Read Part Three:
The Punjab: Cause and Effect Click Here
Back to Part One:
Questions or Comments?
Click Here to Email Us
Bag Bomb Versus a Jumbo Jet
The Boeing 747 jet airliner is called a Jumbo for a good reason. When the Seattle-based Boeing Company first put it out for test flights in December 1968, nothing like this mammoth had ever flown in the sky. You get a fairly good idea of its gargantuan size if you stand somewhere on the ground near the nose and look up at the cockpit. The wingspan of the 747 is 195 feet, its height is 63 feet and it measures 231 feet from the nose to the end of the tail section. Depending on the seating configuration, anywhere from 400 to over 500 passengers can be accommodated. Each of its four engines produce a thrust of up to 47,000 pounds to help carry the behemoth’s maximum weight of 710,000 pounds into the sky. That’s how big this machine of light metal alloy and glass-fibre actually is.
And it is equally complex. The fuselage is so big that it is put together in three separate sections which are then joined together. Other sections such as the wings and the upper flight decks are also attached separately. Before the first test flights occurred, Boeing put its pride and joy through many other rigorous tests.
It was, they said, the toughest airliner ever built. But the larger flying machines get the lighter their structure. The 747 makes extensive use of titanium and honeycomb paneling of glass-fibre and light aluminum alloy.
Experts also said the 747 was foolproof. It had back-up systems for virtually everything that could fail: four engines which operate independently and are fueled independently, dozens of hydraulic systems and power cables, each with back up should one fail.
The 747 is made for flying, to sustain flight at high altitudes, high speeds and greater passenger and payload capacities than ever before. The aircraft, without a doubt, is one of the best ever built by man.
But the Jumbo wasn’t made to take on a bomb. The aircraft that’s bomb-proof hasn’t yet left the ground. That’s the verdict of British aviation sabotage expert Eric Newton.
‘Designers don’t design aircraft to be blown up by a bomb – whatever [their] size’, says Newton, the top international expert in the world today on the effects of the explosives on planes. ‘Airplanes are made to sustain aerodynamic loads. They are not designed to cope with a bomb, I mean if you were to design an aircraft to be bomb-proof it wouldn’t ever leave the ground. They are only made of light alloy and they’ve got to be light.’
Newton should know. Over 36 years, while working for the UK Accident Investigations Branch, he has probed several hundred air accidents, including numerous cases where aircraft either have been destroyed by or have just barely survived explosive sabotage. For his work on aircraft safety Newton was decorated with the Order of the British Empire in 1971. Investigators know he’s the man to call when you’re probing the suspected sabotage of aircraft. And they’d need his expertise this time too. He would be called out to examine massive amounts of floating debris found off the Kerry Coast shortly after the Air India disaster.
Newton had been almost prophetic in an article which he wrote for the International Journal of Aviation Safety in March, 1985, in which he discussed historical examples of bombings of civilian aircraft over the past 38 years.
‘The loss of one large wide-bodied jet transport can represent a financial loss of more than 70 million US dollars,’ wrote Newton. ‘And an even greater loss morally and commercially to the operating airline, the government and the fare-paying passenger. The loss of one modern aircraft in the future may have far-reaching social and political consequences.’
Therein lay the apparent motive for the terror wreaked on Air India: to teach the perpetrators’ enemy, India, a lesson. Deal it a heavy blow by blowing up two of its fleet of ten jumbos. One in London and one in Narita. The motive would have been revenge.
Newton now lives in retirement in Hastings, Sussex. From there he issued his verdict on how well a Jumbo would cope with a bag bomb. And he also shed some light on the question of why aircraft provide a fascinating target for saboteurs. The Boeing 747 is a huge plane, almost the size of a big building, regarded as the toughest flying machine man has ever built. How could a bag bomb down an airliner that’s over 240 feet long and 63 feet high? Here is what Newton said:
‘If the bomb is in the baggage compartment, which is a pressurized compartment – just over 8 pounds per square inch at over 31,000 feet, its highly loaded at that altitude – if you get a massive explosion there, even if it didn’t cut the aircraft in half, even if it made a hole in the aircraft of more than about 30 sq. ft., it would obviously be a disaster.
‘Now if [the bomb] was located in the front luggage compartment, it’s even worse because very near the baggage compartment is the electronics bay,’ Newton added.
But would the metal screen between the forward luggage hold and the electronics bay provide shelter?
‘It’s very flimsy, it’s only a light aluminum structure. It’s very flimsy when we are talking about explosives. The only thing that does shield the explosive is the container. All the baggage in the large aircraft goes in containers. Now they’re not very strong [either], of course.’
Newton said that a powerful explosive device in the front baggage compartment would doom the aircraft, without a doubt. It would cause a massive structural failure. And make it impossible for the crew and passengers to survive.
Why would the Cockpit Voice Recorder and the Data Recorder stop monitoring at the same time? What was the indecipherable sound that Air Traffic Control at Shannon picked up during the last moments of Air India Flight 182?
‘The sound could be the structural failure of the aircraft,’ Newton said. ‘Some people would describe it as explosive decompression of the fuselage. It is what I would describe as decompression roar.
‘Both recorders are situated right at the back of the aircraft, and the cables run underneath the floor from the electronics bay. Any break-up of the cables anywhere along the floor would cut them off quite quickly.
‘If the bomb was of sufficient charge,’ Newton added, ‘it doesn’t matter where the bomb was located. It would be absolutely devastating.’
Why are terrorists so fascinated by aircraft? Why do they enjoy the spectacle of destroying innocent human lives?
‘The saboteur thinks his evidence is going to be destroyed, and no one will know what happened to the aircraft. This is the criminal mind thinking that all the evidence that I’ve put in there will be destroyed. These are many ways of destroying an aircraft and a bag bomb is one of the simplest.
‘This is not the first aircraft that’s been destroyed by a bomb,’ Newton continued. ‘There have been two previous incidents of 747s with bombs but they were not of sufficient charge and the planes managed to land.
Supposing the bomb on the Air India flight was located in the aft compartment, what controls would be left to the pilot?
‘Not very many,’ Newton said. ‘The main controls run throughout the roof of the aircraft. The tail-end controls run through the roof, but there comes a time when they have to come downwards. You’d only have to open up the shell of the aircraft and the plane would start a dive and go out of control.’
Would an extra engine mounted on the port wing contribute to the loss of control?
‘I don’t think so,’ was Newton’s opinion. ‘I don’t think this has much to do with it.’
Newton said he had listened to the ATC tape in Shannon and felt it contained garbled human voices along with a huge roar from the aircraft as though air was hissing out through an opening in the fuselage. ‘It sounded like the air was rushing out because it [the fuselage] had been ruptured,’ he said.
‘I can tell you quite clearly that there was no explosion on the flight deck,’ he added. ‘I’ve seen the flight deck door and some of the structures. Absolutely clean as a whistle – the door was still in a locked condition.’
From the pattern of wreckage he had seen, where would he say the bomb was located?
‘Well, from my experience, it would be located most likely in some baggage compartment. I can’t say whether it was in the front or the back.’
In Vancouver, the Mounties were now getting criminal evidence which indicated that whoever planted the bomb on CP Flight 003 going to Tokyo, also planted the Air India bomb. The inference could, therefore, be drawn that both devices would carry the same amount of explosive charge. Narita police had made a series of tests, and told the Mounties that while the bomb would not be so devastating on the ground, it was sufficiently powerful to have downed the CP Air 747 had it exploded prematurely while the plane was in flight, regardless of the location of the bomb on the aircraft. Yoshiaki Saito, a top member of the Japanese police team probing the Narita blast, also told them that the bomb would have proved fatal for the CP aircraft had the plane been delayed on its trans-Pacific flight with L. Singh’s bag bomb aboard. The 390 passengers and crew of the Canadian Pacific Flight 003 had made it to Tokyo on a wing and a prayer, quite literally.
If the Mounties wanted historical evidence of the devastation bombs have caused aboard civilian aircraft, Newton could provide them with 58 known examples of explosive sabotage of airlines in 38 years.
‘The detonation of an explosive device, such as a bomb, within civil transport aircraft is fortunately a rare but often a disastrous occurrence,’ Newton wrote in the Journal of Aviation Safety. ‘Unfortunately, world-wide, over the past 38 years, some 863 passengers and crew [have] lost their lives [owing to explosives] and 58 aircraft were damaged or totally destroyed [hijacking excluded].’
Of the 58 aircraft which were hit, 24 were completely destroyed. Eighteen aircraft were of the piston-engine type while 40 were modern turbine-engined types. Newton could now add the Air India toll to his count of 863 fatalities in 38 years. The Air India disaster and the Narita blast would add a total of 331 to his list, Air India the single worst case of sabotage of a civilian aircraft ever known to history.
Newton said in his article that the explosive disasters occurred in 30 countries and affected 31 different airlines. In only six of these 58 cases he had looked at had he seen any evidence of fire as a result of an explosion. The invariable cause of disaster had been the tearing of a hole through the aircraft’s thin-skinned fuselage.
But the Mounties like to see for themselves. At a secret location in Canada, explosive experts experimentally blew up the metal shell of the container similar to what the terrorists had used to carry their deadly device to Narita. It was the aluminum shell of a stereo. They blew up a whole series of similar stereo containers, trying to determine how much explosive would be needed to create the same size particles of debris that Japanese police had shown them.
They progressed from one stick of dynamite to eight and then more. By re-creating the Narita explosion as exactly as possible, they were able to figure out the explosive power of the Narita bomb. Then they wanted to see how much damage an explosive of that strength would do to a luggage container similar to ones used on Air India Flight 182. They tried airline baggage containers with nothing in them. Then they packed them with bomb-rigged bags and blew them off. They put the bag in the center of the container surrounded by other bags to sandwich the explosion. They tried all sorts of dynamite, again ranging from one stick to several.
It worked every time with just a few sticks of dynamite. They tried it dozens of times. Every time, the blast left a gaping hole in the container. They were surprised by how little explosive power it took to make a hole in the luggage container and the fuselage of an aircraft.
A hole in the fuselage is just what an aircraft doesn’t want, because the cabin and the luggage compartment are like a pressurized aerosol canister. When the aircraft is flying at 31,000 feet, the cabin pressure is equal to normal atmospheric pressure at 10,000 feet or less.
The Mounties had seen for themselves the devastation a bag bomb can cause. There was no contest. The bag bomb won hands down against conditions identical to those found on a 747.
Newton was right, no plane has left the ground that’s bomb-proof.