Flight 587 Update
By Victor Trombettas
You've heard the reports since September 11th, 2001. Hundreds of arrests at airports all over the United States of workers who provided false information with their employment applications, had engaged in identity theft/fraud, many of them were illegal immigrants, some with criminal records. Most of those arrested seemed to be ramp workers, security screeners, etc., many with access to restricted areas. Just this month, 28 workers were arrested at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. With the exception of some arrests that were made at the Salt Lake City Airport in December 2001, rarely have the words "mechanics" or "maintenance personnel" been used to describe those arrested.
The most notable exception to this occurred on June 29, when the Star Telegram of Dallas/Fort Worth reported that on June 28, dozens of federal agents raided a Spirit Airlines repair facility at Fort Worth Meacham Airport in Texas and arrested 28 workers. On July 25, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that 15 of the 28 workers were "aviation mechanics" and had been indicted on 36 counts including the possession and use of false and fraudulent resident alien registration cards; the alteration of social security cards; falsely representing that a social security number was assigned to them; providing false information to obtain a social security account number; and falsely claiming to be a citizen or national of the United States". The DOJ press release states: "Of the fourteen persons charged today, the complaints allege that nine held passports from the Philippines, three held passports from Mexico, and two held passports from Peru."
The Star Telegram story also reported that their sources indicated that some of those arrested were suspected of being affiliated with Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group in the Philippines that is believed to be working with Al Qaeda. However, the DOJ press releases did not mention anything about suspected ties to terrorist groups or any criminal activity having taken place at Spirit Aviation.
There is more to that story, however. A couple weeks ago I was put in touch with an individual with inside information about events at Spirit Aviation. This person's story was credible, verifiable, and a compelling account.
Prior to September 11, 2001, at least nine months before federal agents swarmed through Spirit Aviation and arrested the 28 workers, management at Spirit Aviation had detected at least 3 cases of sabotage to Spirit Airlines jets. There was a very high degree of certainty at Spirit that what was discovered was indeed sabotage of (a) the engines, (b) the bolts in the tail section, and (c) the wiring in the cockpit. Needless to say, this was a matter of great concern to Spirit. Initially, the approach was to handle the investigation in-house. The saboteur(s) were suspected as coming from a group of certified mechanics at that facility that were Muslim. There was no evidence tying anyone to the sabotage. This all occurred prior to 9/11/01.
Spirit Airlines was contacted for comment. Here is their official response:
"During summer of 2001, Spirit Aviation Services became aware of some atypical situations, performed an internal review, identified the problem and put measures in place to correct it. There have been no occurrences since. Spirit Airlines is very comfortable with Spirit Aviation Services and the work it performs on our aircraft."
September 11, 2001 -- before the clock had struck noon in New York City, the name Osama Bin Laden was on everyone's lips. And before long, we had confirmation ... the hijackers were Muslim extremists, probably members of Al Qaeda. And by the end of that horrible, unforgettable week, the FBI had been notified about the sabotage at Spirit Aviation, and that the suspects were Muslim.
Two months later, November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 (an Airbus A300-600) crashed in Belle Harbor, NY amid very unusual circumstances. The tail and rudder and both engines separated in-flight. Terrorism or sabotage were quickly downplayed and ruled out. "All indications at this time are that this is an accident", stated the rookie Chairman, Marion Blakey, even before the flight recorders had been analyzed.
The FAA had ordered visual inspections of all Airbus A300 tails soon after the crash of American 587. The Associated Press reported on January 16 that 40 of the 93 Airbus A300's in the United States had bolts in the tail section that had "rotated", i.e. loosened. Did these rotations occur on their own? Or had those bolts been manually loosened? Officials of Airbus North America and the FAA said there were never any concerns about safety. I asked an Airbus A300 mechanic, "could rotation of the bolts introduce the potential for dangerous vibration to the tail structure?" His answer: "I have to think, yes, it does. The bolt is supposed to be torqued to a specific range. This range should draw the bolt (which is tapered) into the tapered sleeve and expand it to a required amount within a design range. And, having rotation shows that there's very little torque on the bolt."
Bob Tamburini, an Airbus A300 Captain said "Indications that saboteurs are 'at work' on the payrolls of airlines adds another dimension to air safety. Crash investigators can no longer rule out sabotage/terrorism in a 'rush to judgment' designed to appease the flying public -- not when FAA certified mechanics, (possibly) linked to terrorist cells, can loosen attachment bolts on aircraft tails and engines. The time has come to ensure that all airport/airline employees meet the strictest background checks, regardless of the associated costs."
Even if the sabotage at Spirit Aviation is unrelated to the crash of American 587, the Spirit case is troubling since it highlights some of our vulnerabilities in aviation security. This is certainly not a problem unique to Spirit Aviation. In fact, they are probably as clean as can be right now and I would feel very comfortable flying Spirit Airlines. One Pilot, who flies in and out of New York City's JFK Airport stated, "this case (Spirit Air) points out the lack of background checking and the lack of ramp security. This was a concern before this information came forth and certainly even more so now."
The indictments leveled against the 15 mechanics also illustrate how vulnerable we are beyond the aviation industry. What other professional, skilled, sensitive positions have been compromised by the presence of illegal immigrants who have secured their positions with fraudulent documentation? What potential dangers do we face in those industries? Our borders and immigration policies continue to be a serious national security problem and the U.S. Government has simply not focused enough attention and resources at reducing and eliminating the threats we face from these weaknesses. A U.S. Border Patrol agent I spoke to was very much looking forward to this article. He feels much attention needs to be focused in this area and any media coverage highlighting how exposed we are is welcomed.
The problem of illegal immigrants slipping across the borders of Canada and Mexico is a function of problems overseas. The Observer of England reported this past Sunday, "Corrupt security guards employed by airlines are being bribed to allow asylum seekers, criminals and even terrorist suspects to pass through checkpoints unchallenged, making a mockery of measures introduced in response to the 11 September terror attacks. A 10-month investigation by the newly formed Human Smuggling Unit (at London Heathrow Airport, LHR) has uncovered evidence of a 'highly sophisticated and global' operation that has helped migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, India, Pakistan and Lebanon to travel to the US and Canada via Britain. Although the loophole was first uncovered at Heathrow, officers say the problem is not confined to one airport or airline and is part of a multi-million pound business."
The Department of Justice informed me that of the 15 indicted mechanics, Marvin Muncal Saquilabon, a Philippine citizen, has been a fugitive since the day of the raid, June 28. Jose Martin Sil-Acosta, a Mexican citizen, pled guilty but then jumped bond this September 11, and is probably back in Mexico now. Three others have pled guilty, another four or five are expected to do the same. The DOJ stated the sentences will be in the range of zero to six months. It does not appear that deportation will be sought against these individuals. Although the FBI was tipped off to the sabotage at Spirit Aviation back in September of 2001, it appears a connection could not be made between those crimes and specific individuals employed there. Sources tell me the DOJ was not aware of the sabotage that occurred at Spirit. The trial date for the rest of the indicted mechanics is currently set for December 9th. Lastly, I asked the DOJ, "did the indicted mechanics at Spirit have valid FAA licenses? Or were those documents also fraudulent?" The DOJ could not comment. Either way, the answer is not comforting.
The disturbing bottom line to all this ... is that there was sabotage at Spirit Aviation, some possible suspects have escaped prosecution, and those that will be sentenced will be out on the streets by next summer.
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