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Home > Reviews > Airline Detective

Airline Detective

Author Donald Fish


Review date 03/07/2022

No of pages 224

Publisher Collins

Publisher URL

Year of publication 08/06/1962


Our Review


£ Second hand

Donald Fish began his ghost-written memoir with a chapter titled 'a new dimension in crime'. "It is not a thing the airlines themselves care to advertise, and little is known about it outside the ranks of the air security officers who exist to fight it. But during the last ten or 12 years, the immense expansion of the world's air routes has produced an international crime wave in the air that is still on the increase."

That memoir, titled Airline Detective, came out in 1962, and (as Fish went on to describe) told of Fish's 14 years as the first head of security at BOAC, starting in 1946. "We were expecting trouble, of course, but not on such a scale that within ten years practically every major airline in the world would need its own security organisation to deal with it." And Fish was 'in the thick of it'. That was why the book got published, and with a foreword by arguably the premier writer in English of that time, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. In fact you can see parallels between the diamond and other smuggling and thieving that Fish and his personnel (recruited, like all other parts of his department, from scratch) had on their plate, with some of the plots of early James Bond novels, such as Diamonds Are Forever.

But to go back to BOAC; as a sign of just how different aviation and life in general was after the Second World War compared with since, BOAC needs explaining. That was the British state airline, and it was based at what is now Heathrow, then known as London Airport, which when Fish joined was still very much a former RAF station, basic and growing fast. As Fish said early on: "It is almost as if the airlines have produced a new dimension in crime, and I am still frightened at how little is really known about it."

As the foreword by Ian Fleming would suggest, Fish's story was exciting in so many ways - to travel by air at all was still exciting and far from the norm. Crime and 'rackets' whether smuggling Chinese into San Francisco or carrying illicit diamonds - piggy-backing on the reputable airline services - were also of popular interest, as mysterious and highly profitable.

The book, then, can be enjoyed by any reader, who's interested in that era, 'the jet-age' as Fish and others called it - as the wartime Nissen huts made way for Comet and Boeing 707 airliners.

For the security manager, Fish's memoir has further interest. In some ways Fish's working life was much like the corporate security head's of today - with international connections, plenty of travelling (pre-covid), and responsibilities. Crime, too, was international; as Fish noted, if the aircraft of one country became 'infected with a particular crime, you never have to wait long before the rest are as well'.

Much was strange to the 21st century - for one thing, Fish and his counterparts on other continents were having to work out everything as they went along, just as the airlines and airports were literally having to build what we now know as Heathrow, and Idlewild in New York (now named JFK Airport). Such as: a reporting system for crime, where to liaise with police ('simply because we did not possess the powers of arrest and interrogation of a normal police force, people slipped through our fingers who should never have got away'). As that implies, the rest of the world was having to catch up - with laws to cover air travel, for one thing.

Fish thanks to his ghost-writer tells one dramatic and eye-opening story after another. To give his background briefly, he had risen to the rank of detective inspector at Scotland Yard by 1939, when he and others were seconded to the British security services, MI5, as 'investigators', doing anti-sabotage work, 'and there were periods when I have never been so bored before or since'. He gives a couple of chapters to those years in his book. He was by then in his 40s and could see little prospect of promotion; before the war ended, he wrote to BOAC putting himself forward to run their 'air security'.

What is implied throughout the book, and what Fish makes explicit, is how interesting and satisfying the work of security was. Fish also had to battle against some attitudes that his counterparts since in aviation security, and other fields of security, have had to face since; that non-security people, that is most people, do not take security seriously; it is somebody else's business, or the company's fault if someone goes wrong or is pinched. Fish also faced higher-ups who did not take the crime risks seriously, or know about them at all, or want to know. "In 1945 air security was still an idea that had to be sold, and sold hard," he said at the start of one chapter. That idea still is true.

Fish was treading the path from a first career as a 'copper' into a second one in private security that many after him trod. As he said, he 'never stopped regarding myself as a policeman, even though I had officially left the police the day I joined BOAC. The habits of a lifetime stick, and there was one important habit I never managed to shake myself free from.

"This was my fixed belief that any crime I encountered was my concern. I carried this over with me into air security, and it became one of the unwritten rules of our organisation to take on at least the preliminary investigation of any crime on our routes. Often, if we had not tried to solve the majority of cases we took on, nobody else would have."

That sheds new light on the 1950s as a supposedly crime-free era before the more wicked and higher crime 1960s and 1970s. It also pushes back the origins of security management. Private security is doing fine without a history; part of its appeal may be that it is fast-changing and open to new tech and ideas. The police and military, the related careers to security, that have more history are having to shed that past to adapt anyway.

The note that Fish concluded on rings true today; that even small thefts and losses have effects, and that doing security is a necessity; but because of commercial competition, 'there is still an unfortunate tendency to hush up serious thefts and losses', for fear a rival might take advantage. As Fish pointed out, 'reticence simply helps the thief'.

The security world and the world overall has changed bewilderingly since Fish's time, but he is recognisably a member of the industry - as a hard worker, someone equally willing to walk into a director's office and to go toe to toe with a robber from the London underworld, someone who actually liked the field he had chosen to work in, who on retiring missed the view from his office window: "I had a grandstand view from my desk of the liners that roared into London from every airport in the world. The view never changed much, but I never got tired of it."