to the post just outside the innermost obstacle free zone of the runway end, a post extremely noisy, although affording a spectacular view of aircraft taking off. The guards posted here, just like ordinary enthusiasts, could never tire of the sight of tons of metal hurtling down the runway to finally climb gracefully into the blue sky.

On this fateful day the guard on duty could watch for the tenth time as the twin engine jet of the local airline came in low and slow, its wheels touching the concrete for just a few seconds, only to accelerate again, to climb back up on another tour of the traffic circuit. This was a typical training flight and as it happened, they were all the traffic there was that particular afternoon. Touch-and-go, then a low pass, another touch-and-go, on and on until it was time to come in for fuel.

The sleek jet was again on short final coming in to refuel when the trainee pilot fouled up something and announced to the instructor his intention of making a low pass instead of a landing. In his opinion only the former could be executed safely from the given position of the aircraft. Now, instructors are supposedly to be pretty cool-headed individuals not particularly given to hasty decisions. This fella, however, seems to have decided to give a real lesson to his charge, setting the record straight once and for all as to what can and what can not be done. Without making his intentions completely clear, he took over flying the machine himself, putting the wheels on the concrete a few seconds later. It was a minor side effect that they touched down with a speed far too high and it soon became quite clear that no amount of braking and reverse thrust could possibly stop the plane before it overrun the runway end. Why they did not try to make it a touch-and-go never became completely clear.

The guard must have arrived at the same conclusion as, doubtlessly torn between the urge to flee and thus save his life and his orders never to desert his post, he switched his radio to the Tower net, breaking into the frequency heedless of everyone else, shouting piercingly: "Tower, tower, here is a plane, tower, he is going to hit me, he is coming off from the runway, he is … Oh! thank God!" This last exclamation signified some success on the part of the crew in slowing down their machine, finally stopping on the grass a few dozen meters from the guard-hut. Now they were facing each other, the big bird with very purring engines and the guard, still shaking from head to foot.

By some miracle the plane had missed all the runway lights and other small obstacles in its path and the crew, fully aware of sitting in a hardy Russian design which thinks nothing of rolling on grass, decided to just inch back onto the runway. Before controllers in the tower had had a chance to intervene or indeed to become aware of exactly what had happened, the big engines roared to life and the silver bird started taxiing, kicking up dirt and loose pieces of grass behind it, as the crew turned her around in a wide arc.

This time the poor guard's shouts were completely drowned in the noise. His machine pistol and portable radio were the first to be blown away while he was hanging on to the hut with both hands. Once, however, the jets lined themselves up squarely and precisely with the hut, both guard and hut were blown away like so many matchsticks. The hut turned out to be a complete write-off, the guard miraculously escaped with a broken arm, while the plane got off with a thorough cleaning job of its landing gear. Oh, yes, the training captain spent the next few months fishing while the suspension of his license expired …

Buzzing bags

Officers responsible for security closer to home, that is people dealing directly with passengers and their luggage have had their share of trouble, too. Whether you fly regularly or only now and then, you must have experienced that funny feeling likely to descend on the uninitiated when at check-in you give up your precious luggage to the mercy of your favorite airline. I for one can not get away from wondering whether I will ever see my faithful Samsonite …

Luggage sorting after check in is an art in itself, a world of clanking conveyors, computerized or just plain human sensors and even specially trained dogs at some airports, sniffing your bags, looking for narcotics or worse. Fortunately, few passengers get to see this down-to-earth facet of aviation.
Anyways, bags usually end up on a nice little train of carts for eventual transportation to your (or the next guy's …) plane. Should your suit emit a buzz, however, you can be sure it will never make it aboard any aircraft. When one of our baggage handlers picked up this suspicious sound coming from a pretty old fashioned leather case, it immediately notified the experts who gingerly extracted the bag from the mountain of other bags, placing it carefully in the steel jaws of a bulldozer. Now, most airports have a place usually referred to as an "isolated parking area", typically used for planes suspected of being in imminent danger of blowing up. The unhappy driver of the bulldozer was instructed to take the noisy bag to our version of the isolated parking area so that safety experts could have a chance to look at it more closely. The flight on which the bag had been provided to ride was being held in the meanime.

So there it was, a fairly ordinary looking, though battered old bag, sitting in the middle of a concrete expanse designed to take aircraft the size of a Boeing 707, buzzing away happily. There are many things you can do with a suspected bomb, like blowing it up with another charge or just waiting until it decided to blow up of its own will. But a buzzing leather suitcase? It looked so innocent. The experts, after much debate, decided to give it a try and open it, like you or I would. To pick the locks provided easy enough and in no time at all the lid sprung free. Now the buzzing could be heard much more distinctly and the search continued with appropriate care. The owner of the suit must have been a very tidy person, a man judging from the first layer of carefully arranged suits and shirts, and an expert at packing. So, out came the suits and shirts, then the next layer of neatly folded underwear and voila !, underneath it all, in a nice little nest formed of socks and hankies, a small battery razor, the source of the ominous buzz …

The flight concerned departed several hours late, but not before the owner of the razor received a detailed lecture on how he should remove the batteries from his machine the next time he took to the air. There is of course no way the bag would be handled like this to-day. Those were still nice, innocent days …

Your dinner and your knives Sir!

As a result of numerous hijacking accidents, airlines had taken a definite dislike to objects even remotely suitable to menace the crew. So guns, knives, hand grenades and the like are best rented in luggage you intend to check in (making sure they do not start buzzing …) and never in your handbags. If you are unwilling to part with your treasures, the best thing is to confess freely to the check-in agent, who will put your "arms" in a plastic bag, giving you a receipt and you can claim everything back after arrival. It is much better to proceed than to be embarrassed at the security check when the guy with the metal detector extracts your oversized penknife from your pocket … That some less security conscious airlines have managed to make a joke of this, otherwise perfectly sensible , precaution in the past is amply illustrated by the following.

A team of internationally famous cooks were on their way to a big culinary convention and it was only natural that these artists of the kitchen should want to carry their own carving knives with them. As hand luggage to be sure. They were not the confessing type, so it was not until the security check just before boarding that the contents of their elegant handbags were disclosed. Their internationally recognized status had saved the chefs from being summarily dumped from the flight but the gate agent flatly refused to allow them to carry the knives into the passenger cabin. The solution came in the form of a quick inventory of the "weapons" and while other passengers looked on with amazed eyes, all the steel was loaded into a plastic bag, sealed and given to a stew (!) For safekeeping.

Of course, keeping such bags safely locked while in the air and then giving them to the gate agent for distribution to their owners at the point of arrival means added work to already overburdened cabin crews who, safety or no safety, do not exactly cheer over such extra chores. The stews on this particular flights must have been the non-cheering type, for barely having the captain switched off the "fasten seatbelts" sign, when one of the girls walked into the passenger cabin with the bag containing the knives, dumping the lot in the lap of the nearest chef, asking him innocently if he would care to distribute them to their rightful owners. Now the rest of the passengers had a second chance to look on while the bagful of steel slowly passed around the cabin …

A live round and a dummy hand-grenade

A family of four were on the last leg of their fly-and-drive trip around the USA and hey were ready to check in on KLM flight 602 from Los Angeles to Amsterdam. Their luggage was not particularly interesting except for one bag holding a dummy hand-grenade and a dummy 20 mm round from the on-board cannon of an A-10. These items were acquired in a military dump in San Francisco and they were the treasured property of the two boys who consulted on buying them as additions to their collection of military "things".

The boys' dad had no problem with the hand-grenade that clearly missed the trigger mechanism and everything else inside the shell. The 20 mm round was another matter. Although it had the words "Dummy" printed all over it several times, it was an ugly bastard, not all the kind of company he liked. But the rugged individual at the dump store reassured me that it was perfectly safe, a dummy, so there was no reason to deny this small present from the kids. He believed him …

Check in at the KML desk in LAX was done by a really nice blond who was also really Dutch, judging by her accent. She stopped being nice though when dad informed her that they had a bag with some stuff she should know about. He then extracted the dummy hand-grenade and the 20 mm from the bag and put it on her desk. The poor thing went even whiter than she was before and grabbed her telephone asking for a supervisor, adding also a code number …

Next the family had the opportunity to experience how well LAX airport is organized when it came to hand-grenades, dummy or otherwise, on the check-in desk. In less than a minute they were surrounded by four plain-clothes guys who obviously meant business but were also careful not to frighten the other passengers. While three of them held the family in place without anyone really noticing, the third looked at the stuff on the desk … His broad smile was the first sign of the fact that the family may survive this incredible foolish without having to spend time in a Supermax facility. Ha gathered up the offending items, put them back in the bag, told the girl to hold the boarding passes and then led them and the other three officers to a bench near the entrance. He asked dad to tell him their story, made a note of the address of the military dump in San Francisco and finally said that he too had a son who was collecting such things, so he understood. He said that the owner of the dump was in for trouble because the 20 mm round was indeed a dummy as far as the bullet itself was concerned. But the shell was filled with explosives, it could have fired by a simple tap on the business end of it!

He then took the round and walked to one of the X-ray machines. The girl operating the machine almost fainted when she saw the non-uniformed guy approach with a round (and believe me, those 20 mm babies are big and impossible to miss for what they are). Our friend quickly produced a badge that reassured the girl. He placed the round upright into the X-ray machine … by hand of course, having stopped the conveyor belt. The image on the monitor was crystal clear. Underneath the pointed bullet, the color of the picture was unmistakable. This color was reserved by the machine for only one thing: high explosive!

The fact that the family had reported the items at check-in and the perfectly reliable story of the kids wanting these things meant that there were no more problems, they were allowed to proceed to the boarding gate. But the hand-grenade and the 20 mm had to stay of course. Almost mom and dad were relieved and glad as the story could have had a much uglier conclusion, had they bought the 20 mm home. As it was, they did learn an important lesson in how far children's wishes should be accommodated.

But they now also had a unique item in their possession, the "Custody Receipt for Retained or Seized Property" that notes that the US government has retained a dummy hand-grenade and a live 20 mm round, both in "good" condition. ..

This was 6 years before 9/11. To-day the story might be very different …

If you were wondering about the fate of the military dump on Market Street … it is no longer there.

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Source by Steve Zerkowitz