CLEVELAND — Investigators say a man in stolen cars led to the security breach that shut down Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
Now, federal documents reveal the suspect’s actions.
What happened Nov. 23 is one of several breaches at Hopkins in recent years.
Like other critical infrastructure, airports are vulnerable, says former FBI executive Katherine Schweit.
"They're big, large open things in the public space whether it's a bridge or it's a dam or whether it's an airport fence,” said Schweit.
The feds charged Isaac Woolley after a security breach that temporarily shut down the airport the day before Thanksgiving.
Charges include entering aircraft or airport area in violation of security requirements, carjacking and destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities.
"They recognized this individual was in and around for three hours at least and intended to do exactly what he did. And maybe more,” said Schweit.
Court records show Woolley carjacked a woman, drove to FAA property and turned off power sources before pulling wires from the primary radar shutting it down.
An hour later, Woolley stole a second car, drove through an airport gate and down a runway.
While Woolley ran free, the air traffic system was not in significant danger, according to Ohio State University aviation expert Dr. Shawn Pruchnicki.
"The backup system took over and they were able to with very little interruption to resume air traffic control duties moments after it happened the system worked,” said Pruchnicki.
Pruchnicki says the backup system is one layer of protection along with predetermined flight paths and systems on the planes that talk to each other.
"If you break within a certain range then they will start to warn the pilots,” said Pruchnicki.
So why were some planes diverted?
"When you have airplanes that are close by those airplanes for safety's sake divert those away from the airport to give time the secondary system is up and running,” said Pruchnicki.
Last month’s security breach wasn’t the first in recent years. In 2019, an SUV ran through a gate and into the secure perimeter.
An incident in 2020 involved personnel.
In the case against Woolley, Schweit says investigators will track his history to better understand if this was a single act or planned with other acts to come.
"So, my investigative instincts hairs go up on the back of my neck to say who is this guy, why did he get there, how did he know how to get there. How did he know how to disable the power system that goes to the radar,” said Schweit.
Cleveland Hopkins Airport wouldn't answer our specific questions citing security reasons, but the police union president recently told us the FAA requires a certain number of officers to be at the airport at all times and those officers have special security clearance.
"They're going to say what did we do in 19, what did we do in 20, what are we doing now have we made the corrections we need to make, have we made the facility as secure as we can knowing a breach is still possible,” said Schweit.
An airport spokesman sent us this statement:
“Safety and security is Cleveland Hopkins International Airport’s (CLE) number one priority. One of CLE’s objectives is to continuously assess our security program in order to mitigate risks and enhance safety and security measures. More recent security enhancements at CLE assisted in fostering a swift and safe resolution to the incident that occurred at the airport on November 23, 2022. Part of CLE’s future plans involve larger scale projects that will further augment CLE’s security program. The specifics of the security program must remain confidential and are considered Sensitive Security Information (SSI) to ensure its integrity and not create the potential for any vulnerabilities.
CLE is committed to working closely with our regulatory partners in our continuous improvement efforts and ensuring a safe and secure travel experience. A few factors in a successful outcome at any incident at an airport also includes the preparedness, response, mitigation, and resolution. In this case, CLE responded according to protocols designed to address situations such as this, taking the needed actions in an appropriate and timely manner to protect the safety of our passengers and airport.”
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