Testing the TSA with Titanium Man

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
I have been covertly testing airport security since early 2002. I file no reports and the only notes I take are mental. I am the person that knows when the airport has security holes and still boards the plane. I am titanium man. OK, enough of the dramatic science fiction; the truth is stranger. I have a few replacement parts installed in my body. Both my right and left humerus are constructed of titanium pins and plates with a number of screws in each arm and my right tibia has a full titanium core with a number of screws to fix it to my ankle and up by my knee. The details of how they all got there would be book length. The short version is that in early 2002 I had to get around in a wheel chair for a while, learn to walk, write, dress myself, eat, cook, all over again. It was an odd rebirth with metal ersatz bones to keep me all together. Unable to use my arms for much at the time due to their reconstruction, I managed to get around by dragging my left foot against the ground to propel the wheelchair. It was much like skateboarding when you get enough momentum to get from place to place.
Oddly enough, one of the first things I did after 4 months in a skilled nursing facility was fly to Canada. At the airport I first noticed how little security there was for me, despite the increased vigilance resulting from 9-11. I was 'wanded' in my wheelchair and of course beeped when wanded on my arms and right leg. After a brief visual inspection, I was simply pushed on by security. At the time, there was no security check of my wheelchair and I could have brought anything stashed in my chair or thick seat cushion. I felt sick being simply pushed by security as I watched a grandmother get special scrutiny. Flying wheelchair bound opened my eyes to the oddities of airport security. I (re)learned to walk a bit later and was a happy boy when the insurance company knocked on my door to repossess my Quickie brand chair, an awesome piece of equipment I must admit. Then I flew, again and again, and noticed at many airports the same trend: massive inconsistency and the reliance on devices to make us feel safe. Simply put: I carry enough titanium in with me to set off most metal detectors, unless their settings are on low. Therein lies the truth that I see every time I fly: The security system in the aviation world was, is, and will always be a sham to a certain extent. There are way too many holes to call it secure. Why are metal detectors manufactured with settings of low, mid, and high? Shouldn't there just be one setting? I flew last week and the metal detectors at both Pittsburgh and Boston were set to low. When they are, I most often walk on through with no problem. This summer in Albany, I set the detector off and got a very thorough secondary screening. I don't mind being wanded and having my limbs touched for security purposes. I admit, almost all of the time it is done in a professional and dignified way by the TSA agents. At many airports on most days there is a low security concern and the rules are lax. I skip through unnoticed and board my plane. When there is a real terror concern, however, I start to beep. If the airport has a specific threat like when I was in Munich last year, I beep and get some sort of secondary screening. In Munich I had a nice chat (and a thorough wanding) with a gentleman who was clearly not a standard security checkpoint screener. He asked behavioral type questions and I think he was concerned that I could conduct the interview in German. (Apparently, being an American who speaks a language with a degree of competency is a red flag.) These days are good. I go through security, set off an alarm, am treated with caution and respect and get to go home with a real sense that someone is paying attention. I worry most when I get through secondary screenings without a second glance. 7 times (2 alone at the Dayton airport) the batteries of the hand wands were low or empty and therefore didn't go off during my secondary screening. Once I think the device was not even turned on as the green light wasn't lit. The TSA agent simply waved it over me as a rote motion, and then told me to be on my way. I stood there the first time in disbelief as I know how much metal I have on me and I know how those wands go off when they get near me. Of course, I also know what happens if I say something and alert the security to their "problem". The airport gets shut down, the gates are cleared and we all go through it again because some TSA agent forgot to charge the batteries or turn the thing on. So I just go to my gate and get on the plane. Perhaps it is irresponsible, but I have seen all of the airport security holes and know that terrorists are not stopped at the security checkpoint by the system we have created. That is my reality and my perception. It may be somewhat flawed, but I am not alone in this viewpoint. And now we have backscatter technology to fix the holes. It is humorous to me that this is the device that causes the most outrage us because it exposes us physically. I don't personally mind if some TSA agent in a back room sees the size of my schnitzel. My issue with the scanners is that it is more of the same bullshit heaped upon the existing pile of bullshit we already take for a security system. Shoes, liquids, printer toner, nail clippers, whathaveyou. All are smoke screens to have us not ask the harder questions about issues of what actually makes us secure. It is that general feeling that we are not doing security in the right way and that in itself makes us feel insecure. This insecurity logically leads to questions about the process. Now, something has changed for the worse. You are punished for refusing a specific device. The 'thorough pat-down' recently introduced is the TSA's method of quelling dissent by subjecting flyers to an invasive and undignified physical search. It is the spanking for simply questioning the veracity of the process. We ask, "Will the photos be stored?" The answer, "not possible, of course not." The geeks know differently. They probably programmed the machine and so we cry foul. Why are the geeks the ones who cry the hardest? Because we are inherently people of science and ultimately we know the limits of technology. We are the ones who understand that these new devices are no solution to our problems, but are most likely simple the new panacea, brought to us by a new lobbyist until the next great machine comes along. We know this because we have bought smaller versions of these devices all these years thinking that this device was 'it'. Was I the only person with a Sony Clié? So pat me down, wand me, find my metal, but do it in a dignified way. Don't expect me to believe that this new device will find everything or that a groping will find things either. And please replace or charge the batteries in the hand wands. If you are so worried about touching us intimately and seeing us naked, you might miss the obvious.


  1. I can confirm the shotty metal detectors.

    I have about a 1.5ft titanium rod in one of my legs, along with the screws holding it in place, metal detectors don’t always catch it.

    The total mass of all that titanium would be several knives or a small handgun.

    1. I am in the same boat, I have about 50 -60 cubic centimeters of titanium in my body.

      However, my medical work has never set off a metal detector.

      I used to tell agents before going through the metal detector, but that automatically means a pat down. I started just keeping it to myself, and it hasn’t been an issue since.

      1. Yes, me too, exactly.

        Anon @ #8, I did that in the beginning but the screeners seemed to find this a nuisance – I can only assume that they knew that their devices were set so low that they wouldn’t go off, but it’s not something that they want to admit in front of a bunch of passengers.

  2. Wouldn’t all this X-raying and genital examination save more American lives if the government would pay for it to be done in hospitals?

  3. wouldn’t it be better for him to say just before he enters, i’ve got titanium in me it’ll probably go off

  4. Geeks. We are the ones who made something and found that it did what we built it to do, not what we designed it to do — the ones who programmed something and found that it did what we asked it to do, not what we wanted it to do — the ones who saw what our companions made and understood what they had not considered while making it — the ones who entered into that whole process with the expectation that it was not a ritual where only the known was acceptable, but a chance to discover, and teach, the joy of the unknown.

  5. Heh. Count me as another person who has a big ol chunk of steel (I think) bolted to their insides and has never had a problem with metal detectors. I’ve wondered if having it surrounded by flesh makes the detectors less sensitive to it, but I think that only applies to time-traveling Terminators.

  6. A woman I work with told me that her son travels with a kit of hypodermic needles so he can self administer insulin. He carries them right through security at airports and doesn’t declare them. The needles are too fine to be picked up by metal detectors.

    The other day in my city another petrol station was held up by a guy with a syringe full of blood. He told the attendant he had HIV so the guy handed over the money.

    1. Good post.

      Enough with the TSA takedowns. OK, so the guy on a wheelchair got through security. If the TSA had removed him from his chair and tore the seat pad apart looking for WMDs we would have had a totally different post.

      Does anyone have any solutions?

  7. You’re talking about the Dayton Airport! They have rocking chairs at the gate! 98% of my flights there required I walk out on the tarmac! I know there shouldn’t be an excuse, but they’re not the most up to date airport!

  8. Flight that cashed in Penn. field 2001-09-11, plot foiled by: passengers
    Shoe bomber plot foiled by: passengers
    underpants bomber plot foiled by: passengers

    Most effective airline security: passengers

  9. I’m another member of the titanium club. However mine consistently sets off the WTMD since 9/11. I think this may be a result of he face that mine is not covered by much flesh.

  10. I am curious to hear if anything is ever going to happen with all this bitching about TSA, security theater, etc. It’s been going on for years and nothing ever happens. Is anyone taking concrete steps to address this? Any courageous congresspersons out there? Of course, they would be equated with actually BEING a terrorist, but at this point merely being a democrat practically assures the same treatment. So why no action?

    1. You’re more likely to get small-government-minded Republicans on board with this one than civil-libertarian-minded Democrats. There is a Republican named John Duncan from Tennessee, for example, who is extremely critical of the TSA. I don’t agree with him on too many other issues, but he earns an A+ from me on his stances on TSA and the Air Marshals.


    See what I did there? huh? see it?

    Ok, in all honesty, great piece. Well put. Just had this conversation with my wife. I don’t mind a little inconvenience and loss of liberty. But make it effective. I compare this to speed limits. We have speed limits, no autobahn. It limits people and puts restrictions on them…but its effective. It definitely works in making the roads safer for all.

    If the scanners were effective and actually made us safer, we’d accept it. They don’t though….therein lies the problem.

  12. A few years ago, I flew while recovering from a broken leg. I was in a “cam-walker”–a high tech piece of plastic with large, flat metal bars inserted for rigidity. I set off the metal detector and was directed to a chair. There, I had to take off the cam-walker and they wanded my leg. They didn’t bother checking the cam-walker itself. I could have carried my trusty pocket knife after all–or any number of other long, sharp bladed objects–without discovery. That’s when I knew those calling it “security theater” were right.

  13. I have to confirm this word-for-word. I am bolted back together as well, including: A rod in my leg with 7 screws, a plate and 9 screws in my wrist, 4 plates, 2 pins and 16 screws in my face –all titanium. I know that titanium is non-ferrous and is less detectable by metal detectors, but man, I do have a ton of it inside me. The hardware has been inside me since 1995 and I fly a lot. I really can’t say much about the quality of screenings in general, but I can say that there is no consistency what-so-ever, in terms of setting off the metal detectors. I would guess that it is around 20% of the time, I set the thing off.

  14. I’m waiting for the terrorists to use a suicide bomber as seen in “The Dark Knight” where they surgically implant something huge in the abdomen of the suicide bomber. This already has sort of been tried I think with that PTN stuff in Saudi Arabia were a suicide bomber had the bomb inserted up his rectum.

    I wonder though if the biggest problem terrorists have is finding really committed suicidal volunteers? The latest thing last weekend of ‘catching’ a would-be teenage bomber sounds like the FBI did most of the ‘radicalizing’ of the kid who clearly was doing the same thing as the Times Square bomber, setting a bomb and skedaddling.

    Truly effective terrorism by our enemies would be something totally out of left field rather than to try to blow up more planes. The bio/nuc stuff Tom Clancy wrote about in the late 1990’s as parts of his books scare me the most, but what if they spent a couple months planting incendiary bombs in national forests to all go off at once in whatever is the worst part of the fire season? Coast to coast forest fires would be insanely scary.

    Over the years I remember seeing stuff about the scariest stuff is using trains against us; using high-power rifles or derailments in population centers of the ordinary hazardous railway tanker cars. I only saw that discussed once on tv, and that remains quite a scary one.

    I wonder if retrospect we’d spent the money from these two war fronts instead of on bombs on dropping iPods, video games and other things might it have been vastly cheaper and produced a youth in these countries that liked us.

  15. I think this all goes into the crapper when the terrorists start blowing up check points. The terrorist interest in planes seems to have luddite qualities.

  16. Pre 9/11 I had to send an assembly fixture that was hot off the milling machine. No time to fedex (we mailed my clothes instead), so had to fly with it. 1″ x 18″ x 24″ aluminum base. 2″ x 18″ dia turntable. Then another 50 lbs of metal bolted on that. And a giant box of cables, metal parts, plastic, etc. All for an assembly run the next day.

    In such a hurry, I checked in the cables and parts, but carried the 200lb fixture in a box through security. They ran that sucker through the X-ray at least 4 times. Solid black. I was asked what it was and told them. They said ok, you’re free to go. I refused. I made them unpack the box and inspect it (I’d brought tape to be prepared and damn if we weren’t going to use that tape!).

    And yes, that damn fixture flew across the country in an overhead bin. No way could it be construed a weapon, but I’m sure you could think of a few unhappy scenarios involving inertia or gravity. And except for airline weight rules, there still aren’t any TSA rules against that fixture.

  17. “(Apparently, being an American who speaks a language with a degree of competency is a red flag.)”
    Another language, he means? Besides English, which is still a language, and which many, many Americans speak with great competency?

    1. And which many, many Amereicans speak with little competency. This isn’t implyiny you or the other people who have posted. Just that many Americans (and I’m not talking about immigrants either) have little fluency in their native language.

  18. I fly infrequently. But after 9/11 I set off the metal detector every time I flew no matter what. Each time the wand found something to explain the beep – a belt buckle, a small metal brad on my coat. I nearly stripped before going through security. Still I beeped.

    Then I realized that my high-tech, light-weight, very unobtrusive eye glasses had titanium in the arms and nose-bridge, it’s no more than fraction of an ounce. I wear these nearly every waking minute and hadn’t considered the metal content to be significant. I started placing the glasses in my carry-on before going through security. And I’ve yet to set the alarm off since.

  19. As I’ve been telling people since 9/11, the average American is at far greater risk from bacon than from terrorism.

  20. It is humorous to me that this is the device that causes the most outrage us because it exposes us physically. I don’t personally mind if some TSA agent in a back room sees the size of my schnitzel. My issue with the scanners is that it is more of the same bullshit heaped upon the existing pile of bullshit we already take for a security system.

    This is because you are too ignorant to understand the importance of American Civil Liberties and the problems that come from arbitrary universal government surveillance.

  21. Interesting.

    My wife has had a hip and knee replacement. It sounds to me like you have a larger mass of metal than she does.

    She cannot fly without setting off the metal detectors. Ever. Every single time we fly it beeps.

    Maybe Chicago O’Hare has the detectors set to “sensitive” all the time. And Honolulu. And Santa Ana. And Miami…. ???

Comments are closed.