80 Years of Avsec: from Arequipa to Domodedovo

 21st February 2011 marks the 80th anniversary of the first recorded hijacking and the birth of aviation security. On the same day in 1931, in Peru, Captain Byron Rickards flew his Ford Tri-Motor aircraft from Lima to Arequipa only to be greeted on landing by armed revolutionaries wanting the aircraft to distribute propaganda leaflets over the region. Rickards refused to fly anywhere, was held captive for 10 days and was only released when he agreed to fly one of the revolutionaries back to Lima. Rickards also had the misfortune to be the first Captain to be hijacked twice – on 3 August 1961, a father and son team entered the cockpit of his Continental Airlines flight preparing to depart from El Paso and demanded to be taken to Cuba. The FBI shot out the aircraft’s tyres and the hijackers surrendered.

Rickards experiences were on the ground, but many incidents were aerial.  The desire to divert aircraft to Cuba became an increasingly common occurrence in the 1960’s, a decade in which the world recorded 364 hijackings. And, by 1968, the Arab-Israeli conflict was making the headlines around the globe as Palestinian groups, in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, realised the potential for statehood was becoming an increasingly distant dream and took their cause to the skies over Europe. The Checkpoint of the Past was born…

Archway metal detectors and cabin baggage X-ray became de rigueur and played their role in dramatically reducing the number of acts of aerial piracy. Many argue that the success of the passenger screening process, and the number of hijackers who died in the course of their acts, resulted in the move towards bombing in the 1980s. In respect of international terrorist organisations, this may be true. Yet the reality is there had been a steady decline in the number of bombs successfully placed on aircraft (c. 29 in the 1970s, 18 in the 1980s, 3 in the 1990s and 3 this century).

Suicide bombing was not some new phenomenon born on 11th September 2001. The first ever act of aerial sabotage, perpetrated against an Imperial Airways flight over Dixmunde in Belgium on 28 March 1933, may have been an act of suicide by Dr. Albert Voss, a passenger on board who was being investigated by the Police. But, on 25 July 1957, Saul Binstock, did commit suicide on board a Western Air Lines flight that had just departed Las Vegas, using four sticks of dynamite that he bought to supposedly demolish a mountain cabin he owned.   A few hours before the accident Binstock had purchased two flight insurance policies totalling $125,000, naming his wife as beneficiary. There were a spate of suicide-for-insurance acts perpetrated against the industry, and an even longer list of bombing-for-insurance acts, where criminals wished to benefit from the deaths of their heavily insured loved ones they had sent on trips, starting on 9 September 1949 when a Quebec Airways flight was destroyed by J. Albert Guay who had insured his wife for $10,000. More recently, on 7 May 2002, Zhang Pilin is believed to have caused the destruction of a China Northern flight as it approached Dalian’s Zhoushuizi Airport, by setting fire to the cabin with petrol; Pilin was a cancer patient who had taken out insurance policies worth $170,000 just before boarding the flight.

Such deadly incidents have little global impact, unless a link with terrorism is established. Actually, even the first suicidal terrorist attack on board an aircraft escaped media attention, primarily as it occurred on a domestic route in Panama on 19 July 1994. Jamal Lya is thought to have detonated a bomb on board the Alas Chiricanas aircraft which was carrying a group of Jewish businessmen. MORE ONLINE