Aviation Bomb Scare, a True Story
Today’s media headlines are always full of shocking events about violent and hateful events that can make you lose sleep at night. As a pilot whether you are a private pilot or a professional, it is likely you have played all kinds of scenarios through your head. What would I do if the gear won’t go down? What will I do if the engine fails on take off? What will I do if someone does something suspicious on board creating an emergency? These are all things we think about from time to time but hope never happen.
In the late eighties, well before 9/11 changed out viewpoints of terrorism and catastrophe I was taking off for a short flight in a regional airline turboprop. I was the first officer on the flight and was really happy I was building up my multi engine turbine time since I wanted to go to the major airlines. The captain of the flight had significantly more experience than me and was fun to fly with. Shortly after leveling off in cruise flight, the company called us on the number two radio that we monitored.
We were told that we were needed to return to base, no reasons, just return. Now to any pilot on some sort of a schedule this means your day is going to get longer. So I asked why we were to return, the dispatcher hemmed and hawed like he did not want to say why? The captain insisted so I had to coax it out of him. They finally answered with the response of: ” well we had a passenger come to the plane, loaded his bag and then changed his mind and left. The bag is still on the plane and is now suspect”
So of course after a few blank stares of disbelief, we turned the plane around and got that thing on the ground. My first thought was one of surprise. I was surprised how I felt, like “well who would do this to someone?” If it was a bomb, which is what our dispatcher was trying hard NOT to say, then what are we supposed to do about that? This is probably the one scenario I never took the time to think through. It was not common to blow up airplanes yet and the thought never really entered my mind. I remember being calm but being in a hurry. Where do we go after landing? What do we do with our passengers?
Shortly after landing we were told to park in a remote spot on the airport and we unloaded all of our passengers as quickly as possible. I remember the fire department being there and all of the fireman had these silver fire suits on, it was 103 degrees on the ramp. Slowly they took every single piece of luggage off the plane and gently put it on the ground for the bomb dog to sniff. This took quite a while as we watched from the distance until every last piece of luggage was inspected. Next was a thorough inspection of the plane to make sure that nothing was tampered with or hidden. This took hours and I felt sorry for the fire department.
Soon everything was labeled good to go and we were asked to get back in that same plane and resume the operation. All the passengers left, but the crew still had to go. Now came the second part of my learning to think through situations. Do I go? Do I refuse? Is it really safe? Did everyone do their job well enough to ensure my safety?
Nonetheless I did not have anything in my experiences to make me question anything so we left and went flying again. In today’s world (as of 2017) these kind of events have happened enough that we have actual procedures to work with. Our cognitive learning abilities also caused airlines to start briefing their crews on hot spots in terrorism and things that new groups are doing or attempting so that flight crews can be better prepared. These are all things that can be hard to think about in flying today, but it is something we do have to address. Chances are good that some sort of procedure ten years from now will be developed because someone or some group did something suspect today. It is us up to us as pilots and flight attendants to constantly train ourselves for the worst case situation.
Ken Schulte is a professional pilot for a major airline. If you are interested in hearing more aviation stories, you can visit his podcast called Sky Talk Radio