By James Pinkerton, The Houston Chronicle
Washington, Jul 19, 2010 -
Diverted from a final flight to an Arizona airplane graveyard, a retired U.S. Air Force aircraft's new mission will be to help Houston police train on how to tackle terrorists, foil hijackers and search for on-board bombs.
The functioning 737 Boeing jet, worth $5.4 million, was decommissioned by the U.S. Air Force after a 37-year hitch training navigators at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. It was transferred to HPD under a government surplus property program and flown to Houston, a lengthy effort coordinated by several HPD officers and U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston.
The congressman said he is pleased he could help persuade the Air Force to transfer the aircraft to HPD, something he said he hopes can be done in other cities.
"I don't know of any airport in the country, or any other police department, that has a facility like this,ì Poe said. "It's a win for everybody, and it will be used by the finest police force in the country."
The aircraft will remain the property of the Department of Defense, and Houston police will have to pay for its storage and maintenance. A spokeswoman for Poe said fuel costs were substantially less to ferry the jet to Houston instead of the aircraft boneyard near Phoenix.
Capt. Robert Montgomery, who heads HPD's tactical operations division, said the aircraft was stripped of its military hardware, and rows of commercial airline seating were donated by Continental Airlines. He envisions officers with HPD's SWAT team and bomb squad training on the plane, along with FBI agents and other police agencies in the region.
"In case we have a hijacking or a terrorist scenario on a plane at the airport, we'll know what we're up against because we'll be training on a regular basis,ì Montgomery said.
A spokeswoman for the FBI office in Houston said local agents will be interested in training on it with HPD.
"Our SWAT team has taken advantage of training with HPD in the past, and we would be open to joint training opportunities in the future,ì said FBI Special Agent Shauna Dunlap, a spokeswoman for the Houston office.
The Air Force approved the transfer of the aircraft to HPD because of Houston's role as a key hub on Latin American air routes, as well as its proximity to Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico, Poe said. Houston has the fourth-largest airport system in the nation, with operations at Bush, Hobby and Ellington.
HPD Chief Charles McClelland said using an actual aircraft will improve K-9 Units, the bomb squad and SWAT teams.
"It's a great tool,ì McClelland said. "We have a large international airport, and to protect the flying public, we need some training to ensure we're prepared for any event.ì