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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ground Security

It was in October, about nine years ago. Mike and I had just landed after a routine night patrol. As I was completing my post-flight inspection and he was returning the nozzle to the fuel pump, I saw a car stop on the road off the end of the runway. This wasn’t unusual, since people frequently stopped whenever they saw us outside, probably to see if we were going to takeoff. But that’s where the norm ended that night.

As Mike and I were grabbing our gear out of the aircraft, we heard five pops coming from the direction of the stopped car, immediately followed by five whiffing sounds near our heads. Those were sounds I remembered from my second week out of the police academy over two decades earlier. They were gunshots coming from the car 400 yards away, and bullets passing close enough for us to hear! As Mike took cover and I turned off the apron lights to cloak us in darkness, the car sped off.

After a very thorough check, we didn’t find any holes in the aircraft, the hangar, the fuel farm, or ourselves. Evidence technicians, however, collected spent bullet casings from the spot where we saw the car.

A few days later, at almost the same time, someone fired shots at fellow aviators, Bo and Brian. This time, the shots came from the opposite direction. Again, no injuries, damage or suspects.

For the next few nights, our takeoffs, landings and refueling were covered by a squad of ghillie-suited, NVG-equipped counter-snipers hidden around the airport. It increased our comfort level, but when it came to catching anyone, no joy.

The two incidents raised an important question that went beyond the usual risk of ambush that all officers face: How do we also protect aircraft that, by the nature of their mission, have to sit outside when on duty? It was bad enough that we couldn’t see the flight line from inside the facility, but truth be known, even if we could see it, the aircraft wouldn’t be any safer from a sniper. After all, by the time we could hear a shot and get outside to investigate—carefully, I might add—the damage might already be done. And I never liked the idea that we wouldn’t hear anything if we were on the pad in a running helicopter.

Although it had nothing to do with our two sniper incidents, we moved to a different airport about a month later. But that really didn’t change anything. The area was only slightly less remote than the old place, and our apron was still out of our view when we were inside, and vulnerable to a hidden gunman.

Paranoid? Yeah, I was—but not the paralyzing kind. Just the kind that makes you wonder if there’s anything that can be done to make the environment safer for the crew and the machines. And it wasn’t just about bullets, either. Being based at a small, general aviation airport with no separation from anyone else sometimes resulted in folks strolling over to look at our aircraft, and innocently molesting our equipment. Heck, I came out one day to find a kid spinning our FLIR ball around! (When the paramedics got me off the ground, I walked the youngster back to his preoccupied parent.)

My friends who fly out of the Trooper 2 hangar of the Maryland State Police have it made. With their hangar located on the airfield of Joint Base Andrews (formerly Andrews Air Force Base), its proximity to the Air Force One hangar arguably makes it the most secure law enforcement airbase in the world. Base security personnel won’t let you bring your dreams past the main gate of that place!

Unfortunately, most of the other police and sheriff bases I’ve visited are located in places that leave their on-call aircraft vulnerable to malicious attack or non-malicious (but equally damaging) tampering. And while the personnel who staff those units do the best they can to monitor the safety or their helicopters, is there cause to do more? If so, what else can be done?

Keeping an aircraft behind closed hangar doors isn’t an option for many agencies, simply because it takes far too long to get them out for an emergency launch. So, we’ll scratch that option off the top. Many aviation units have installed lights with motion detectors. They make the aircraft a little harder for people to see from a distance when the lights are off, and hopefully alerts unit members if someone approaches the flight line. And while they’re at it, those departments sometimes install surveillance cameras that will allow them to keep an eye on their ships from inside of their quarters. I’ve even seen some outfits install windows so that personnel can better see the apron.

Whatever method a unit uses, I think a major component of any aircraft security system is a pre-launch walk-around. Personally, I rarely get into anyone’s aircraft—police, military, private or commercial—until I’ve given it a quick, walk-around check for bullet holes, open panels and rags, even though it isn’t always my responsibility to do so. That check won’t find every possible problem, but it gives me a better chance of finding an issue than not looking at all.

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