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January 8, 2003 11:26

Flight Manual Flap Masks Real Security Concerns

By Ralph W. Omholt

The mystery over the FBI's sudden interest in my unclassified
aircraft flight manual remains - well, a mystery.

As I noted in an article three weeks ago ("Buy a Flight Manual, Get a
Grand Jury Subpoena," DefenseWatch, Dec. 18, 2002), my encounter with
the U.S. national security apparatus began several months ago when I
successfully bid on an eBay item advertising a CD-ROM Boeing 737
ground-school course. I purchased the disc, only to have the previous
owner call me back in a panic saying that the federal government was
investigating, and begging me to return the item. I did so, but that
was not the end of the story.

On the evening of Dec. 15, my girlfriend responded to the doorbell
and I found a very pleasant FBI agent requesting an audience with me.
I greeted him with a smile, announcing that I had been expecting him.

It seems that the investigation was continuing: Even though I had
given the CD back to the seller, the FBI agent said he wanted all
records I had pertaining to the matter - and any copies I might have
made. He went straight to the point: While copyright issues were
involved (originating from Boeing), the FBI's core concern was
the "national security" implications over the contents of the CD.

Translation: Because the 9/11 hijackers had trained at American
flight schools, everything pertaining to the education and
certification of civil aviation pilots in the United States -
including generic flight manuals - seems to have a national security
value up there with nuclear weapon blueprints.

The interview didn't last long, and in the end I was a little
surprised that the FBI agent didn't confiscate my other aircraft
manuals while he was at it. As a career airline captain, I found this
entire episode to be absurd. There are over 700,000 commercial
airline and private pilots in the United States, and all of them
collect aircraft systems manuals to carry out their ongoing refresher
training efforts. While the purported CD copyright issue may have
played a minor role, it is obvious to me that security concerns were
driving the FBI and its fresh-faced agent who knocked on my door that

The agent was friendly and thorough in his focus. He began by handing
me the anticipated subpoena. All records and any copies were to be
produced; no copies of the disk were allowed to be retained by
myself - or anyone. The interview lasted approximately 45 minutes. I
was careful to ascertain his concerns, as well as advise him that in
my judgment there were far more serious security concerns than just
the computer system.

The agent listened, but gave no response to the new information. The
conversation ended with an advisory from the agent that my appearance
at the grand jury would not be required, so long as I furnished all
the information requested. I was pleased, but also surprised that he
didn't insist on a personal inspection of my files and paperwork.

Purely by accident, I'd saved an HTML copy of the eBay advertisement,
which specifically stated that the manual was "similar to" that of
the actual manufacturer's manual. Within an hour of the agent's
departure, I'd located, printed and faxed the requested information
to the agent's office. I left a voice-mail, requesting phone
verification that he had received the materials.

The grand jury was scheduled for Dec. 18, 2002. To be very certain, I
called the U.S. District Court officials the day before to confirm
that my appearance was not actually needed - it wasn't, just the

The grand jury outcome is not yet complete, as nearly as I've been
able to discover. By definition, the testimony and other related
information will remain secret until either an indictment is handed
down or the case is abandoned. This is a classic case of, "No news is
good news," and I sincerely hope that the case dies.

But the wider issue - of public access to the wide array of flight
instruction materials - remains unchanged and unresolvable.

Many people (but not the U.S. government, it seems) are aware that
there is a global "flight simulator cult," whose members offer
superior information that has superior instructional ability to the
manuals provided by aircraft manufacturers - and the airlines. The
easy-to-obtain Microsoft "Flight Simulator" program is a better
teaching aide than the now-confiscated CD manual I purchased through

One online author sells a specialized manual, breaking down the
operation of the "Flight Management Computer System" (FMCS) into easy-
to-understand language. I would not be surprised to learn that he,
too, got a surprise visit from the FBI.

And as I noted in my earlier article, even if somehow the U.S.
government could carry out the impossible task of removing all flight
manual information from the domestic market, what can it do about
overseas websites where the same material is available? The FBI is
chasing an illusion.

Now for the reality.

I respectfully submit that the actual airline security risk doesn't
concern just the software flight manuals. Airport security basically
operates at three tiers -
intelligence, screening and on-board measures.

While there is a limit as to how much threat containment is
achievable, there are a number of highly effective security measures
available for these three areas that the government and airline
industry could rapidly implement - but as yet have not.

Intelligence is far too complex and sensitive to discuss in detail in
this forum, but it is not inappropriate to note a spate of news
reports since late 2001 where airlines and pilots have complained
that the U.S. government had failed to pass on information pertaining
to potential hijacking threats such as shoe bombs.

Despite the federalization of the airport screeners, the screening
process itself remains a joke - and the situation is getting worse.
Screeners are harassing legitimate passengers unreasonably, often
humiliating innocent people beyond any standard which can be
considered reasonable. Recently, a pregnant passenger complained to
her husband that her breasts had been "searched" by the screeners.
Before it was over, the husband was forced to cop a plea to a
misdemeanor to avoid felony charges. His crime - demanding
accountability for what otherwise constituted a sexual assault on his
wife - in the name of "security."

Officials can arbitrarily add a person's name to a "no airport
access" list possibly without his or her knowledge or consent. The
rules seem to be made up on the fly. The airlines won't sell such
individuals a ticket, and have the power to effect their arrest if
found at the ticket counter.

Meanwhile, airport security officials in other cases have treated
individuals effecting actual security breaches with kid gloves. There
have been any number of cases where an individual accidentally
brought a weapon - including pistols - on board aircraft, going un-

The security screening process is supposed to be an "echelon" (many-
layered) tactic. As it stands, anyone who slips past the primary
point has a high probability of getting onboard the aircraft. If
officials discover a screening error often the only recourse is for
them to evacuate the entire the terminal.

Properly done, there should be at least two delay points - with
recording security cameras - in order to quickly filter anyone who
slips through the primary screening. The airlines lose millions of
dollars due to just this failure alone. The echelon measure is

As the Israelis have proved with their airlines, cockpit access
should be a double-door system. While individual airlines are
considering such measures, there is no FAA mandate. (Given the FAA
record, that's obviously no accident.)

Even if the cockpit is secured, the modern airliner ventilation
system leaves open the possibility of a successful attack using
chemical agents. Here again, neither the government nor airline
industry is taking steps to remove a potential threat existing on
every commercial airliner. (A hint from a pilot: Merely pulling
and "collaring" two specific circuit breakers would eliminate that
threat. It is just that simple.)

The issue comes down to whether the federal government and the
airline industry are genuinely serious about airline security.

It's not just the FBI agents rummaging though my checkbook that
worries me - it's the absence of any realistic security initiatives
from the check-in counter to the cockpit door that have me genuinely
worried. I hold to the opinion that another 9/11 terrorist operation
would be far easier today than it was in 2001. My conviction is that
vigilante passengers are the only reliable security against another
9/11. That leaves the air freight operation to worry about.

One correction to my earlier article: I mistakenly cited the
authority of section 501(d) of the "USA Patriot Act" for dictating
the secrecy of grand jury subpoenas. The citation should have been
section 501(d) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," changed
by section 215 of the "USA Patriot Act."

Ralph Omholt is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be
reached at
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