Watch Now

FreightWaves Flashback: Bombproof air cargo containers

1996: FAA ready to begin testing designs. But the air cargo industry wants to make sure they meet commercial needs

Image: Jim Allen (FreightWaves)

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. If there are topics that you think would be of interest, please send them to [email protected].

The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each week, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

In this week’s edition, from the August 1996 issue of American Shipper (virtual page 55), FreightWaves Flashback looks back at FAA’s testing of bombproof air cargo containers after years of study following the Pan Am Lockerbie bombings of 1990. 

The Federal Aviation Administration says it’s ready to start testing new designs of air cargo containers built to withstand terrorist bombs.

But the effort is being watched cautiously by forwarders, airlines and container builders. They agree stopping terrorist attacks is a laudable goal. But they also want to make sure commercial needs aren’t overlooked.

“You can build a container strong enough to restrain a blast. The question is how do they perform on the practical side?” said Richard McLennan, vice president of El Segundo, California-based Satco, one of the largest U.S. air cargo container manufacturers.

The air cargo industry worries that the new bombproof container designs could add weight and expense, while reducing space available for cargo.

The FAA said it is sensitive to those concerns but is pursuing designs for a bombproof container in response to a congressional directive to study the effects of explosions on planes.

Congress ordered the study after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1990.

In 1993, the FAA was awarded funding to create the Aircraft Hardening Program for reviewing container designs. Last November, the agency asked container manufacturers to submit designs for a bombproof container.

A half dozen manufacturers responded, but only one — Century Aero, based in Compton, California — has come up with a design that meets FAA approval for further testing.

Starting with LD-3

The FAA’s effort has begun with the LD-3, the most widely used container for airfreight and baggage. LD-3s are also commonly used in the belly compartments of widebody passenger planes.

“We’ve done a whole lot of work on what size of explosion the containers will take,” said Ken Hacker, program leader of the Aircraft Hardening Program, based at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

For security reasons, details of that work are classified. But Hacker said the most successful prototypes for containing bomb blasts are made from superhard composite materials.

The designs seek to keep a bomb’s explosive force inside the container. “There will probably be some damage to the cargo hold, but the point is to prevent the bomb from destroying the plane,” Hacker said.

One design submitted to the FAA offered a different approach. All sides of the container would be bombproof, except for one. Inside the plane, two of these containers would be placed together with the soft sides touching. The theory is that if a bomb explodes in one box, the force of the blast would be absorbed by the second.

“We’ll buy a couple of these containers to test at our facility, but we’re not convinced yet that they’ll work,” Hacker said.

The effect of explosions on composite-based boxes is being reviewed by the FAA with the help of the Great Lakes Composite Consortium, based in Columbia, South Carolina. Consortium members include Northrop, McDonnell Douglas, Rockwell and Lockheed.

Most of the manufacturers that submitted bids to the FAA are not traditional container builders but are composite-material specialists.

Major air-cargo container builders include U.S.-based Satco, Century Aero Products and Air Cargo Equipment Corp., and European-based Nordisk and Alusingen.

“We have not spent much time in developing them because we don’t think the industry will go in that direction,” Satco’s McLennan said. “If we’re wrong, we wouldn’t be far behind anyway.”

“The FAA has been working on this project for several years. They have to spend the money that has been allotted them for research. Odds are it will stop when the money runs out,” he said.

By 1998, the FAA must be ready to show the results of its study. “The R&D effort will be over at that point,” Hacker said.

The FAA’s early efforts to develop a bombproof container were slowed by the composite-materials companies’ unfamiliarity with the air cargo industry.

“In the beginning, we received prototypes that weighed as much as 600 pounds,” Hacker said. That’s twice the weight of a typical LD-3 container.

“We have since reduced the tare weights of the containers to 150 to 250 pounds. We realize that every extra pound adds cost to the airlines’ operations,” Hacker said.

Besides the problem of extra weight, forwarders and carriers worry that the new superstrong boxes may be too expensive.

“The airlines are doing the best they can right now to minimize operation costs,” said Ted McEvoy, manager of unit load devices for the International Air Transport Association. “Carriers would have trouble affording to replace their fleets with bombproof containers.”

The average LD-3 costs $1,000 to $1,300. Estimated costs for a bombproof box exceed $2,500 each, McEvoy said.

Today, when a typical aluminum LD-3 is badly damaged — for example, punctured by a forklift — the airline usually finds it cheaper to replace than to repair.

McEvoy said, however, the bombproof containers “will be too expensive to consider as disposable assets. Maintenance cost will definitely be a concern.”

Another problem with a bombproof box is how to design its door. Most LD-3 doors are made of lightweight folding fabric, while many bombproof boxes feature sliding doors. “Sliding doors will be difficult to work with in tight spaces,” McEvoy said.

Forwarders worry the bombproof boxes will reduce cargo capacity. But Hacker said most forwarders use only about 70% of a LD-3’s capacity under normal circumstances because the containers usually reach the maximum weight before they’re filled.

Put to the test

The FAA is expected to get the first 10 of Century Aero’s prototypes in July and said about 80 boxes — from Century and other companies — are expected to be in use by various airlines next year.

U.S. airlines testing the containers are American, United, Delta, Trans World Airlines and Northwest. Federal Express is also likely to receive a few.

Century Aero calls its container the Mark I. It is made of polycarbonate, a composite material known for its tensile strength and flexibility. The container is held together by interlocking joints, rather than traditional riveted joints.

“We’ve subjected our Mark I container to bombs twice as strong as the one used in Pan Am Flight 103 and they’ve contained the blast,” said Ted Dunwoodie, president of Century Aero.

Dunwoodie concedes even his Mark I design has its limits. “Nothing is foolproof,” Dunwoodie said.

Other industry officials say the best way to fight this type of terrorism on airlines is on the ground before cargo reaches the planes. This may include more use of X-ray scanners and specially trained dogs.

Click for more content from the American Shipper Archives.

You may also like:

2000: World ports reach 201 million TEUs

1992: Bills of lading in a barcode

1975: Almost eight years in the Great Bitter Lake