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Microlights And Terrorism

Introduction

There are certain areas within the aviation industry which are vulnerable and can be exploited by terrorists. This was tragically demonstrated on 11 September 2001. While efforts have been undertaken to ensure that we have learned from that particular incident, there is a need to think out of the box, particularly when dealing with aviation terrorism.

 

Learning from Experience

It is significant to note that in total, 30 passengers on flights around the world had already broken through cockpit doors during the 24 months leading to 9/11. In early June 2001, when the leaders of the ‘Group of 8’ nations met for their annual meeting in Genoa, Italy, the Government of Egypt sent a warning to the Bush administration about a possible suicide hijacker. This was further reinforced during an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, when Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak said that his government had uncovered a video where Osama bin Laden “spoke of assassinating President George Bush and other Heads of State in Genoa…using an airplane stuffed with explosives”. To respond to this potential threat, anti-aircraft missile batteries were placed around the city during the summit.

 

Besides the warning from Egypt, several other governments also notified the United States (US) of increased Al Qaeda activities and the rising specter of an attack on the United States. Russian intelligence had notified the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2001 of 25 terrorist pilots who had been specifically geared towards suicide missions. In an interview, President Vladimir Putin confirmed that in August 2001, he had ordered the Russian intelligence to warn the US Government ‘in the strongest terms’ of imminent attacks on airports and government buildings.

 

In June 2001, the Bundesnachrichtendienst German Intelligence Service (BND) warned the CIA and Israel that Middle Eastern terrorists were “planning to hijack commercial aircrafts to use as weapons to attack important symbols of American and Israeli culture”. On most occasions, these warnings were thought to be unwarranted and the intelligence agencies overtly paranoid. In fact, numerous studies showed that serious flaws within the system were either ignored or side-stepped and were only reviewed after the 9/11 tragedy.

 

Regrettably, the aviation industry is an attractive target for terrorism for the following reasons:

    • The ability to capture media attention and to advertise the terrorists’ cause and demands to the international arena;

    • The ability to achieve tactical gains such as ransoms or the release of terrorist colleagues in prison;

    • The ability to prove the vulnerability of advanced countries to this form of attack; and

    • The ability to magnify the consequences of their actions and thereby cause a distorted amount of changes in the international arena.

    • It is also significant to note that there has also been a trend towards greater lethality in terrorist attacks. Terrorists have both developed and heightened their capability to commit mass murder by utilising aircrafts. 

 

Utilising an Aircraft as a Flying Missile

As mentioned before, the idea of using an aircraft as a flying missile is not a new one. Prior to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, US intelligence officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and CIA had identified crop dusters and suicide flights as potential terrorist threats and took steps to prevent any attacks from the air during the Games by deploying Black Hawk helicopters and Customs Service jets to intercept suspicious aircrafts in the skies over Atlanta.

 

In 1995, the FBI was warned of a terrorist plot to hijack several commercial airliners and crash them into the Pentagon and the CIA headquarters. In January of that year, a fire in the Manila apartment building of Abdul Murad and Ramzi Yousef led Philippine investigators to uncover a plot to plant timed explosive devices on several US airliners. Abdul Murad confessed to the detailed plans to simultaneously blow up several planes over the Pacific Ocean while he and another suicide hijacker would each carry out a kamikaze suicide attack on the CIA and the Pentagon respectively. Ramzi Yousef, the ringleader of the first World Trade Centre bombing in 1993, when arrested, confessed in 1995 that he had narrowly missed several opportunities to blow up a dozen airliners over the Pacific in one single day and carry out a suicide attack on the CIA headquarters.

 

In December 1994, an Air France flight in Algiers, Algeria, was hijacked by the Groupe Armee Islamique or Armed Islamic Group (GIA) to punish France for its assistance to the Algerian Government and to draw attention to the Algerian conflict.9 The hijackers ordered the plane to be flown to Marseilles, France. There, the authorities were ordered to load an additional 27 tons of aviation fuel for a journey to Paris, although the trip required only about one-third that amount. The hijackers’ aim was to crash the plane into the Eiffel Tower. However, while still on the ground, commandos from the French Special Force stormed the plane and ended the crisis.

 

In the 1980s, Palestinian terrorist groups based in Lebanon planned, prepared and launched air vehicles to gain access into Israel. However, due largely to the alertness of the Israelis and the unreliability of light air vehicles, their cross-border operations ended in failure. Nevertheless, terrorist groups with access to state sponsored resources continued in their attempts to utilise aircrafts. The Palestinian Liberation Fund (PLF) procured approximately 100 light aircrafts and gliders from Europe with Libyan financing. The aircrafts were adapted to be able to carry two men and 180 kg of explosives. The crafts were expected to fly the explosive-laden cargo into Israel. The PLF also tried to attack Israeli oil refineries with two powered hang-gliders in March 1981. In November 1987, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLPGC) launched four hang-gliders, in Syrian-controlled Lebanon, against the Israeli army; one pilot landed and inflicted 16 casualties before being shot.

 

The most deadly case of utilising an aircraft as a missile, however, occurred on 11 September 2001, when four planes were hijacked by 19 terrorists. Two of the flights were crashed into the north and south tower of the World Trade Centre. The third flight was crashed into the western side of the Pentagon while the fourth flight, following passenger actions against the hijackers, crashed into the Stony Creek Township, Pennsylvania. The hijackings led to the deaths of approximately 3,000 people, including all the passengers and crew on the four flights. The 9/11 attacks reportedly cost the Al Qaeda an estimated USD 500,000 while the resultant monetary loss calculated seen by the infrastructure, properties and businesses affected, was said to be in the range of trillions of US dollars. This amount excluded billions of dollars spent by the US and the coalition allies on the ensuing War on Terrorism in Iraq and its consequent occupation.

 

It is also pertinent to realise that numerous other instances of terrorist incidents involving the crashing of airplanes into targets have already occurred. Between 1972 and 2001, the plan of flying airplanes into buildings had been cited on at least 22 occasions16. Potential uses of powered small aircrafts for bomb runs, commando raids, suicide bombings, radio-controlled non-human bombs and disbursement of chemical or biological agents is conceivable.

 

Hence, terrorists utilising aircrafts as potential missiles is both possible and plausible as the strategic advantages of utilising aircrafts, particularly in suicide missions, are significant; among them being: 

    • It is a relatively simple and low-cost operation which avoids the need for escape routes or complicated rescue operations;

    • It generates massive casualties and extensive damage since the suicide bomber can choose the exact time, location and circumstance of the attack to ensure maximum damage;

    • There is no fear that interrogated terrorists will surrender important information simply because their deaths are certain;

    • It has an immense impact on the public and the media; and

    • It highlights the cause of the terrorists in a very dramatic fashion.

The Ability to Fly the Plane

It is significant to note that the skills involved in flying a plane is not that difficult to learn or obtain. Experts have concluded that classroom training, individual computerbased training and sessions in simulators are sufficient to enable a novice pilot to familiarise himself with the layout of a flight deck and the operations of flight controls, autopilot and navigation systems. Flying the aircraft in other phases of flight, besides taking-off and landings, are relatively easy. Also, when he is trained to fly in a specific aircraft, flying another kind of aircraft is very much possible. Changing the aircraft’s course, speed or altitude is not very difficult when using the autopilot system or when flying the aircraft manually. The flight control system makes the aircraft responsive, making it easy for the novice pilot to perform normal flying maneuvers.

 

Given the fact that the most difficult components for an amateur pilot to master are the taking-off and landing the airplane, it is significant to note that there are numerous software programmes in the market that allow flight simulation of different types of aircrafts to land and take-off in various airports of the world. According to the principal of a flying school in Malaysia, these applications are either free or sold at a very low price (e.g. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004). The simulations can provide the amateur pilot a comprehensive feel of the aircraft at any specific airport. The internet has also been a valuable training ground for those wanting to learn flying. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) have a flight training website (flighttraining.aopa.org) which has been set up for those who are learning or intending to learn flying. With these developments, the major problem the terrorist has of adjusting himself to the hijacked aircraft is greatly diminished.

 

Flying in Malaysia

All matters pertaining to the licensing of pilots and aircrafts in Malaysia are handled by the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), which is under the purview of the Ministry of Transport. To be able to fly in Malaysia, one has to have a Private Pilot License (PPL). In order to do so, a person has to register himself with a flying club or school. The PPL is normally the first step before he attempts to take the Commercial Pilot License (CPL); this allows him to work as a pilot and subsequently to undertake an Airline Transport Licence (ATPL), which allows him to fly a large aircraft. 

 

After enrolling in the flying school or club, the person has to apply to the DCA for the Student Pilot License (SPL). This license allows him to fly instructional (dual) sortie with an instructor. The pre-requisite for holding an SPL is only a pass in a medical examination (Class 2 medical exam).

 

A person can obtain a PPL from the age of 17. There are no minimum academic requirements to acquire a PPL license but there is a need to pass a Class 2 medical examination (as with obtaining an SPL). This medical examination can only be carried out by specialist aviation doctors. During the Class 2 medical examination, the general health, hearing and eyesight of an applicant will be tested. If the applicant is below 40, he must renew his medical license every two years. If the applicant is between 40 and 60, he must renew his medical license every year and if the applicant is 60 or older, he must renew his medical license every six months. If the applicant is unable to pass the medical examination, he can continue to fly with an instructor, but cannot hold a PPL.

 

Another requisite before obtaining a PPL is an aviation document requiring the applicant to be assessed as ‘Fit and Proper’ to hold this license. To be considered ‘Fit and Proper’, he must have demonstrated an acceptable respect for the law, such that the DCA may have confidence in his ability to fly within the Civil Aviation Rules. This document would also ascertain if the applicant has had prior criminal convictions. The applicant is required to remain a ‘Fit and Proper’ person throughout the operating life of his license.

 

The actual PPL course comprises several parts; both written and practical. The practical aspect covers the actual training to fly the plane. Most students would fly solo for the first time after an estimated ten to 15 hours of flying lessons. A full PPL requires a minimum of 45 hours of flying, however, the majority of the students would have completed about 70 hours of flying before they are ready for the flight test. 

 

Alternatively, a person could train for a PPL that confines flying to near the aerodrome at which he is trained. This license requires a minimum of only 40 hours of flying as it will not include cross-country training.

 

The theoretical component of the PPL comprises six examinations which are set at about the same level as the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) Malaysian examination or the UK based O’ level examination. A pass mark of 70 percent or greater is required to obtain the license. One does not have to pass these examinations before beginning flying lessons, but it is advisable to take them progressively while learning to fly as examination passes are a requirement before one can attempt solo cross-country flying.

 

The six core components covered in the PPL are:

    • Air Navigation and Flight Planning, where one will learn to calculate the distance of one’s planned flight, the compass heading one will need to fly, the time taken to fly and the amount of fuel needed for the proposed flight. One will also learn to use maps that are specifically designed for aviation;

    • Aircraft Technical Knowledge, where one will understand how an aircraft flies and the systems involved. As a trainee pilot, one will also learn about the aerodynamics, engines, electrical systems, flight instruments and the loading of an aircraft;

    • Meteorology, where one will learn about Malaysia’s weather patterns, cloud formations and the effects of weather conditions on the performance of an aircraft;

    • Human Factors, where one will learn the human elements in aviation. Areas of study would include aviation medicine and health, stress management, and decisionmaking skills;

    • Flight Radiotelephony, where one will learn how to communicate using the telecommunication equipment on board. One will also learn how to operate one’s aircraft’s transponder and emergency locator beacon; and

    • Law, where one will learn the various laws governing and regulating the aviation industry. These standards are set out in the Civil Aviation Regulations 1996.

    • Upon completion of the candidate’s medical examination, passing the six papers, fulfilling the required flying experience, and passing the flight test, the candidate can then apply to the DCA for a PPL. The cost of obtaining a PPL in Malaysia is approximately RM 25,000 to RM 30,000.

 

Microlights

Definition

The definition for microlights varies. In the US, the term ultralight is used. The ultralight, is defined in Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 103, as a single seat powered flying machine which weighs less that 254 lbs, has a top speed of 55 knots (63 mph), stalls at 24 knots (28 mph) or less and carries no more than five gallons of fuel. In the US, there are strict operating limitations but no mandatory license or registration.

Among the restrictions include:

    • No passengers allowed;
    • No flying over towns and settlements;
    • No flying at night or above (or in) the clouds;
    • No flying in airspace around airports with control towers and certain other airspace without prior permission;
    • No commercial operations (for hire) except instruction; and
    • The need for ultralights to yield right-of-way to all other aircrafts.

In Malaysia, the DCA differentiates between a microlight and a kitplane. The microlight in Malaysia is defined by the following criteria:

    • Empty weight of not exceeding 150 kg;
    • Wing loading at maximum empty weight not exceeding ten kg per square metre; and
    • Seating capacity not exceeding two persons, including the pilot.

The kitplane is defined by the following criteria: 

    • Maximum Take-off Weight Authorized (MTWA) not exceeding 750 kg;
    • Seating capacity not exceeding two persons, including the pilot;
    • Equipped with a single piston engine; and
    • Can be constructed from kit parts, blue prints or build plans.

Microlights and kitplanes need to be approved by the DCA before they are considered airworthy. The exact criteria for the acceptance of a microlight and a kitplane as well as the licensing requirements for the issuance of the PPL are specified by the DCA. If the aircraft is built from a kit, the DCA needs to approve the builder of the craft. The exact criteria for the approval of a builder are also specified by the DCA. With regard to the renewal of the Permit to Fly, operators of both the microlight and the kitplane need the initial approval of the DCA. The exact criteria for the renewal of the Permit to Fly are also specified by the DCA.

 

In Malaysia, some flight operators prefer to categorise their aircrafts into three groups:

    • Microlights;
    • Experimental aircrafts; and
    • Light Sport Aircraft (LSA).

The general technical specifications of microlights flown in Malaysia are:

    • One to two-seaters;
    • Speeds between 40-50 miles per hour;
    • Costs below RM 80,000;
    • Range of 40 to 50 kilometres;
    • Ability to fly or hover at very low altitudes; and
    • Purchase can be made from the US and Australia via the internet and can be delivered within a week.

The general technical specifications of Experimental Aircrafts/Amateur Build Aircrafts flown in Malaysia are:

    • Two to four-seaters;
    • Speeds between 110-200 miles per hour;
    • Costs below RM 320,000;
    • Range of 100 to 300 kilometres;
    • Assembly can be done even without experience or qualifications;
    • Maintenance is fairly simple and the fuel used is ordinary fuel and not necessarily aviation fuel; and
    • Purchase can be made from the US and Australia via the internet and can be delivered within a week.

The general technical specifications of Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) flown in Malaysia are:

    • Two-seater;
    • Speed of approximately 180 kilometres per hour;
    • Costs below RM 560,000;
    • Range of 500 to 700 kilometres;
    • Purchase can be made from the US and Australia via the internet and can be delivered within a week;
    • Assembly can even be done without experience or qualifications; and
    • Maintenance is fairly simple and the fuel used is ordinary fuel and not necessarily aviation fuel.

It is pertinent to note that most microlights are not equipped with transponders, which can be detected by radars to identify flight patterns of planes and to provide flight data such as speed, heading and height. Hence, without the transponder, it will be difficult to detect a microlight by radar, and if it is indeed detected, it will just appear as a blink on the radar screen.

 

Other factors that would make microlights a credible pick for the terrorist are its ability for night flights (utilising night vision goggles) and its need for short runways (any road or field with an approximate length of 300 feet). There are also at present websites which provide complete guidelines on utilising microlights for violent purposes.

 

Given the capability of microlights, there is an urgent need to examine and study the danger of such crafts colliding with commercial aircrafts, either due to acts of terror or acts of dare devilry. It is very possible and indeed plausible that such accidents or acts of terror can be carried out when commercial planes are ascending or descending. 

 

With the size and capacity of microlights, there is an assumption that the danger that they can pose is minimal and as a result, the consequences of any terrorist action involving microlights will also be negligible. However, a careful analysis will show that a crash involving an aircraft, even as small as a microlight, can cause extensive damage and will also cause a ripple effect in numerous other areas. It is also pertinent to note that microlights can also be outfitted with extra fuel tanks and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices that will enable them to fly great distances and with great accuracy.

 

While the direct damage that can be caused by a microlight is not extensive (such as loss of lives or physical destructions), there are other costs involved; among them being:

    • Negative publicity to the aviation industry of the affected country;
    • Negative publicity on security agencies and its enforcement capabilities;
    • Possible travel advisory ban issued on the country in question and the subsequent economic implications;
    • Economic loss as seen in the lowering of the stock exchange; and
    • Negative publicity on the country as a whole.

Given the potential for such extensive damage via a terrorist-controlled microlight, sufficient effort must be carried out to ensure that such a threat is neutralised

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