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Jet will stage terror in its aisle

The Boeing 727 will serve as an antiterror training facility. It's the first offered to officers outside federal agencies.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published December 9, 2003

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[Times photos: Ken Helle]
Members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Tactical Response Team enter a Boeing 727 jetliner during a demonstration Monday.
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The Tactical Response Team approaches the rear of the jetliner. The plane was donated to the Sheriff's Office by a cargo company in Orlando.

LITHIA - All casual chatter inside the airplane ended when 12 masked men, dressed in green combat gear and holding guns, burst into the cabin and stalked down the aisle.

Several widely known people were aboard. Sheriff Cal Henderson. WQYK-FM 99.5 disc jockey Skip Mahaffey. Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist.

"HANDS UP! Put your hands on your heads! PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEADS," the armed men screamed at the passengers.

Everyone complied.

Then they applauded.

It was the first of many antiterrorism exercises that will be held inside a Boeing 727 jet parked at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office training facility off County Road 39 in eastern Hillsborough.

The jet, which was donated to the Sheriff's Office by a cargo transport company in Orlando, is the first training tool of its kind for law enforcement officers who aren't federal agents.

On Monday, sheriff's officials held a dedication ceremony for the jet, with SWAT team demonstrations, a lunch catered by Maggiano's and a keynote address by John Walsh, host of the Fox TV show America's Most Wanted.

In a speech filled with tough talk and mild profanities directed at the Sept. 11 hijackers and al-Qaida, Walsh praised the Sheriff's Office for offering a space where law enforcement officers can train to stop terrorists.

"This is America," Walsh said. "Right here. Today. You sons of b------. We'll be ready for you the next time."

The ceremony marked the end of a yearlong project for the Sheriff's Office, which started when the brother of Hillsborough Deputy William Hill called and asked if the agency wanted a jet.

The plane is 130 feet long, 12 feet wide and weighs 30,000 pounds. It was once owned by American Airlines, then was used as a cargo plane.

Hill worked on the logistics for several months, eventually securing donations, permits and, most important, transportation for the jet. It took more than 10 hours for a transport company to tow the jet over bumpy country roads, all the way from Orlando International Airport to the training facility in rural Hillsborough County.

Private businesses gave about $500,000 in cash and in-kind donations for the training facility. The Sheriff's Office spent about $150,000 of its own money on the project.

The jet has been repainted with green and gold stripes - the colors of the Sheriff's Office - with a large America's Most Wanted logo affixed to its tail. The TV show paid for the logo.

"Look at it," a beaming Hill said Monday. He and his brother, along with several other people who helped bring the jet to Hillsborough, were given awards by the sheriff and Walsh.

Later this month, an FBI hostage rescue team will use the plane to train Hillsborough deputies, Tampa police and local FBI agents on antiterrorism tactics. Then, law enforcement agencies from across the country will be able to use the site for training.

Only the FBI has a similar training site with a jet, said sheriff's Maj. Robert Cipriano, and that is only available for federal officers.

"Law enforcement from all over will come to Tampa Bay to ensure all Americans will continue to live free, safe and secure," Crist said.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson also attended the ceremony, saying that it will be local law enforcement, not the federal government, who will first respond to any terrorist acts.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office is "getting with the program," Nelson said, "being serious about this war on terrorism."

Nelson told the crowd of about 200 that terrorists may try to take down planes with heat-seeking, shoulder-mounted missiles.

Nelson vowed to propose a bill during the next congressional session that would fund "jammers, flares or other equipment" for commercial airplanes in an effort to thwart any heat-seeking missiles.

Currently, the Department of Homeland Security will spend $100-million, more than initially planned, to explore the feasibility of outfitting jetliners with electronic devices that would protect the aircraft from missiles fired by terrorists on the ground.

But Nelson said Congress should allow the department to use existing military technology for commercial planes.

"It would threaten commercial aviation" if a terrorist attacked a plane with such a weapon, Nelson said.

"We need to act to protect the airlines."

- Tamara Lush can be reached at 813 226-3373 or at lush@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 9, 2003, 01:33:59]


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