Same Time, Same Place, Same Level – Chapter

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 kinds 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 X-ray your bags, armored cars lurk behind fuel-browsers and there are soldiers in full battle dress, armed to the teeth, leaning 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 anybody 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.

Though security is a dead serious matter, yet even there the craziest things can happen, even without the good offices of some obscure liberation “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 be 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 hence 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 siege lasted for the better part of an hour, at the end of which one dead, one seriously injured and a thoroughly 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 neither 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 relieve 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 having 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. Thus far it had been a sight seen by him on countless previous occasions. What he could not see was the driver, who had also alighted 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’s safety lever not been left accidentally in the “fire” position. As the weapon got banged against the jeep’s side, it promptly fired a handful of slugs into the ground, no doubt frightening the hell out of its owner, caught 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, though 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 supposed 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 cannot 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, doubtless 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 everybody 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 gently purring engines and the guard, still shaking from head to foot.

By some miracle the plane had missed all the runway Vegan 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 cannot get away from wondering whether I will ever again 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.
Anyway, bags usually end up on a nice little train of carts for eventual transportation to your (or the next guy’s…) plane. Should your suitcase 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, he 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”, normally 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 supposed to ride was being held in the meantime.

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 proved 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 suitcase 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 carefully 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 incidents, 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 carried in luggage you intend to check in (making sure they don’t 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 thus 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 weren’t the confessing type, so it wasn’t until the security check just before boarding that the contents of their elegant handbags were revealed. 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.

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