Terrorism: November 18, 2001


The crash of an Airbus A-300 (Flight 587) on November 12th naturally brought forth suspicions of terrorism. Officials immediately denied this, with an enthusiasm driven more by the events of September 11th than those of the facts of the A-300 crash itself. Within a few months we'll know for sure what brought down the A-300, modern crash investigations see to that. But the nature of the crash raises some scary questions no matter what conclusion the investigations reaches. The plane came apart during takeoff (when it was moving slowly and at low altitude) and was brought down with three major components falling off (the tail fin and both engines.) This is not supposed to happen. There have been accidents where the tail fin failed or an engine fell off. But never all three at the same time on the same aircraft. This event defies statistical probability. If it was not a terrorist act, then there are some serious design problems with A-300 aircraft (one of the most widely used in the world.) But the nature of the A-300's destruction, and the way the bin Laden terrorist organization operates, raises the possibility that the A-300 was sabotaged. 

With such tight aircraft security these days, how do terrorists get to an aircraft and sabotage it? Simple, you do it the same way most companies get robbed; it's an inside job. What if bin Laden operatives working as aircraft mechanics had sabotaged the A-300. This could explain the unprecedented failure of several mechanical elements (the fixtures that attached the tail fin and both engines to the aircraft.) We saw how the bin Laden crew took several years to get 19 men into the United States, train half of them to fly a large airliners and hijack the aircraft with minimal weaponry. What if the terrorists had infiltrated the aircraft maintenance workforce. Criminal organizations can provide false ID that would get a well educated terrorist into an aircraft maintenance school. There is always a demand for aircraft mechanics, and these men (and some women) are the elite of the air transport workforce. While pilots get paid more, their job has been largely automated. Modern aircraft can land without any pilot intervention (although this feature is rarely used, it has been demonstrated.) But the mechanics, who specialize in areas like engines, electronics and structural repairs and maintenance, still have to use their heads and hands to keep the aircraft flying. Airlines will hire anyone with the proper documentation. The terrorist would have to attend a certified training course, and for many months would work closely with an experienced mechanic before being allowed to work alone. A structural mechanic could sabotage connections holding on the tail fin or engines in ten minutes. No one would know, because the only work that is inspected is what the mechanic is assigned to do. Putting a dozen terrorist mechanics to work in a dozen different airports could result in over a dozen or more planes doing down in quick succession. 

Is such a terror network operational in American airports? Unlikely, as the FBI has been checking backgrounds on airport personnel since September 11th. While false documents can get you into such a job, those documents usually don't survive an FBI grade background check. Was flight 587 destroyed because of one of these terrorists? Also unlikely, as the first people interviewed by crash investigators and the FBI are the aircraft mechanics. They, more than anyone else, know what shape the aircraft was in. Any terrorist would probably have been uncovered, if he hadn't already fled and raised even more suspicion. Nothing like this has come out. Which leaves us with the possibility that there is a design flaw in the A-300, an event somewhat worse than a terrorist action. The best we can hope for was that there were problems unique to one aircraft. In any event, the crash investigators will put the destroyed aircraft back together and find out what caused the crash. Meanwhile, passengers and crews have to face two unpleasant possibilities; that Flight 587 went down because of terrorism, or because the widely used A-300 has a fatal design flaw. 


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