Eavesdropping in Aberdeen: A look at DHS/Army Explosives Work

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Aviation Week got a glimpse into the normally secretive explosive work carried out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the Army’s Aberdeen Test Center in Northern Maryland.

Using a private aircraft flying at 2,700 ft. altitude in public airspace to the west of the restricted airspace over the Phillips Air Base and a 200 mm telephoto lens, we took pictures of aircraft assembled at the southern end of the airport. The fuselages are there for a DHS program to study locations or designs that will yield the least damage if a bomb found onboard an aircraft detonates. DHS confirms that it is conducting the least risk bomb location (LRBL) testing at Aberdeen as part of an interagency agreement with the Army but cannot say more for the obvious reasons – security.

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

Along with a fully assembled DC-9, there are six full fuselages in place at the southern end of the airfield, including a US Airways 737, a Bombardier CRJ, two Embraer ERJs, a DC-9-type fuselage, possible a Boeing 717, and one other single-aisle aircraft, likely a 737. The airframes do not show obvious signs of blast damage. 

Here's the same scene from a different angle, showing more of the fuselage I believe to be a 717 (on the left).

 
At least one of the Embraers is likely linked to a 2012 Army request to buy an Embraer ERJ145 “solely for destructive purposes”. In the public documents at the time, the Army noted that “distinctive paint schemes or logos” on the exterior of the aircraft would have to be removed before testing “to eliminate any public recognition that the aircraft was previously owned or operated”.

The Army contract announcements reveal that an LRBL test is on tap for a pressurized McDonnell Douglas DC-9 “or equivalent” fuselage as part of a program called Army and DHS Scenario-Based Security/Threat and Mitigation Assessment of commercial aircraft LRBL. An August 2012 contract award to Boeing, “the sole manufacturer of the DC-9 aircraft being tested”, calls for the airframer to provide technical support during the planning, execution and post-test analysis of two “live-fire” LRBL explosive tests at Aberdeen through August 2013. In 2006, the Army requested to have two 737 and two “Airbus” aircraft sections delivered to Aberdeen for reasons not stated publicly in the documents.

Many other tests appear to be on the agenda at Aberdeen, based on the number of fuselages already in Range 3 and solicitations for additional aircraft.

On May 23, the U.S. Army issued requests for “pressurizable” full aircraft fuselages for a Boeing 737-800, Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 for DHS testing. 

Evidence of completed destructive testing at the airport is obvious in the form of several sections of a widebody aircraft located near the six fuselages, and at a mid-field test area, an A300 in China Airlines livery with its right side structure missing ahead of the wing root. The A300 has several smaller holes in the rear right side of the aircraft ahead of the aft door.

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