Air Transport World

The explosives enigma. (aviation security)

The destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland may not have been the worst air disaster in recent years, but it could be the one with the farthest reaching ramifications. That one bomb not only took 259 fives in the air and 11 on the ground. It also sent shock waves of fear throughout the world.

In the U.S., the U.K. and numerous other countries, extensive airline and airport-security reassessments soon followed. The focus of those security reviews has been on failures in detection: How could the terrorist bomb find its way into the left forward cargo hold of Clipper Maid of the Seas? How could bombs get into other airliners as well, so that a total of 923 people died in such attacks between 1985 and 1990?

But a parallel concern grew as well, about the vulnerability of commercial aircraft to in-flight explosion: How could an explosive charge weighing less than 1 lb. bring down a 350-ton jumbo jet? The search is on for ways to reduce that vulnerability and so is the debate about the best course of action. These are the issues:

* Should "hardening" aircraft against bomb blast play any role in fighting terrorism, or should security efforts rely solely on improved bomb detection?

* If hardening is to have such a role, what should it be? What is the proper balance between mitigation and detection?

* What should be hardened? The airframe itself, cargo containers or both?

* If the airframe is to be hardened, what technology should be used?

* If containers are to be hardened, what technology should be used?

Answering these questions is one duty of the FAA's Aviation Security Research and Development Service, based at the agency's Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J. This R&D service was created following Lockerbie, one of a number of measures aimed at improving aviation security that were recommended by a presidential commission, then mandated by federal legislation. …

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