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Lockerbie: 25 years later

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I missed an important anniversary yesterday – the 25th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

The bombing was eventually linked back to the country of Libya, who used operatives working for Libyan Airlines, based in Malta at the time. They placed a radio “boom” box containing an explosive made with Semtex, undetectable by the x-ray equipment of the times, on board Pan Am Flight 103A. That flight went to Frankfurt, Germany, with the unaccompanied suitcase containing the bomb, then on to London’s Heathrow Airport, where the baggage and many passengers were transferred to Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747 bound for New York’s, JFK airport.

The flight departed northwest, following the oceanic great circle routes over the Atlantic Ocean. The bomb detonated while the aircraft cruised at an altitude over 31,000-feet, over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland. Bodies, suitcases and airplane parts were strewn for miles. All 259 people on the flight died along with 11 citizens of Lockerbie on the ground, who were just sitting in their homes and cars that night.

Many of the deceased were students at Syracuse University. A memorial stands to this day.

The subsequent investigation revealed that a basic security procedure was not followed – positive passenger bag match (PPBM). While not in use in the United States on domestic flights, U.S. and foreign aircraft operators were required to ensure that any checked baggage also had an accompanying passenger in the cabin. The investigation determined that this process was not carried out on Pan Am 103. While PPBM is not effective against suicide bombers, it at least makes it harder to bomb the plane because its harder to find someone to sacrifice their own life for the cause than it is to find someone who will kill others, without risking their own life.

The investigation also revealed that x-ray technologies could not detect the type of explosive used in the attack, Semtex. In fact, the U.S. aviation security system at that time was still designed to detect dynamite and gigantic clocks used as timing devices, something Wile E. Coyote may have bought from Acme. Meanwhile, terrorists were using military grade plastic explosives and small watches. So, had the suitcase containing the device been screened, it’s unlikely the explosives would have been detected anyway.

After Lockerbie, Congress passed the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990, which required higher access control and credentialing standards for airport operators (largely in response to the downing of PSA Flight 1771 by an airline employee in 1987), but oddly enough, still did not require positive passenger bag matching for domestic flights, nor require x-ray equipment to detect modern explosives.

Today’s blog is in memory of the 270 people who lost their lives on December 21, 1988.

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