Airline relied on security equipment it knew to be useless, says Canadian investigation

Less than four weeks before a bomb ripped through an Air India flight over the Irish sea in June 1985, killing all 329 on board, the airline's headquarters in Mumbai warned its offices worldwide that a major terrorist attack was imminent

Issued on the basis of the information provided to the airline by agents of India's Intelligence Bureau in Canada, the June 1, 1985 telex warned of “sabotage attempts being undertaken by Sikh extremists by placing time/delay [explosive] devices, etc. in the aircraft or registered baggage”.

Earlier this month, an official investigation by the former Canadian Supreme Court judge, John Major, into the bombing of Air India flight 182 slammed the country's police and intelligence services for failing to act on the telex as well as a mass of other warnings that could have prevented Khalistan terrorists from planting the bomb in the New Delhi-bound Boeing 747, Emperor Kanishka.

But Justice Major's report also makes clear that Air India was grossly negligent in its own responses, relying on screening equipment that frequently malfunctioned, explosives detection machines it knew did not work, and staff untrained in using them.

The June 1985 telex directed Air India stations across the world to ensure “meticulous implementation of counter-sabotage measures for flights at all airports.” In particular, it called for “random physical searches of checked baggage.”

Instead, Air India's security arrangements in Canada called for all baggage to be routed through Linescan X-ray machines, and provided for stand-by scanning by Graseby PD4-C hand-held explosives vapour tracers — in fairness, “an extraordinary requirement at the time,” Justice Major notes.

But the airline's X-ray machine frequently broke down, the Air India commission found — and, worse, the explosives tracer technology it depended on for back-up was useless.

Passenger baggage on flight 182 began to be processed through Air India's security hold in Toronto's Pearson Airport about 2.30 p.m. on June 22. James Post, an employee of Air India contractor Burns Security, was tasked with scanning each bag for explosives. By today's standards, the technology he used was poor. Because of low-image resolution, the images that appeared on Post's screen needed careful interpretation. In findings for Justice Major, civil aviation security expert Rodney Wallis said the scanning process was a cosmetic measure that “lulled the public and some airline managements into a false sense of security.”

Later that afternoon, though, the Linescan X-ray machine stopped working. It had often given trouble in the past, but Air India chose not to purchase a standby.

John D'Souza, Air India's security officer in Montréal, now directed the Burns staff to process the remaining baggage using the PD4 explosives scanner. None of the staff had used the PD4 before, so D'Souza provided a quick how-to class, holding up a lit match close to the device. The machine emitted a shrill noise, which one witness described as resembling the sound of “a kettle going off.”

Designed to detect nitrated organic molecules, the PD4 was supposed to emit a high-pitched tone when held near explosives like nitroglycerine and trinitrotoluene. In January 1985, Air India officials watched a demonstration at the Pearson airport that made clear it could not be counted on. The PD4 failed to detect a vial of gunpowder until it was just an inch away from the explosives. Later experiments using plastic explosives also failed.

For reasons that are not clear, the Air India headquarters was never told of the failure — and, shockingly, there is no evidence that it ever conducted tests of its own before purchasing the PD4.

Untrained staff

Even if the PD4 had, in fact, picked up explosives in the luggage, the untrained Burns staff would likely have missed the warning anyway. In one case, witnesses testified, the machine emitted a low beep when it was being passed over the zip of a bag. But Post, who had never been told that the intensity of the warning varied with the concentration of explosive vapours, allowed the bag to pass.

Part of the reason for the security failures, the Air India commission says, was that governments and airlines were still focussed on deterring hijackings — a threat that had long receded. Security arrangements were thus focussed on screening carry-on baggage, not check-in baggage.

More physical searching of check-in baggage, of the kind called for by Air India's June 1 telex, might have detected the bomb that made its way to Emperor Kanishka. So might have procedures to make sure passengers who had checked in bags boarded the aircraft. Many of these measures were eventually implemented in the wake of the bombing.

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