Don’t cut corners when hiring a team to keep your aircraft and passengers safe overseas.
By J Peter Berendsen
My first flight to LOS (Lagos, Nigeria) in the early 90s was a memorable experience. It was not just the impressive view of the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) at night with almost continuous lightning strikes stretching all the way across the horizon as we flew south over the West African Sahara Desert and the Sahel zone, or the fact that a federal agent had come to the flight deck a little earlier with blood on his hands and wounds on his face to report that the situation was under control.
But we didn’t know there had been a situation, where a violent deportee who was being escorted by 2 agents on the flight used the fork served with his lunch to attack the guards. What really surprised me was the security deemed necessary to escort the crew from airport to hotel.
After circumnavigating huge cumulonimbus and weathering tropical heavy rain, we had landed at LOS. Our crew bus to the hotel was escorted by a military armed jeep in front of us, armed guards with automatic weapons inside the bus, and another military jeep behind us as we drove at high speed through Lagos enroute to our hotel.
In the hotel itself, there were armed guards on the grounds and in the lobby. Even on the corridor where our rooms were located, an additional armed guard was watching over us throughout the night.
Is bizjet security really necessary?
While this first experience long ago was certainly memorable for its high-threat civil environment, our world has not really become more secure or safe in recent years, so security is a worthwhile subject to consider as you operate your business jet overseas.
As we think about security for business aviation and private jets, we have to look at 3 different areas. First is basic security regarding external criminal and terrorist threats for the airfield and the airplane. This has been in place since the Cuban and Palestinian hijackings in the 1970s, and was beefed up significantly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Among other things, it involves screening of passengers and crews, screening of cargo, and airport access control. Many general aviation (GA) airports and FBOs in the US are following protocols similar to those of their airline hub counterparts, usually entailing some type of access control to the airfield.
Looking overseas, security may even be a little bit tighter than in the US, depending on the country that you fly to. In most other countries, GA (including business jet operations) is treated no differently than airlines as far as aviation security is concerned.
All the rules that would apply to an airline passenger or airline crew also apply to passengers, crews, and aircraft in the business aviation sector. This approach has the advantage that business aircraft always remain in a secure environment while parked, and enjoy the same security benefits as the other airliners parked on the tarmac.
Keep in mind that the smaller the airport and the more remote and exotic the country you fly to, the more likely it is that the security offered at these destinations may not be sufficient for the needs of your operation or your clients.
Your flight planning company or international service provider (ISP) will get you in touch with a specialized company such as Global Elite Group in Garden City NY, or similar outfits that make it their business to always have up-to-date worldwide security risk assessments available.
Summarizing, the purpose of TSA-type security is to prevent hijacking of aircraft and/or the planting of explosive devices on the aircraft. It protects the airplane and the population on the ground from passengers with bad intentions.
The second area of concern is protecting business aviation passengers from threats against their own or their family’s lives and health. VIP passengers usually need security protection as they move around in public areas, hotels, limousines, or events.
For businesspersons, traveling with high-level executives is normal, and most likely, so is hiring a chauffeur company to be driven around town safely. These scenarios call for added security measures, which may often be provided by the chauffeur company itself, or by hired security forces.
Often, they have contracted private security services already, and these protective agents can also be part of the escort to the aircraft. However, if these agents are not government officers, they usually fall under the same rules as passengers as they board.
The rules regarding armed guards can become quite complex when you fly to a foreign country, so these private bodyguards – if armed – would have to hand over their weapons and check them in on international flights. They must also keep the ammunition separate.
Consequently, if the escorts are not government agents but private security guards, it may be impossible, or require a lot of paperwork, to secure permission to carry arms. Hiring a local security company as part of your preflight planning is a great option.
They could meet the security needs of your passengers upon arrival, and during the time spent on the ground at the destination until departure. That same local security company may also offer better protection for your parked aircraft if they have local airport badges.
Usually, local security companies in foreign countries are well connected to the government and will do a good job, since they have many options and possibilities in the gray area between government and private security. However, internal feuds in a country may have to be considered, depending on the host of your passengers. Make sure your guards are on the right side of things!
Trust your experts
The key to finding a trusted security company is good advice by a US or European expert. Air Charter Advisors of the UK and GlobeAir, located in Austria, are 2 companies that should be able to get you in touch with the right local security services.
Be sure to ask about the geographic area that they specialize in. GlobeAir, for example, is probably well versed in Eastern Europe, while other companies may have excellent connections to Africa, the Middle East, or Asia. On the technical side of things, add a further layer of security by making sure your aircraft is always monitored for illicit activity while parked on the ground.
Consider installing a security surveillance system that monitors the surroundings of the aircraft, doors, hatches, landing gear, and other access points to the airplane. Securaplane/Meggitt of Oro Valley AZ offers the PreFlite System, which incorporates purpose-designed camera units that interface to PreFlite and provide a video record of any intrusion via a digital video recorder.
A radar scanner is one option to protect aircraft wheel wells. Mat switches may be installed under floor coverings to secure the aircraft interior by detecting footsteps. And to provide electricity to the system at all times, an auxiliary battery pack increases system run time while your aircraft is parked with all power off.
However, when returning to the aircraft and preparing for the next flight, always make sure you perform a complete search of the aircraft as part of the checks before boarding any passengers. You might be surprised at the things you find. Luxaviation from Luxembourg, one of the premier high-end aircraft management companies in Europe, now offers a state-of-the-art business aircraft terminal at ExecuJet LOS.
At almost 50,000 sq ft, their hangar is capable of accommodating an aircraft as large as a Boeing BBJ. Not only do they provide amenities and highly-trained professional staff – they also know how to arrange local security services, offering peace of mind to corporations, high-net-worth individuals, heads of state, and royalty.
Protecting airborne aircraft
The third area of business jet security is protection of the aircraft from threats emanating from ground-based threats, such as shoulder-fired missiles. While there have been no recent incidents, the US Department of State estimates that more than 1 million man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) missiles have been manufactured worldwide.
MANPADS use infrared (IR) to home in on an aircraft’s heat source, optical guidance to acquire a target aircraft visually using a magnified optical sight, or laser beams aimed by the shooter, along which the missile flies to strike the aircraft.
The US believes that thousands of MANPADS are in the hands of terrorist and criminal organizations. While there have been many shootdowns of civil aircraft using shoulder-fired missiles, here are some noteworthy cases as reported by the US Department of State:
• April 6, 1994. A Dassault Falcon 50 executive jet carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and its French flightcrew was shot down over Kigali, killing all aboard and sparking massive ethnic violence and regional conflict.
• October 10, 1998. A Boeing 727 operated by Lignes Aériennes Congolaises airliner was downed over the jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo by Tutsi militia, killing 41.
• November 28, 2002: Terrorists fired 2 MANPADS at an Arkia Airlines Boeing 757 with 271 passengers and crew as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. Both missiles missed.
• November 22, 2003. A DHL Airbus A300 cargo jet was struck and damaged by a MANPADS in Iraq. Although hit in the left fuel tank, the plane was able to return to the Baghdad airport and land safely.
While countering the proliferation of MANPADS is a top US national security priority, the best policy for individual business jet operators is to avoid critical airspace altogether. But this is not always possible, as the 2003 DHL A300 incident illustrates.
Thermal decoys and aluminum chaff have been available for military aircraft for many years. A newer self-defense system called Directional Infrared Countermeasure (DIRCM), widely used by the military in transport-category aircraft, works by firing beams of IR light in the direction of incoming missiles.
This system has also been installed in civil aircraft used by heads of state. FedEx announced recently that it has requested permission from FAA to install DIRCM systems on some of its freighters. If granted, this could lead to such systems becoming available for use on larger business jets as well.
Since they operate fully automatically, with no pilot input required, they may even become standard on larger business jets operating internationally.
Choose a trustworthy ISP
Bizjet operators flying overseas should never forget that the key to security is trust, and this can only be achieved by working with trustworthy people.
That means the entire hiring process of people who work around and on your aircraft must be geared toward building and maintaining a team to whom you and your guests can entrust your lives in good faith. The security service providers who take care of your needs must be selected for their trustworthiness and professionalism as well. To establish trust usually requires a long-term commitment and relationship.
Security is an area where pure cost effectiveness or buying the cheapest may not get you what you really want – returning home safe.