It was a pilot's worst nightmare: Over one of the densest jungles in the world on a ferry from Florida to South Africa, Geoff Tyler had to shut down the single engine of the Piper Arrow III he was flying and make an emergency landing.
An electrical glitch had triggered a pump that shot additional fuel into the cylinders of the PA-28R's Lycoming IO-360 engine for cold-weather starting - a cruel irony in the tropics - and Tyler feared for an engine fire. Miraculously, he saw a road on the Angolan border and glided the Arrow toward it. He touched down uneventfully, rolled out and stopped. Suddenly, hundreds of armed soldiers came charging out the bush, surrounding the airplane.
It was February 1981, and Angola was enmeshed in civil war. The Angolan Marxist Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), abetted by Russian and Cuban troops sent to support and train them, had set up an ambush on the road to trap its enemy, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), backed by the U.S. and South Africa - and Tyler had had the unfortunate luck of landing right in the middle of the fire zone. He was immediately seized.
“I had all the required paperwork, all legal in the U.S.,” he recalled recently, “but here I was, a U.S. citizen headed to South Africa in a U.S.-registered aircraft.”
The event began an ordeal for the then 30-year-old pilot that was to last the better part of two years. After being flown to a succession of villages aboard Russian-operated An-2 biplanes and a Yak 50 trijet, Tyler wound up in Luanda, the Angolan capital, where he was interrogated for six weeks by Russians, Cubans and MPLA members. “It seems the Russians had somehow obtained my military records - my last assignment had been in Tehran, and I was still a reserve Army officer - and they thought I might be a spy. So they felt they had a suspicious guy who was caught delivering an airplane to their enemy.”
Following the interrogations, Tyler was thrown into a POW camp and locked up in solitary confinement. “Altogether, I spent 22 months in captivity. I was never tried, and they let it be known to me that I would be executed. For about six months no one knew I was alive until my captors announced I was going to be tried for espionage. At the time, the U.S. did not recognize Angola, so there was no embassy - an important factor when considering any flights into dangerous places.”
Tyler was eventually freed in a swap engineered by the International Red Cross for more than 100 POWs held by the UNITA. “The exchange took place in Zambia,” he said. “My military escape and evasion training enabled me to survive the imprisonment.”
After he was repatriated, Tyler returned to his employer, Globe Aero, to fly ferries, then moved to the regional airlines for a few years before signing on with American Air Services, which eventually became charter/management provider Executive Jet Management. At EJM he's served as chief pilot and safety manager, and for the past 15 years as lead pilot overseeing a management contract and captaining a Falcon 2000.
Into Harm’s Way
While extreme, Tyler's experience serves either as an object lesson or a worst-case scenario for what can happen when operating aircraft over or into places where there's political upheaval or heavy military or criminal activity. And while business aviation operators might chaff at the suggestion of flying their executives and employees to dangerous destinations like Baghdad, Kabul, Lagos or Lahore, the practice is becoming more common. As Tyler puts it, “If there's money to be made, business will go there. . . .”
Most business aviation involves “flying from Point A to Point B efficiently and safely,” Tyler continued. “When you go to a dangerous place, you add another level. Then we have to take something that is dangerous and turn it into something that is safe.”
When Tyler was flying across Africa 28 years ago, reliable intelligence sources were limited. “Now you have the Internet, security agencies and the NBAA to assist you in doing that, and you really want to avail yourself of these sources of information. Don't ever go into a country cold - know everything possible just like you would with weather and approaches.”
More than any other category of international operations, planning a flight into a global hotspot is an exercise in risk management and decision making of the most important stripe: whether to go or not. Implicit in the latter is the confidence to convince a boss determined to go that venturing into a den of vipers, no matter how important the business case, might not be a good idea.
Part 1 of this report examines the process of gathering necessary information to plan a flight into harm's way and reach that point of decision in an intelligent and informed manner, based on the perspectives and experiences of aviation security experts and pilots from business aviation, government contractors and non-government organizations (NGOs). Due to security concerns and the political sensitivity of their operations, several of these aviators and their employers or organizations must remain anonymous. Part 2 in next month's issue will address operational issues.
Preparation for a mission to a hotspot, Tyler advised operators, requires significantly more planning and research than the typical international operations jaunt to Europe or the Orient. “AOL listed the 10 most-dangerous cities in Mexico just the other day. At EJM, we designate some cities in Mexico that we can fly into but have to move the airplane somewhere else overnight, perhaps another Mexican city that is safer or an airport over the border in the U.S. like Brown Field in San Diego. The problem is that the situation changes, so you have to stay on top of it very carefully. And that's just this hemisphere. If you're going to the Middle East or Africa, you have a whole nest of problems.”
So just like a commander planning a military operation, step one is collecting every bit of information that you can on the situation on the ground at your destination - your “intel” as it were. “I used to do this with the Secret Service,” recalled John Sullivan, “but we had all the assets we needed - and we were required to do it. I also handled it in corporate America.” Today, Sullivan, a former Secret Service agent and security director at Texas Instruments, is managing partner of the Welsh-Sullivan Group, a security consultancy specializing in aviation issues.
There are some corporate CEOs who have no acceptance of security, Sullivan observed. “Security is inherently inconvenient and restrictive, and many CEOs or high net-worth individuals do not want to be inconvenienced or restricted. So you have to have the guts to give the boss your best recommendation for not going. If he insists on going, then you have to go, but it's your job to present all the risks. With that said, if you are responsible for security, 80% of the successful trip is the advance planning.”
First, Sullivan recommended, “you have to have a good relationship with whoever is making the schedule, either the flight department dispatcher or the boss's secretary, since you don't want to be informed Monday that you're going Tuesday.
The second part of that is that everyone has to be on the same page. You have to have this open communication with all the people who need to know.”
Where to Get Your ’Intel’
Next, you need reliable sources of information in order to assess what you'll be up against. Sullivan's first stop is the's Overseas Security Advisory Council, or OSAC. “Most companies flying internationally belong to it,” he said. “You call them up, and they will transfer you to the analyst for the region you're going to, who will give you an up-to-date written assessment of what's going on there. They will also give you the name and phone of the regional security officer - the RSO, the State Department's law enforcement official - who will be your contact on the ground there.”
Sullivan then recommends obtaining a second assessment from a private-sector intelligence provider, such as Stratfor Global Intelligence or FrontierMEDEX (formerly Air Security International), for comparison with the OSAC report. “What you want is called a 'country and city assessment,' and you want to get it as close to the departure date as you can but with enough time to analyze it and still get updates. When I was a corporate security officer, I also belonged to the International Security Management Association [ISMA], which is composed of security directors at Fortune 500 companies, and would tell them where I was going to get advice on hotels, secure ground transportation and so forth.”
For NBAA members, the international feedback page on the organization's website (www.nbaa.org) serves as a useful resource for advice from operators with direct experience in the region or country where the operator is headed. Additionally, the NBAA's annual International Operators Conference, under way this month in San Diego, is an excellent venue for networking with other operators engaged in overseas flying, and contacts made there can be exploited later on when planning flights to unfamiliar locations.
“I have what I call the 'three phone call rule,'” Sullivan said. “If I can't get what I need in three phone calls, then I shouldn't be going. You may not necessarily be headed to a war zone but a country or region like Pakistan, Turkey or Africa where there's activity on the ground like crime or terrorism. This process works with all the scenarios. You can just as easily wind up with a roving band of criminals as you can with a terrorist group or a private militia or a mob. Nigeria, with all the riots there, is a perfect example. So with that scenario - anywhere where it could go to hell in a handbag quickly - you should have a security officer or a contractor who knows where you're going.”
Obviously, if you fly for a company large enough to have an internal security department, a direct liaison should be established between the flight and security departments, as Sullivan arranged at Texas Instruments. The security department, which will have its own intelligence sources, can handle a lot of work from the flight department by obtaining and coordinating the country and city assessments, allowing cockpit crews to concentrate on the minutiae of actual flight planning. Also, its professionals, often with law-enforcement experience, can offer a perspective on details that the aviation manager may have overlooked. Further, the security director can assist the flight department manager in determining whether it is reasonably safe to fly the trip in the first place.
Once the trip is under way, communication with the home office is important. Another detail that often “falls through the cracks,” Sullivan reminded readers, is arranging a direct contact at the destination from whom the flight department manager can receive updates (and relate further intelligence if the situation changes), especially if he or she is not accompanying the trip. This can be a member of the crew or a security officer traveling with the aircraft. “That person will be your primary contact on the ground,” Sullivan said. “And they should have a 'get-out-of-Dodge' plan if the situation goes to hell.” (More on exit plans later.)
According to Charlie LeBlanc, president, security services, at FrontierMEDEX in Houston, before you make an assessment of the security situation where you're going, you first have to define the threat. Using a 1-to-5 rating system, where 5 represents the most hazardous, LeBlanc cited the following Category 5 cities (as of January 2012): Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt, Nigeria; Baghdad and Basra, Iraq; Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan; Kabul; Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; Sana'a, Yemen; and Tripoli, Libya.
“Looking at this list,” he said, “they're all dangerous places, but in terms of the threats you have to account for, you have to ask what makes them dangerous. You can split them up into categories: either threats of crime, political unrest or extremism.”
So preparation starts with defining the threats you're going to be up against at the destination. “If it is a situation driven by high crime in the city, but the airport is OK, leaving the asset [i.e., the airplane] there is not so much a concern as taking care of your people in the city,” LeBlanc pointed out. “When you're flying to these cities, preparation becomes the key to properly protecting people and assets. There are multiple components here: the airplane, crew, passengers and what I call 'reputational assets,' or the reputation of the company. All of these could be under attack, but having good intel can put you in a position to counter them.”
Use a Handling Service
And of course, contract with a handling service to support flight planning and arrange visas and permits, airport servicing, hotel reservations, ground transportation, liaison with local authorities and serve as yet another resource on the ground at the destination.
“If a business aviation operator is going to plan a flight into a potentially hazardous area, the first thing is to get a good handling agent - do not go until you have that arranged so you have someone meet you there who knows the territory,” advised Dan Manningham.
Long-time BCA readers may remember Manningham's many articles on safety and pilot technique, liberally peppered with relevant quotes from literature. (“I was an English major before I began my aviation career,” he explained.) Since his retirement fromas a captain, Manningham has volunteered his services as a pilot and safety auditor for NGOs operating in various hotspots around the world and has written about some of those experiences for us (“Letter From Kabul,” February, March and April 2003).
Choosing to hire guards to protect the aircraft is always a risky proposition without proper vetting, which can be arranged either by the handling agency or the operator's security resource. Whoever is qualifying the guard service should determine that it is licensed and insured, that the guards are properly trained and that the operation has a good reputation locally. (Again, being able to obtain an endorsement from operators who've used the service in the past is helpful.) When LeBlanc's company does this, “we don't use the cheapest one in town,” he said.
While some operators may consider carrying armed security agents aboard the aircraft on trips to dangerous places to protect the passengers, more than one source for this report offered a caveat regarding this practice. “There's an important caution here,” said LeBlanc, “since it's never a good idea to carry firearms, either handguns or hunting rifles, into sensitive countries, especially ones where cabin inspections might be conducted. If your onboard security is armed and not properly licensed at the destination country or even a fuel stop somewhere, they can be arrested.” This is why companies like FrontierMEDEX arrange locally based armed aircraft guards and executive protection agents to augment any unarmed security that an operator may have.
And here's another perspective on carrying weapons from an aviation manager employed by a government contractor with extensive aviation and security experience in hotspots throughout the world: “[I]t is vitally important for the security people to be familiar with the country they're working in. When you go in there, you need to know what the ramifications and culture are. You will need a permit from the local authorities to carry a weapon. If you have to go through a checkpoint when you get off the airplane and if the PSD [personal security detail] guy has a weapon and no permit to carry it there, he may be detained for up to three weeks. So the PSD people need to understand the local laws. Check this with the RSO at the embassy before you depart for the country. We are tied at the hip with the RSOs at our company, but they can't help you if they don't know you're there.”
Then the av manager related a chilling story. “In 2010, a contractor operating in Afghanistan was running a training scenario on the street with a couple 'hard' [armored] cars, and one of them hit an Afghan car and killed four people. The Afghans on the street then began pouring gasoline on the cars. The contractor's security agents made a decision to get out of the car without weapons, and it probably saved their lives. If you pull a weapon and you shoot somebody, then the whole dynamic changes. If that detail shoots an Afghan, they're going to jail, and the executives they're supposed to be protecting may be jailed, as well.”
In volatile locations like this, the question of whether to guard the aircraft in place or reposition it must be considered. “Concerning the latter option,” LeBlanc said, “the aircraft serves at the behest of the passengers, and now we're moving the aircraft somewhere else. If we move, we imply that the aircraft and crew are more valuable than the passengers. If things become like Cairo [in 2011], we will have challenges in getting the aircraft back in. So what we recommend in this case is to plan your schedule so you're arriving early in the morning to allow the passengers to conduct their business, and then leave in the afternoon.
“When you're looking at mitigating the risk to the crew and passengers,” LeBlanc continued, “you have to have several plans; this is one option. We've even had executive clients who conduct their meetings on board the aircraft. Another option is to have the meeting at a hotel near the airport. What you want to do is mitigate the exposure to hazard. Still another option is to hire an executive protection team with armored vehicles for the passengers, at least two armed agents per vehicle, and leading and following vehicles, but this can cost as much as $20,000 a day. If you're looking at high-risk locations with threats like IEDs, large-caliber weapons and so forth, having protection without armored vehicles is a waste of money. The protection plan should meet or exceed the threat - it's basic Security 101. Be prepared, do your homework, get your intel right, and build your plan from there.”
Getting Out of Dodge
The operator's intelligence should drive the exit plan, LeBlanc maintains. “If there is a concern of civil unrest requiring a quick departure, depending on your situation on the ground, you may want to retain the guards, pick a hotel that is convenient to the airport, and keep your executive protection 24/7 just in case you have to leave at 0200. You will want to make sure that you know how to get in contact with your crew quickly. The other day we had a case where a crewmember got sick, and due to a screw-up with phone numbers the captain couldn't contact the passenger they were carrying to tell him that they were going to have to stay an extra day.”
And to facilitate a rapid departure, either refuel immediately on arrival or come with enough Jet-A to get to a safe alternate if a rapid exit is necessary. Manningham, who has some NGO experience in risky places like Afghanistan, prefers the latter option: “If I were going to one of these areas, personally I would want to arrive with the most amount of fuel I could carry into the airport - at max landing weight, if possible - as fuel is everything, because if there is any contingency, I can get out of there fast. NBAA reserves don't mean a thing in that circumstance. By the way, that was Lindbergh's philosophy, and believe it or not, he landed at le Bourget with 10 hr. of fuel remaining in the Spirit of St. Louis.” He also recommends carrying critical spare parts like a mounted tire and wheel, brake assembly, etc., and a handheld GPS, all just in case.
And you never want to stay at a hotel that's been bombed in the past, Sullivan advised. “Also,” he said, “avoid consistency: If you are making multiple trips, stay at different places so as not to set up a pattern - the worst thing you can do. There was a case where a CEO always went to the same hotel where the staff made a big show of greeting him at the entrance - not a good idea! Always maintain a low profile. Don't ever let the hotel make you high profile.”
At Texas Instruments, recalled Sullivan, “We never wore uniforms; only mufti, so as not to be identified. And we always used a 'buddy system' where no one would go out alone. In the morning if someone didn't show up for breakfast, I would be able to check with the person's assigned buddy. If one of the crewmembers goes down, the airplane ain't leaving! The crew or whoever is in charge of the trip should devote as much attention to the situation on the ground as to the actual flight: where they will stay, ground transportation, communication between people, getting updates. One of your biggest resources on the ground will be the RSO. If you are going somewhere where there isn't an embassy, use reps from other companies that might be there - within the security community there is no competition. Also, OSAC will give you contacts to use.”
Due to anti-American sentiments in many of these locations, Manningham would “remove any ID that I'm an American. I would not arrive with an American flag on my airplane - paint it over before you leave. It is incumbent on people to dress modestly, particularly in Islamist areas, where women should carry a head scarf in a dark color to wear on the street. Men need to dress modestly, as well: no shorts and sneakers; wear long pants and sleeves, dark colors - no baseball hats or t-shirts with sports logos. Do not walk around looking like an American. Don't wear expensive jewelry; wear a cheap watch. It's hard to grasp how vulnerable you are in some of these places.”
And under all circumstances, keep your cool. “When we were in Kabul, we were stopped and searched by the Taliban many times, including my wife,” recounted Manningham. “Do not do anything - let them search you and go on about your business. You do not have any options - if you think you're going to argue with a 19-year-old carrying a Kalashnikov [AK-47], you're nuts. Just shut up and cooperate. You say, 'Yes sir!' and suck it up. You can't bring an American attitude with you, where you might argue with a state trooper who's pulled you over.”
Picking Your Fights
You have to know when to back down, Manningham stressed. “When you are threatened, and the only way out is a bribe, you have to make a decision on whether to resist, bargain or pay the bribe. We were operating in Pakistan when 9/11 occurred and had to evacuate. We had to change our tickets in Peshawar and lost our luggage allowance, and the agent at Pakistan Airlines told us we would have to spend $900 for the luggage overage. It was obviously a rip-off. So I told him I was a retired UAL pilot and bargained with him and got it down to $500, whereupon he started to get angry.
“There were police there armed with machine guns, and when they started to move toward the counter, I gave in and forked over the $500. What was I going to prove? You have to pick your fights. The cash almost undoubtedly went right into his pocket. If you're looking for justice, it's not there - another reason to use a handling agent. You could run into situations where you might be charged huge handing fees for fuel - don't argue with them and pay it.”
The aviation manager at the government contractor quoted earlier added this incident: “We were taking an aircraft to Iraq and did a fuel stop in one of the 'Stans and were told that the landing rights and fuel 'handling fees' were $3,000 on top of the costs - it clearly was corruption. Have a U.S. embassy or consulate RSO contact to call if you are in one of those situations. The RSO is also a good source of information for flight planning before you leave - we even tell them we have an executive on board, so they know who is coming into the country.”
Tyler stressed the importance of briefing the passengers far in advance of the scheduled flight “so they understand what's at stake and what they shouldn't be taking on board the airplane. Be careful what's on your laptop or smartphone. Anything you have on your body, in your bags or on your computers can be examined. Flying into dangerous areas will increase as the amount of money to be made increases, as business becomes more lucrative. In some countries even if you don't have the proper inoculations, you'll get busted if you can't prove it.”
And he further cautions, “If you have to land in a country that the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with, and you have a military background that could be suspicious to them, what happened to me could happen to you. Also, it is incumbent [on whoever is in charge of the trip] to know the backgrounds of your crew and passengers that could pose a problem in some countries.”
When you're traveling to high-threat locations, LeBlanc said, you've got to be prepared to be very quick on your feet, as situations can turn very quickly. You must talk through those situations with your passengers. I had a crew rotating out who happened to notice large numbers of military vehicles moving toward the airport. The 20-min. head start they had to vacate the country was because they had a plan: When they got news that the country was about to explode, they were able to gather up the passengers, file their flight plan and get out. About 20 min. after the departure, the airport fell to the military. They did a good job - they had a plan and they followed it.” BCA