Aircraft Accidents and Sabotage

In the 1991 Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country, Lieutenant Valeris explains her plan to delay the Enterprise by giving the crew a lesson on delaying tactics. According to Valeris, wooden shoes, called Sabots, were thrown into industry machinery to disable the workings as a sign of protest, thus the term, ‘Sabotage’. However, according to Grammarphobia, the term actually comes from John Spargo’s 1913 book, Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism, where two anarchists recommended French labor unions adopt a policy of work slowdowns previously employed by British trade unionists. The word ‘sabotage’ was taken from a Scottish colloquialism, Ca’ Canny, which meant “go slow” or “be careful not to do too much.” One of the anarchists came up with the French equivalent, sabotage, based on the verb, saboter, which meant “make loud clattering noises with wooden shoes”. Lieutenant Valeris, it turned out, was partially right; wooden shoes fit in there somehow.

These past weeks, the news has been running a story about an American Airlines’ mechanic who allegedly sabotaged the navigation system of a B737 at Miami International Airport. A disturbing report, to be sure, but I will not litigate it here; I leave speculation to the self-professed ‘experts’.

The mechanic was charged with “willfully damaging, destroying or disabling an aircraft.” These are very serious charges and could cost the mechanic twenty years in prison, if found guilty. And for what? Higher pay? More overtime? These things are not guarantees made by any airline, or company for that matter.

Decades ago, I worked in an airline out-station, a three-mechanic ramp in the Midwest. We were doing more engine maintenance, a spreading of the workload with other ramps. We had an archaic engine stand that we pushed around with a ramp tug; it was inconvenient; we wanted a lift truck. Our perception was that it was imperative we got a lift truck and listed the reasons to management. However, we did not receive one because we were one ramp among dozens who worked engines. The reasoning was, we didn’t NEED a lift truck to do our jobs, we just WANTED one.

In the end, unhappy as it made us, no one promised us a lift truck … ever. Just like no one promised us higher pay or overtime. I eventually wrangled a lift truck from an east coast ramp – legitimately and with some ingenuity – but that is another story. What we did not do was generate a job action to get our way. We did not put ourselves over other company personnel or the customer. So, what would possess someone to turn to sabotage? What does it mean to sabotage an aircraft; to be a saboteur?

The first thing to understand is that any action against a US registered aircraft (commonly known as an ‘N’ registered aircraft) is a federal crime. Why? Because, simply put, an aircraft is a federally registered vehicle. I remember thirty years ago a disgruntled ramp employee intentionally drove an airplane tug into an aircraft fuselage-mounted staircase. The young vandal expected the local police to come to his house, some of whom he knew. He was surprised to find federal officers had arrived to take him to a federal lock-up hundreds of miles away. That was the first day of his eternity.

As per Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, a saboteur or the like, is defined under Title 18 United States (US) Code 32 Destruction of Aircraft or Aircraft Facilities (a) (1). “Whoever willfully sets fire to, damages, destroys, disables or wrecks any aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States or any civil aircraft used, operated, or employed in interstate, overseas, or foreign air commerce.” This definition efficiently captures every action that could be done to delay or disrupt a flight by actions against the aircraft itself.

Once someone goes down that path, he will find that the Law is unsympathetic to higher pay, overtime and lift trucks. Even if the saboteur just wanted to make a statement or scare the company, the Law has the gravitational effect of a ton of bricks; it is that simple. Dike a wire, block a pitot tube, deflate a nose strut, they are all equal in the eyes of the Law. No matter the severity of the action, it is still considered sabotage.

What, then, if the saboteur wanted to act like a Gremlin and disrupt service, slow down an airline’s schedule without doing any physical damage traceable back to the saboteur? What if the saboteur wanted to do the aviation equivalent of crying, “Wolf!”? Title 18 US Code 32 Destruction of Aircraft or Aircraft Facilities (a) (5) and (7) addressed that question: (5) “Whoever willfully interferes with or disables, with intent to endanger the safety of any person or with reckless disregard for the safety of human life, anyone engaged in the authorized operation of such aircraft or any air navigation facility aiding in the navigation of any such aircraft.” And (7) “Whoever willfully communicates information, knowing the ‘information to be false’ [quotation marks added intentionally] and under circumstances in which such information may reasonably be believed, thereby endangering the safety of any such aircraft in flight.

How would this be relevant? What does the word ‘flight’ even mean? As per Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 1.1 Definitions: Flight time for pilots, for instance, means, “Pilot time that commences when an aircraft moves under its own power for the purpose of flight and ends when the aircraft comes to rest after landing.” ‘Swell’, thinks the Gremlin, twirling his mustache, ‘I will delay the flight with a false alert during pushback. No harm done.’ The Gremlin would argue that any forced delay before the aircraft moved under its own power would not be considered ‘flight’.

However, there are many applicable definitions of the term ‘flight’. One has a ‘flight’ begin when the first person has boarded an aircraft for the intention of flight, such as a pilot or flight attendant performing preflight checks. An airline may define ‘flight’ as when the brakes are released for pushback to when the brakes are set at the destination. Then there are flight cycles, flight hours, etc. A flight attendant can get injured if the plane stops suddenly on the runway during her preflight briefing due to some false information relayed to the pilots. Also, a drone pilot playing chicken with an active flight on approach may inadvertently cause injury or damage to the aircraft.

“I didn’t mean to,” is not an alibi. “They did not pay me enough,” is not an excuse. Sabotage may not be the intent, but the Law will not see it that way. Endangerment is endangerment, it is that clear.

I’m not a lawyer; I have limited access to lawbooks; there are many other laws that better clarify the words ‘sabotage’ and ‘flight’. The point is, taking job actions against an airline or any company is so very wrong and, furthermore, it does not work. Logistically speaking, cameras populate aircraft ramp areas. Ramp personnel, in post-9/11, are trained to spot abnormal activity. Drone tracking is improving as are the technologies in aircraft for sensing system anomalies. The dumbest idea anyone can come up with is to think they are smarter than everyone else.

Why would one think that a job action in the form of sabotage is a good idea? The days of the sabot are long past as are the entitled attitudes toward what everyone is ‘owed’. We have three options when we are unhappy with our jobs. Quit, get a new job or deal with the misery. We have all had lousy jobs and these three options may not sound like good options, but sabotage is certainly not the fourth option.

6 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and Sabotage”

  1. Good article. After merger we had rear stairwell wires being cut and ducting being sawed to within a few .001’s of an inch of through cut. Who, why? We never knew. But it happens. Miami the guy took an axe to a 727. Another cutting full bundles and others steal the aircraft. You can’t fix crazy.

    1. No, you can’t Frank. I know some jobs can be frustrating, but endangering others should never be an option. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. I have some limited experience with people damaging aircraft. Always stupid, never accomplished their goal. Just cost their organization money that could have been better used. Maybe raises, better equipment, tools, etc

    1. That’s a perspective I did not raise, that the damage a saboteur inflicts actually costs the company money to repair, e.g. recovery flights, flight crew hours, fuel, incident investigation, security, landing fees, terminal fees, possible hangar space, etc. All these things cost money that could have been directed towards employee compensation packages and are in the thousands and thousands of dollar ranges.

  3. Interesting topic, but true in today’s world of terrorist threats or in this case terrorist act! This job of aviation has many avenues. Some are pilots, mechanics, dispatchers, and many others. But, there’s one word that I teach at the FAA Academy and that is “Integrity.” This is something that is inside a person who knows they may not get rich in their job, but they know it’s important enough that people travel in them. It’s doing the right thing without being watched all the time. If everyone did their job as they way they are supposed be doing then things should go smooth. However, there’s a thing about human factors that comes into the realm of aviation and someone mentioned it regarding “crazy.” Again, with the proper background checks and supervision someone who doesn’t seem to be all there upstairs wouldn’t be in a position that will affect safety. His supervisor was a key element in this person’s work ethics for sure.
    In my prior military life, I witnessed the aftermath of someone sabotaging an aircraft by breaking all the instruments and punching holes in the side of the fuselage. I had to take the report and the pictures. This was quickly turned over to the FBI and OSI, but it happened.
    In this profession, regardless of Unions and bad Managers, is the choice that someone chose to do for a living, and consequently if this job is not for them then they can leave just as well.
    There is no excuse in my opinion for the actions of this mechanic, but there were other indicators prior to this event that were probably overlooked, but nevertheless someone should have been watching this individual. I hope the company prevails in this case and puts him in jail, which is the right thing to do.

    1. Definitely a case of Root Cause, recognizing that signs are there; that we need to see them, whether management or as a coworker. I remember pilot Auburn Calloway tried hijacking (almost succeeded) a DC10 back in the 1990s. Were there signs? Maybe. His career was unremarkable until the hijacking, so what was there to look for? He failed to pull it off and his prison sentence is now his eternity. Perhaps some management training, to look for signs, is in the cards; I don’t know. But this event in Miami should not be ignored; it is a wake-up call.

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