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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.

Mims_Amateur_Scientist_MAKE_50_Fig_D
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.

Mims_Amateur_Scientist_MAKE_50_Fig_A
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.

19 thoughts on “A Maker’s Misadventures in Airport Security

  1. Ok, for one. If you are planning on doing this stuff on a plane frigging call ahead and get authorization. For two, you’re a dumb ass if you do not think you will draw attention from people doing this. For three, for Christ sakes how dumb are you?! I mean come on… Use your damn brain and common sense. Think Mcfly, think! You wouldn’t walk into CERN and start using something that puts out waves or records data? NO, you wouldn’t! So don’t try and start some stupid ass shit and claim ignorance. Dumbass!

  2. We, technical and recreational divers, had the same issues post 911. I know there were many times I spoke as the head of a group of divers to the screeners telling them to expect our rigs (dive computers and regulators) coming through the machines. Most times it was okay but we had had some major issues with some screeners. I can only imagine what you guys go through with open motherboards and wires.

  3. When I travel for work, I’m carrying company owned equipment and devices so I have a stack of paperwork describing it all. For checked luggage, I use a clearly marked, company owned equipment case. For carry-on, I put my personal items in a small duffle I pack inside the laptop bag with the company laptop. Once, the TSA decided to confiscate the laptop and devices. (Have not traveled to the UK, so I don’t know how this would go over, there.) For personal travel within the US, I ship electronics to my destination and only carry personal items. For Canada, I go through a land-based crossing, but limit my electronics to an old laptop with nothing important in it. So far, the only times I’ve been asked more than the usual questions has been when returning to or traveling within the US.

  4. Mr. Mims, I admire you greatly. Your articles are always interesting and well balanced. Thanks again for sharing your great experiences!

  5. I’m not convinced that most of the problems you describe weren’t of your own making. Don’t you think it would have been both polite and sensible to inform the airline staff that you were going to be making these measurements on their flight? I might have even thought it appropriate to ask permission. From the positive reaction the flight crews gave you once they realised what you were doing, it seems to me that the obvious thing to do in future is to approach the flight staff when you board and discuss what you’d like to do. They have a very grave responsibility. By clearly communicating up front what you wanted to do, you could have avoided discomforting both yourself and those flight crews who, as you yourself have experienced, are spooked enough already. The flight crews probably tell a story of a bumbling boffin they saved from a terrible fate. Perhaps a little perspective is in order.

  6. I was inspired to become an Electrical Engineer thanks to the many lab notebooks that Radio Shack sold written by Mr. Mimms. His notebooks were pretty good and went on to building many breadboard projects from High School and even college thanks to him. No longer an Engineer, but still, I’m glad to see Mr. Mimms is still kicking. :)

  7. What is it with airports that all laws go out of the window and airport staff can act with impunity ignoring rights? This shit needs to stop.

  8. I travelled a few times with a backpack full of chip & PIN terminals, some with debug cables hanging out. As they were neither laptops nor tablets they were not looked at at all.

    One time a took an electricity meter, which I had to take of my handluggage despithe not being a laptop or tablet. I had to explain what an electricity meter is and the security man was very surprised that he had to pay for for the electricity he uses.

    I work in electronics manufacturing…

  9. You walk around in a sweater wired with electronics and try to board a plane post 9/11, and you’re surprised you get arrested at gunpoint? Seriously?

  10. Common Sense:
    You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
    You don’t spit into the wind
    You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
    And you don’t mess around with hacked electronics on an airplane!

  11. If I remember correctly, Star Simpson brought the TSA’s wrath upon herself by purposefully testing them with her contraption. Sure, the TSA is full of minimally educated grunts but why push them when you don’t have to?

    1. Star did not interact with the TSA at all since she did not visit the Departures area of the airport, having no intention of boarding a plane – she was meeting someone at Arrivals.

  12. Mr. Mims, you are an American hero and a personal hero to me. Just like you, I too am stirred by the experience Star had. I appreciate the need to protect us from the badguys but if we harass ordinary citizens we actually are letting the badguys win. I used to have a local home improvement radio program. We had a family trip planned. I couldn’t find anyone to sub for me to do the show. I took some gear with me in a separate bag labeled “Radio Broadcast Equipment” and so informed the clerk at the check-in counter. I got in an unbelievable amount of trouble, going and coming. My compilation of “dangerous” items included the same kind of headset the ESPN guys wear, a Shure mixer from the 1970’s, and a POTS-line Comrex “Hotline” broadcast codec with the required cables. I wasn’t arrested but made to feel very nervous. Now I know that I am in good company. I’ve been inspired by your work since I was a kid. When I was a “tween” I couldn’t wait for my copy of P.E. each month so I could memorize your contributions. 50 years later I’m still benefitting from your work and use your notebooks routinely. Thank you so very much for all you do for S.T.E.M., for your work on the environment, and for the courage of your convictions.

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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