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A Maker’s Misadventures in Airport Security
Security section of Denver International Airport
Security section of Denver International Airport

Star Simpson was a bright electrical engineering student at MIT in 2007 when she visited the baggage section of Boston Logan International Airport to meet a friend. Instead, she was surrounded by police, arrested at gunpoint, placed in hand- and ankle cuffs and put in a jail cell. Her offense? Star’s sweater featured a DIY star made from 11 green LEDs and a 9-volt battery cemented to a solderless breadboard. A plastic rose she made for her friend was suspected of being an explosive.

Airport security is supposed to protect us from authentic terrorists, and Star’s LEDs and plastic rose certainly didnt earn her the harsh treatment she received. Even though the police quickly determined her LED star was totally harmless, Boston’s judicial system took a year to drop a “hoax device” charge against Star, a violation that requires an intention to alarm others that never even entered her mind. Instead, she was sentenced to a year of probation for “disorderly conduct” and required to write a public apology and do 50 hours of community service.

I’ve not (yet) been arrested in airport security. But Star and I are kindred spirits, for I’ve also experienced some rough treatment at airports when my carry-on bag is crammed with electronics. Other Makers can learn a valuable lesson from our experiences.

My carry-on bag loaded with instruments
My carry-on bag loaded with instruments

Choked by an Airline Captain

While checking in for a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport several years before 9/11, I made the mistake of telling an American Airlines check-in agent that I was planning to measure the water vapor outside the aircraft with a homemade near-infrared hygrometer. This alarmed the agent, who quickly called her supervisor. After the supervisor grilled me, she called her supervisor, who told me that the captain would have to approve my presence on his aircraft. She then said, “Follow me,” and escorted me through the checkpoint without even inspecting my carry-on bag.

When we reached the end of a very busy corridor, the security boss firmly ordered, “Wait here while I find the captain.” The flight was already boarding, so after waiting a few minutes I took one step forward. Suddenly someone from behind threw an arm around my neck, placed me in a choke hold, dragged me toward a wall and shouted “You’re going to do what on MY AIRPLANE!?”

It’s difficult to speak while being choked, but I managed to gurgle: “If—you—let—go—of—my—neck—I’ll—tell—you.” The assailant slowly released me, and I turned around and saw a frowning man with his hands on his hips. He was shorter than me, built like a football player, and wearing the uniform of an American Airlines captain.

“I’m going to measure the water vapor outside the airplane,” I said. The captain cocked his head slightly and sounded genuinely curious when he asked, “How are you going to do that?”

I opened my carry-on bag just enough to retrieve the water vapor instrument. I didn’t open it all the way so he and the surrounding crowd couldn’t see all the other instruments packed inside.

Near-infrared hygrometer used on the Chicago flight whose captain choked me.
The near-infrared hygrometer used on the Chicago flight whose captain choked me

I handed the captain the palm-sized water vapor instrument and explained that it had two light sensors, one of which detected sunlight that is absorbed by water vapor and a second that detected sunlight unaffected by water vapor. A logarithmic amplifier calculated the ratio of the two measurements and sent the result to a display.

This fascinated the captain, whose scowl had evolved into a big smile. He said, “Wait here; I want my co-pilot to see this.” When the co-pilot arrived, the captain enthusiastically repeated my description of the instrument. He then asked, “How can we help you during the flight?”

“I would really appreciate it,” I said, “if you could occasionally announce our location and altitude. I will then make a reading and know exactly where it was taken.” The captain said he would be glad to help. He and I were the last to board the plane.

During the flight the passengers were puzzled by the captain’s announcement of our altitude and location every ten minutes. After we landed, the captain was waiting by the door. “How did I do?” he asked, and I thanked him for his help.

The Swiss Style of Practical Security

During a flight from Switzerland to New York, a flight attendant worried about the water vapor measurements I was making through a window and demanded that I give her my instruments. I did, along with a brochure for the Rolex Award I had received in Geneva a few days before for my ozone research.

After visiting the cockpit, she returned with a smile and said the captain had invited me to the cockpit. I spent 20 minutes in the jump seat talking with the captain about the plane, the ozone layer, and a Concorde that flashed by on its way to Europe.

During a memorable experience at the Zurich International Airport, the security agent insisted on x-raying an instrument that might be damaged by x-rays. After I politely objected, two heavily armed security officers arrived with the airport manager, who ordered me to submit to the x-ray. That’s when I remembered the Rolex brochure, which I gave him. When he saw my picture in the brochure, he smiled broadly, heartily congratulated me, and apologized for the confusion. He then led me around security without even checking all the other equipment in my carry-on bag.

Airport security baggage x-ray scanner

“Bullets” Create a Red Alert in Brazil

While waiting to board a plane to return home after three weeks of measuring dense smoke, sunlight, and bacteria in Brazil for a NASA project, armed security guards called my name. They drove one of my checked bags and me to the remote bomb disposal section of the Sao Paulo airport and told me to unlock the bag.

Their x-ray equipment had detected a homemade photometer fitted with light sensors installed in gas couplers that resembled bullets. After I showed them how the device worked, the relieved guards drove me straight to the plane. Some of the passengers wondered why I had an armed escort when they had to endure a crowded bus ride.

Post 9/11 Airport Security

After police were called when I was going through security at the San Antonio International Airport and after major problems going through security in Kona, Hawaii, I finally realized the obvious: Most people who don’t make things have no idea how to evaluate homemade equipment. Some are terrified by exposed wires and circuit boards, maybe because of bomb scenes in movies.

So I gave up. Now my carryon bag is only half stuffed with electronics; the rest is shipped ahead via FedEx.

A TSA officer kindly allowed me to photograph his gloved hands…
...and his badge.
…and his badge.

As for the airport security officers who have hassled me over the years, they are charged with protecting us from terrorism. They have a responsibility to carefully inspect anything unusual passengers might be carrying, and you and I have a duty to cooperate with them. So far they haven’t arrested me, and they don’t arrest children wearing shoes with flashing LEDs. But they went too far when they arrested Star Simpson after they determined that the LEDs on her sweater were harmless.

Going Further

You can learn much more about Star Simpson’s misadventure with airport security from her story in Make: and her interview in boingboing.

Forrest M. Mims III

Forrest M. Mims III (forrestmims.org), an amateur scientist and Rolex Award winner, was named by Discover magazine as one of the “50 Best Brains in Science.” His books have sold more than 7 million copies.

View more articles by Forrest M. Mims III