How Secure is the U.S. National Airspace System?

Put differently, what is more dangerous: two sticks of sugarless gum, or a Canadian Cessna 172 rented for personal flying? Evidently, to the authorities we employ to ensure a safe and secure U.S. National Airspace System (NAS), the answer is those two sticks of gum.
Here’s the story…

An image of the human x-ray vault scanner, as found online.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and this pair of air travelers was stuffed from a very nice vacation — a family visit with a week spent in snowy Vermont. We were heading home. Our itinerary had us departing out of Burlington, first on a short flight to JFK to layover almost five hours, then a long flight back to Portland, Oregon. After goodbye hugs and a short walk, we arrived at Security. As we were doing the shoes-off routine, the agent reminded us all to take everything out of our pockets. I thought I had complied, when he steered me into a booth, which I assumed was some sort of full-body x-ray scanner. There, I had to stand in my socks on two yellow marks, and hold my hands over my head — elbows out, hands in, — sort of a variation of the Burning Man pose.

The test results were mixed: I failed miserably, but the machine sure passed. I forgot that I had stuff in the pockets of my flannel shirt, but the machine detected my cellphone in the left breast pocket. The agent kindly handed me a bowl so I could walk my cellphone back to the entrance of the carry-on x-ray tunnel. Then, when I stepped back into the human x-ray vault, he asked if I had anything else in my pockets. I started to answer ‘no’ but felt something in my right pocket; “Oh, yeah, this packet of Trident, though it is nearly empty.” I was a little surprised when, just a little less kindly then the first time, he handed me another bowl and pointed me back toward the entrance of the carry-on x-ray tunnel. The more focused part of my mind was yelling at me to not crack any jokes — just stay quiet and move along. But, the deeper part of my mind was circling over Nashville, stacking the details I knew about what likely will be this year’s biggest aviation security breach (more about that below). Of course, I complied, but we also snapped a cellphone photo of the x-ray bowl, because it just seemed so damned funny that they needed to x-ray two sticks of Trident in a crushed paper package.

This ‘scan-the-gum’ incident happened on 11/29/13, a Friday afternoon in the middle of the busiest air travel week for the whole year. So, what was it that had me thinking about Nashville? Well, that happened just one month earlier, on 10/29/13, and it happened during a very slow travel period (the overnight hours from Tuesday into Wednesday). Basically, a Cessna with four seats was rented in Windsor, Ontario (across the border from Detroit); the pilot then flew it half way across the U.S. and crashed it … AND NOBODY NOTICED!

Well, eventually somebody noticed. The aircraft had not crashed in the middle of nowhere; no, it had crashed right in the middle of the major airport at Nashville, Tennessee, and then exploded and burned, but it was not until hours later that a pilot taxiing on the Nashville Airport made a radio comment to ATC about the burned debris; or, then again, maybe he commented that he saw what looked like a pilot’s body still in the char. By the end of the day, enough information was gathered to conclude that the flight had entered the U.S. near Detroit, passed through multiple sectors of at least three FAA-staffed enroute centers (first Cleveland, then Indianapolis and finally Memphis), then flew to the very center of the Nashville TRACON airspace (adjacent to Runway 2C, very near the control tower) and crashed. In defense of the controller in the Nashville FAA tower, which is open 24/7, it was very foggy that night, so if he/she heard the explosion, there was an excuse to not see the fire. And, maybe in those early morning hours, the controller was able to imagine they heard no explosion. In any event, not one of a dozen or more FAA controllers on duty — all the way from Detroit to Nashville! — detected this intrusion into the U.S. National Airspace System. In past domestic terrorist incidents, U.S. citizens have crashed similar planes in Florida and Texas. Lucky for us, this Canadian Cessna was carrying only a non-terrorist pilot and was nearly out of fuel when it crashed and burned at Nashville.

Aviation Security Implications

Two years ago, we all were shocked to learn that a controller at Cleveland Center working on the overnight shift had been watching a movie DVD on his laptop computer. His shoe had fallen over onto the floor switch activating his ATC transmitter, and for a few minutes his hot microphone transmitted the sound portion of the action movie he was watching. Up late that night, a ham radio operator (and taxpayer) intercepted the hot microphone transmissions and thought it was some sort of ‘radio interference’; he reasoned that this would be an aviation hazard and he was concerned, so he called FAA’s Regional Duty Officer, hoping to help. link to aiR PDF This happened just days after Hank Krakowski, the head of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, had submitted his resignation under pressure from a rash of ‘sleeping controller’ incidents (he was replaced by David Grizzle, who served two years then announced his plans to retire). But the interesting details were behind the scenes, within FAA’s damage-control mission internal investigation. Reports and emails produced controller statements that the viewing of movie DVD’s while working overnight air traffic was a common practice, that management was fully aware of this practice, and that it had been going on for decades. link to aiR PDF Even more, a FOIA request (and subsequent FOIA Appeal records) produced FAA statements indicating no disciplinary actions were ever taken for the Cleveland Center DVD hot mic incident.

That Cleveland Center incident was an eye-opener for the Public, but this latest Nashville incident is even more disturbing. In 2011, FAA’s top officials acted alarmed and created the appearance that they were ‘taking action’ to fix the problem, but what change has really happened? And, just as importantly, how healthy is the Whistleblower culture within FAA? Is it still the case that FAA Whistleblowers can expect retaliation if they feel compelled to speak up? Really, think about it. There are likely thousands of FAA employees who could share a general (or specific) safety concern relevant to the Nashville incident, but what if they all choose to stay quiet? How can we have any kind of REAL safety culture where employees are afraid to speak up, where doing so brands them as a ‘Whistleblower’ and thus makes them a ripe target for unaccountable retaliation, even firing? Ask Richard Wyeroski, Gabe Bruno, Peter Nesbitt, Anne Whiteman — or dozens of others — who were fired or forced out when they spoke up….

The bottom-line is simple: a Cessna flying from Ontario to Nashville, was fully ignored by dozens of FAA controllers, and this recent incident proves we have no functional airspace security. Our obsession with TSA’s installing expensive scanning machines and extensive screening procedures is all for image, but fails to accomplish the real goal of true security. And, until we truly improve the FAA/TSA culture so that Whistleblowers are valued and even rewarded, this failure will only persist.