Last time our resident solicitor Paul Clough dealt with the legal implications of transporting mud crabs by air and the inherent risks arising for both the pilot and the airline. This month he deals with the transportation of millions of dollars worth of cash … and gold.
Airlines regularly secretly transport real money but they do not acknowledge it either sparingly or widely. On two occasions, as a pilot I had an unpleasant experience relating to the transportation of money. The first was when I was a Fokker Friendship captain on an overnight flight between Brisbane, Maryborough and Bundaberg. The preliminaries were no different to any other Friendship flight. I met the F/O at flight planning, walked to the aircraft, did the pre-flight, chatted to the loaders and hostesses, carried out the pre-start checks, loaded freight and passengers. No word of a monetary nature was uttered.
Once we arrived in Bundaberg, the crew and I headed to our motel. Naturally, we wanted to have a couple of drinks and a chat before bedtime, so we all adjourned to my room and were dealing with important cerebral matters such as promotion, the latest scandal befalling other aircrew and the silliness of our managers. There was a sudden banging on the door at about 9:00 pm. As it was my room, I went to the window adjacent to the door pulled the curtain aside and to my horror saw about eight to 10 policemen standing outside my room. The leader, a senior sergeant, saw me and demanded in a loud voice “Open up, police!”
As the hostesses were still in uniform and drinking some alcoholic beverages, and the F/O was partaking of a can of beer, I considered the ANO relating to drinking before flying or the eight hours from bottle to throttle rule. We all may have just breached that ANO, but I wasn’t sure.
Discretion is the better part of valor, so I decided that we should remove all evidence of alcoholic consumption from the room and perhaps remove airline insignia. This took some time much to the annoyance of the waiting police, who now started to bang on the door with increasing urgency.
When the scene was sufficiently clear of alcoholic evidence, I finally opened the door and it was akin to letting the genie out of the bottle. The police erupted into my room and started to ransack the place. They looked into the wardrobe, my overnight case, the bedside table, under the bed, in the bathroom, all the while speaking in very loud voices to the F/O and each of the hostesses, words to the effect of: “Where’s the money?”
No one in the crew had any idea what the police were talking about or why they were scouring my room. They were also demanding keys to the other crews’ rooms so they could broaden the search. I thought it best to ask just what the police were on about. This question seemed to anger the Senior Sergeant no end. The police did not have a search warrant or at least did not produce one. They took some time to calm down and then I was told that $1 million had been stolen on the flight. The police assumed that either I or the crew or someone in the crew had stolen the money and they were going to find it in our rooms before we disposed of it. This was all news to me and my crew. By this time the hostesses were in tears and quite upset by the ransacking of their rooms by roughneck policemen.
I pause to ask you, dear reader, to consider just what a million of notes looks like. How big is it in a pile? Is it fair to say that it would fit into one of those wheelie cases trundled around airports or perhaps something larger? A million dollars in small notes would fill an even bigger case.
The cop didn’t know what denomination the notes were in. I said to him that the overnight bags owned by the crew couldn’t possibly have contained a million dollars in notes, and as they had seen our bags in great detail, it was obvious that none of us had the money. The Senior Sergeant wasn’t convinced and he demanded that we all adjourn to the police station for interviews. Hanging in the air like a dark cloud was the threat of being fingerprinted, handcuffed and thrown into cells if we did not solve “his” problem of the missing money.
I ask you to remember that we as a crew had to have a regulation rest period and fly out the next day at about 7 am. It was now about 10:00 pm and outside our rest period. A trip to the police station and questioning would extend into the small hours of the next day. We would not have had an appropriate rest if we were subject to lengthy questioning. The prognosis was not good.
I told the policeman in clear terms that he was intruding into our rest period and that was against the law as in Federal law. The Queensland policeman leader then became aware he was dealing with a Federal matter not a simple local stealing matter.
We eventually agreed that the rest of the crew would be allowed to go to bed and not attend the police station for questioning. I, on the other hand, would accompany the police out to the airport at Bundaberg, open the aircraft and let them search the plane to determine if the money was still on board. This was done and nothing was found. I returned to the motel courtesy of the police and went to bed.
Next morning we went to work on time and we flew the aircraft from Bundaberg to Maryborough to Brisbane as normal. I mentioned to our agent at Bundaberg that there had been a fuss over a lost $1 million in cash. He was surprised as he had not been contacted.
On arrival at Brisbane, I spoke to the Senior Regional Captain, who advised me that whilst he was aware that money moved with the airline, he knew that the dispatch was clothed in secrecy and this was why there were no armed cars or obvious security associated with the money. He mentioned that the captain of the aircraft that moved the money was deliberately not told of the value of his freight cargo. Talk about being set up for an aerial version of “The Great Train Robbery”.
The sequel occurred about three weeks later, when passing through Maryborough airport. The agent’s workman mentioned that a freight bag without a tag had been lying on a freight trolley for some weeks and had not been claimed. He wondered if I would take it and put the freight bag back into circulation in Brisbane. My ears pricked up. Was there anything in the bag? Yes. So in company with the worker, I went over to the open ended hangar housing the mysterious freight bag on a trolley and opened it. Yes here was the missing $1 million sitting on a trolley in an open hangar available to the public for the past three weeks. I can answer the earlier question: $1 million is not a very big pile of money. About 24 cm x 10 cm x 12 cm. Naturally, I took it with me. When I returned the bag and contents to the SRC he was surprised and immediately contacted his superiors and the upshot was that an insurance company recovered the money which incidentally was now $1.2 million! The airline, the bank and the insurance company lived happily ever after. And I never got an apology from the police for an interrupted overnight.
The second incident about money occurred in Geneva, Switzerland when I was working as a pilot overseas. Again I was a skipper on a F27 Friendship that operated a passenger flight each Friday night from Luxembourg to Geneva. This particular night, I was carrying out a walk around and observed a couple of chaps on what appeared to be an electric cart travelling ever so slowly along marked roads airside from near the terminal to everywhere. I watched and ultimately, after some four or five minutes, the cart and the couple pulled up at the front door of the F27. The two then grasped what appeared to be a couple of handles of a small box which was very heavy. They staggered over to the aircraft with difficulty and dumped the small wooden box in the front freight doorway of the aircraft. The nose visibly moved down by about two to three inches. This was some heavy box which with handles was only about 20 cm x 12 cm x 14 cm. I enquired of the two “What is that?” The two spoke English with difficulty. They between them said, “You don’t need to know and we won’t tell you?”
As the box clearly exceeded the floor loading strength, I was concerned that should I leave it there and we strike some turbulence on the run back to Luxembourg, the box could fall through the floor and through the pneumatic undercarriage controls, disabling the aircraft for landing.
I asked the question again but this time, added: “If you don’t tell me, I will not carry it as it exceeds the floor loading. I’ll get you to take it away”. This put the cat among the pigeons. They started speaking quick-fire French, German and incomprehensible English. I only speak and understand English. A stand-off occurred. I got the local agent and explained that the box exceeded the floor loading and could not be carried. If it was medical radio isotopes in a lead lined box the box would have to be strapped to a pallet to spread the load. The crew would need to be warned that if it leaked anything due to pressurisation that we should not go near it and perhaps throw a blanket over it.
Eventually, the agent relented and told me that the box contained gold on transfer from a bank in Geneva to a bank in Luxembourg and in the corner was about $5 million in various currencies also being transferred. Clearly, the cargo was more valuable than the aircraft it was being transported in.
Our parking position was on an open tarmac quite close to public areas. I enquired as to what security was in place for our protection should criminals decide to cross from the public areas to the aircraft and steal the loot. The agent then pointed to an isolated area some 700 metres away behind a revetment. Parked there was an armoured car with a machine gun pointed in my aircraft’s direction with a helmeted gunner with his hands on the machine gun. I decided that I did not need to know more.
I flew the aircraft back to Luxembourg after the gold load was distributed via a pallet. I did not tell the F/O or the hostesses lest it alarm them. On arrival at Luxembourg, I parked in the normal position on a well lit apron. Parked on a raised area behind the bright lights was an armoured car with German iron cross markings and a gunner behind a machine gun watching the aircraft on the tarmac.
I brought this incident to the local chief pilot’s attention a day or two later. I was concerned lest gold weighing many kilograms above the floor load limit was loaded without telling the captain. I also mentioned that having that large sum of money, the armoured car surveillance and the secrecy surrounding the transport of the gold and money put all the crew at risk of a criminal attack. If we knew the risk each of us could disappear or lie flat on the tarmac lest we be shot in the cross fire by the retaliating gunners. The boss’s comment said it all – “You are not a Luxembourger and as such you are expendable.” The rest of the crew was also not Luxembourgers. So much for a duty of care for aircrew.
Watch this space…