TSA Watch: Copter Clampdown?

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Hidden amid last week's Tom Ridge announcement that financial centers in New York, Washington and Newark might be attacked was "intelligence" that helicopter tour operators in Manhattan had been surveilled by al-Qaida as a possible alternative to fixed-wing aircraft for terrorist attacks. This news generated a flurry of security clampdowns at heliports throughout the New York City area and was in addition to an Aug. 5 TSA "Information Bulletin" alerting recipients to the possibility that rental vehicles, including (gasp!) Ryder trucks, might be converted into "vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) as a method of attack." While the TSA issued a security directive mandating federal employees to do pre-boarding screening at the heliports, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg downplayed any threat. Omitted from any public discussion was the suitability of a helicopter to commit a terrorist act of any consequence.

Indeed, helicopter industry representatives told AVweb that the alert probably was not based on "fresh data." According to Roy Resavage, Helicopter Association International (HAI) president, terrorists probably have used helicopters flown in tour operations over the city to surveill Manhattan and the surrounding area, much the same way they could have used aeronautical charts, road maps, satellite imagery from the Web and -- perish the thought -- a subway system map to get the lay of the land. Still, said Resavage, there is "no specific credible threat" about helicopters being used to commit a terrorist act coming from the TSA of which HAI is aware. Nevertheless, the HAI head noted that the evolving situation was one federal security authorities "need to look at, no matter how remote" the likelihood of a terrorist using a helicopter might be. Other observers noted that hijacking a helicopter from one of the three city-based tour operators would likely be the last way a terrorist would obtain one of these aircraft. "It's stupid," said one, referring to the hype and the extremely remote possibility someone could actually do anything harmful with a helicopter.