Pilot body scans and counter-terror operations: distant consideration for special forces

special forces counter-terrorist operations and TSA body scanners

The uproar over TSA body scanners and pat-downs has hit every corner of the aviation world, from passengers to pilots. The vocal consensus, at least, is that nobody likes them, even though 64 percent of Americans support the practice and 70 percent don’t expect it to impact their travel. A friend of mine, flying today, tweeted that he made it through security at New York’s JFK airport in a mere nine minutes.

Nonetheless, flight crews have voiced vehement opposition to the scans, with one pilot becoming an overnight celebrity by refusing to submit himself to that or a pat-down. We all have to do it, though, so this has left me to ponder … what’s the big deal?

I’ve been particularly intrigued by the attitude of pilots toward body scanners. At first blush, it struck me as a privileged perspective: the top dogs on the plane felt as though they shouldn’t have to be subjected to the same scrutiny as the rest of us. Patrick Smith, resident pilot at Salon.com, wrote of the recent TSA change over crew scrutiny, in which “airline pilots will no longer be subject to the backscatter body scanners and invasive pat-downs at TSA airport checkpoints”:



For pilots like myself this is good news, though at least for the time being we remain subject to the rest of the checkpoint inspection, including the X-raying of luggage and the metal detector walk-through. Eventually, we are told, the implementation of so-called CrewPASS will allow us to skirt the checkpoint more or less entirely.

He continues:

Not everybody agrees that air crews deserve this special treatment. That’s not an unreasonable point of view, and I don’t disagree with it, necessarily. As security experts like Bruce Schneier point out, if you are going to screen at all, it is important to screen everybody, lest the system become overly complicated and prone to exploitable loopholes.

This made me wonder, what is the risk associated with not screening pilots as intensively? The only scenario that came to mind involved a terrorist incident. As I let my mind race, I constructed a hypothetical situation in which terrorists got on board a plane, took control and asked for demands of some sort – i.e., they wanted more than to cause death and destruction. In this situation, I suspected, counter-terrorist teams, such as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D, also known as “Delta Force”), would be called into play.

My thinking continued: if a pilot hadn’t been scanned, he could have brought a weapon … which could have been taken from him by terrorists. Would the special forces teams want to know if a pilot had been scanned?

As I continued through my hypothetical exercise, I could hear my platoon sergeant’s voice from close to 15 years ago, drilling me from across time: “Actions on the objective,” he used to say, “always spend most of your time rehearsing actions on the objective.”

You have to admit this about military training, it really sticks with you!

So, my first thought was whether, while rehearsing actions on the objective, the special forces teams would want to know every last detail of what was on the plane. My training falls far, far short of that, and my efforts to reach someone from 1st SFOD-D didn’t pan out (unsurprisingly).

Fortunately, I knew a great person to call: Don Shipley, Senior Chief (Retired), U.S. Navy. Now, Shiply runs Extreme SEAL Experience, a destination program that simulates various aspects of Navy SEAL training. Before that, of course, he lived the life, having served with SEAL Team ONE and SEAL Team TWO.

I laid out my hypothetical for Shipley: during mission planning, would the operators want to know if the pilots had been scanned, at least to have a better sense of whether they’d carried any weapons on the plane?

The answer, quite simply, is that it wouldn’t be an immediate concern. I spoke with Shipley by phone today, and he said that whether the pilots had been scanned “would be a very distant ‘what if’.” He explained of the special forces teams, “They’d want to know who they [i.e., the crew] are,” as well as background on how long they’d been flying and any other information related to the incident. Also, Shipley said the teams would want to know if there was an air marshal on the flight. The role of body scans, however, would not be a major factor in planning or rehearsing an operation.

“There are some pretty good people in charge of those planes,” Shipley noted, “good bunch of guys and gals.”

Does it suck that someone else gets to go through security faster and more easily than you do? Yeah, it feels like an injustice. But, let’s be realistic: there really isn’t much at stake here aside from a sense of fairness. Let’s e smart about this, though. The airline industry – and the air travel experience – is fraught with inefficiency. If we can make the operation a little smoother by giving the crew an easier time of getting to work, let’s just bite the bullet on this issue.

[photo courtesy of Extreme SEAL Experience]