Pilots not surprised by airport security breaches

Flight experts believe hijackers brought own aviators aboard

Terrorism Strikes America

Transportation

September 12, 2001|By Marcia Myers and Scott Shane | Marcia Myers and Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Commercial pilots who crisscross the country daily in jetliners like those used in yesterday's attacks say the terrorists probably included trained pilots, took advantage of lax airport security and carefully chose the flights they hijacked.

The pilots and aviation safety experts expressed little surprise that the security systems of at least three airports were penetrated. "Airport security has been good enough to deter amateurs, but it would be unlikely to stop a group of well-trained, determined terrorists," said America West pilot Donald W. Steinman.

To tighten airport security, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta ordered immediate new measures last night, including closer surveillance, more stringent searches, random ID checks and the elimination of curbside baggage check-in.

That might be only the beginning. Americans can be certain that air travel will change radically, costing them dearly in convenience and dollars, experts said yesterday.

"We'll have to demand that we go from security in name only to real security," Steinman said. "I'm steeling myself for what will be a huge change to come, not only in my profession, but in our society as a whole."

Travelers who once might have protested the delay and hassle of tighter security might now welcome it, air travel observers said. "All of a sudden now, this is not only something we see on TV in some foreign land," said Charlie LeBlanc, managing director of Air Security International, a Houston-based safety consulting firm.

Few were better positioned than Continental Airlines pilot Steve Littleton to understand how unprepared the nation's air traffic system was to react quickly yesterday as the assaults were unfolding.

Littleton had just pulled his 737 onto the runway at Newark International Airport for a flight to Los Angeles yesterday when he and the rest of the crew saw smoke billowing from the World Trade Center across the Hudson River. He advised the passengers they could see the "huge fire" from aircraft windows, and they watched the blaze for about 10 minutes.

Then air traffic controllers cleared the jet and Littleton took off just before 9 a.m. - still having no idea that the disaster had been caused by hijacked airliners. His flight was over Cincinnati before a controller told him "we've lost planes off radar" and directed him to land.

"Obviously Newark tower had no idea what caused the fire," Littleton said yesterday from Louisville, Ky., where his flight was diverted. "Otherwise they would never have let us take off."

Only after landing in Louisville did Littleton learn that another Newark-Los Angeles flight that had departed seven minutes before his had been hijacked before crashing outside Pittsburgh.

The sophistication of the attack left some specialists doubting whether any security efforts can foil a determined terrorist. "If you want to spend enough time and you're that sick, it's not difficult to circumvent a system," said Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University.

LeBlanc, of Air Security International, said the attack must have been planned over months. "I'm sure there were even some dry runs done for them to be so coordinated with their times," he said.

He also agreed with pilots and other aviation experts that two or more terrorists likely were on each flight, at least one of whom knew how to fly a plane.

"Even if a pilot had a gun to the back of his head, he would swerve at the last moment to avoid the building," said Lamont Shadowens of San Francisco, vice president of the Retired Airline Pilots Association, who flew commercial airliners for 30 years.

To fly the airliners off course and into particular buildings would require at least some training and experience.

"Even as big as the World Trade Center is, you've got to put the plane in position to hit it," said Littleton, the Continental Airlines pilot. "You have to control your power. You have to control your speed. You have to control your rate of turn. If you turn too slowly, you miss the building. If you turn too fast, you roll the plane.

"These guys knew how to fly airplanes - there's no question in my mind," Littleton said.

Pilots offered three possible reasons why terrorists targeted those particular flights:

They were domestic flights, for which security is not as tight as on international flights.

Their coast-to-coast routes ensured that they would be carrying a large quantity of jet fuel that would explode on impact, increasing the damage.

They were newer models that are flown by just two pilots, not three, making it easier to overcome the crew.

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