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Learning from Lockerbie

by Captain Martin Drake BALPA NEC and Security Committee

It is said that the safety of transport has often been achieved from the blood of its victims. A chilling thought but true, nevertheless. This premise was never more graphically demonstrated than at 1903hrs on December the 21st 1988. For it was at this time that a bomb planted on Pan Am Flight 103, a 747, Clipper Maid of the Seas, detonated, causing the aircraft to break up in mid-flight at 31,000ft, and crash on to the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

Lockerbie is the first town of much size to the north of the Scottish-English border. It has that distinctive architecture of many lowland towns. It has a proud agricultural history and once boasted the largest sheep and lamb market in Scotland. It was, and still is one of those hidden gems of that part of the British Isles. On that fateful night Lockerbie became for evermore synonymous with one of the worst aviation terrorist attacks until the 9/11 hijacks in 2001. 

Pan Flight 103 was actually a three-leg service from Frankfurt to Detroit with stop overs at Heathrow and JFK. As was common practice the first leg was flown on another type, a 727 in this case, as US carriers had internal German flight rights post WWII. Part of the service included the carriage of unaccompanied baggage. The perpetrators had intended the plane to crash into the sea, destroying any traceable evidence, but the departure time of the aircraft meant that its explosion over land left a veritable trail of evidence.

In parallel to the forensic work, detectives traced the origin of every piece of luggage that had been checked onto PA 103, either in Frankfurt, London or through the interline baggage system. Interline baggage could be baggage checked on to a totally unconnected flight at a departure point not in another’s itinerary and automatically routed by the airline to other locations. It was the weak link because provided it is tagged correctly a bag not properly screened by a low-risk airline in a low-risk airport may be routed without further checks through several other airports to high-risk airlines.

When the aircraft was destroyed, all 243 passengers and 16 crew perished.  11 people on the ground were also killed bringing the total death toll to 270. The fireball on the ground was so severe that six people were never found. The world had been introduced to a new age of terrorism and things would never be the same again.
Today security is a high priority for the aviation industry. There are new rules and regulations to help us identify and neutralise threats. We have better technology at our disposal and a heightened awareness of the myriad of threats that need to be assessed. 

Pilots take that seriously. We are uniquely placed, having first-hand experience of world travel and the ability to be the eyes and ears of aviation security. It is vital that we use this experience and knowledge to keep passengers and crew safe.

BALPA itself has a security group that scrutinises security across the industry. The members of the group meet with those at the forefront of security technology, exchange views and expertise and look at innovations that could protect the aviation industry from numerous threats and dangers.

Today, our thoughts go out to those family members of the victims, the residents of Lockerbie, the first responders and investigators whose lives were affected irrevocably by this tragedy. It is our commitment to work wherever, with whomever and whenever we can to prevent such atrocities from happening in the future.