Tactics for flight departments to keep trouble safely at bay

 - October 8, 2007, 9:23 AM

The focus for flight departments since September 11 has tended to be on corporate aircraft as potential weapons, because that is what has most concerned the security fraternity in government. But is the corporate aircraft more vulnerable as a target itself?

A business jet is no less a symbol of Western global economic influence than were the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and as such it makes an appealing target for anyone acting on a grudge against the imbalance of worldly wealth. This should be of grave concern to any operator that takes its airplanes overseas.

But the threat should also glow clearly on the home-base radar of any operator that symbolizes what is hated about the U.S.–big-name multinationals whose products help define the global American culture of Coke, Terminator, Big Mac, Windows and Built Ford Tough. To those who hate us, these icons represent Western capitalist evil, and the company airplane is the flying throne of those who foist such secular vehicles of degeneration on the mortal world.

The government’s concerns about business aviation’s vulnerabilities have forced operators to take a close look at just how impregnable they thought they were–if they had thought much about it at all before the wakeup call in the waning days of last summer. “The weakest link in any operation is an attitude that it can’t happen to me and it can’t happen to business aviation,” according to Ed Williams, v-p of general aviation services for Global Aerospace/AAU, who (along with Dick Kimm of Universal Weather & Aviation and consultant Creighton “Pen” Pendarvis) organized a series of free security briefings earlier this year for flight departments, FBOs and other interested parties.

Since the U.S. military is regarded as essentially impregnable (USS Cole and barracks bombings notwithstanding), those who would do us harm resort to guerrilla tactics, “just like colonials picking off British redcoats and the Vietcong sniping at U.S. soldiers in Vietnam,” noted Kimm. “Every morning, you must say to yourself as you wake up, ‘I am a target.’ This is a clash of civilizations. Islam is exploding demographically, while Western civilization is declining demographically. Osama bin Laden has inspired a whole generation to hate the West and see Americans as weak because they love life. Our secular influence is everywhere, and it threatens the world as they know it. Islamic terrorists are particularly dangerous because they are eager to die.” (The term terrorist, added Williams, can be applied in this context not only to zealots and activists but also to unstable individuals and disgruntled employees.)

Kimm concluded his thoughts on a more encouraging timbre by noting “the U.S. is wonderful at bungling along, but it is equally wonderful at responding to a threat.”

Business aviation is responding by recognizing that the secondary airports it uses for convenience are less secure even than the major airports were on September 11. “The weakest link,” said consultant Pen Pendarvis as he surveyed the people in the room, “is the attitude of arrogance and pomposity in cockpits occupied by the likes of us. We can no longer afford the arrogance of denial. While we cannot control the threat, we can control our exposure to that threat and thereby reduce our risk. But when a threat is ever-present, we get complacent and let our guard down–an attitude of ‘if they’re going to get me, they’re going to get me.’”

There are anecdotes in the security fraternity that illustrate the pre-September 11 vulnerabilities of business aviation. In 1998 a software company’s Learjet 35 was stolen from an airport in Florida for use on a drug run. The boss had given the pilots the keys to a golf-course condo for three days, and the airplane had been parked unattended–but not unobserved by law enforcement at some stage. The drug runners had placed chalk marks on the ramp to be sure they returned the airplane to the exact same spot, and when the legit crew started the engines for the return flight, the FBI, ATF and DEA surrounded the airplane. They had a lot of questions, and the flight department was later shut down.

The focus on terrorism has also moved the spotlight off the vulnerability of business aviation to industrial espionage/sabotage. Pendarvis related the tale of a Gulfstream taxiing out at White Plains for departure to France, where the executives on board were planning to sign an important contract. The jet’s tires went flat before it ever reached HPN’s runway, and the passengers hopped into a limo to catch a flight from JFK–which they missed, costing them the contract. The verdict was that dark forces had tampered with the tires.

“Threat exposure is lowered by knowledge,” noted Pendarvis. “You can avoid it entirely by canceling the trip, or you can take calculated risks after establishing several perimeters of defense. Or you can accept a threat and build a wall around it, thus isolating it.

“Business is a calculated risk. A U.S. corporation flies a 727 to Syria once a month with U.S. State Department and Syrian government approval. The Syrian army protects them, and the APU runs continuously while they are on the ground there; they always carry many spare parts and two mechanics are on board.”

The message was that, regardless of the threat, business can go on, even if it might not quite resemble business as usual. Once flight departments embrace a regimen of heightened vigilance, alertness and threat-consciousness, the new way can soon, and relatively painlessly, become business as usual.