Autistic teenager fools aviation bosses|
YORK, UK: An autistic teenager from Yorkshire succeeded in persuading British aviation executives that he was a tycoon about to launch his own airline - in a hoax which recalls the Steven Spielberg movie, Catch Me If You Can.
Using the pseudonym Adam Tait, the smooth-talking 17-year-old told airport and airline executives that he had a fleet of jets.
Tait, who said he was in his twenties, even flew to Jersey to attend a 90-minute meeting with the director of its airport. Their talks were considered promising enough for a further meeting to be arranged, which was due to be held next week.
Other air industry bosses found themselves dealing by telephone or e-mail with Tait’s fellow executives, David Rich and Anita Dash, who proposed to launch a cut-price Channel Islands-based airline servicing most of Europe. What no one realised was that Tait, Rich and Dash were all the same person: an aircraft buff with the gift of the gab and an overactive imagination.
The Yorkshire teenager’s six-month-long ruse, which included placing articles in industry magazines, foundered only after one publication, Airliner World, became suspicious. It started to unravel the complex network that Tait had set up of fake websites, “virtual offices” complete with a real telephone receptionist and bogus names.
On July 13, he was questioned by Essex police while trying to gain access to a 93-seater jet at Southend airport, having convinced the plane’s marketing agent that his “company” wanted to lease it.
The police, who had intervened after being tipped off by Airliner World, discovered the boy’s true identity. Although no further action was taken, his fantasy was finally grounded.
The Sunday Times has agreed not to use Tait’s real name at the request of his father, who did not know of his son’s exploits until he was contacted last week.
He said that his son suffered from a form of autism and was “a phenomenal individual who is enterprising and creative” with an ability to recall the exact detail of every airline’s flight schedules.
But the autism also made his behaviour highly challenging.
“He has been passionate about aeroplanes for about two years and his whole bedroom is plastered with them,” he said.
“Before that, he came within two days of bringing the US cast of High School Musical to a 300-seat theatre in Shropshire by cutting and pasting mastheads from one company to another, masquerading as this or that.
“It would have happened, except when booking the hotel some queries were thrown up. I don’t know why he did it. He is not nasty or vindictive or malicious.”
The case has parallels with that of Gary McKinnon, 43, the British man with Asperger’s syndrome who is facing extradition to the United States, accused of hacking into the Pentagon’s computers to look for evidence of UFOs (unidentified flying objects).
Tait began his elaborate hoax by buying up websites in the name of American Global Group and Island Airways. He then approached various established airlines to ask whether they wanted to give him a franchise agreement.
He claimed that the American parent company had a readily available fleet of 12 jets of varying size.
His e-mails, like his telephone patter, were impressively well informed and persuasive. Each ended with the sign-off “American Global Group, 35 Countries, 22 Languages, One Team”, followed by a list of all the states in which it supposedly had offices.
Malcolm Coupar, the commercial manager of Aurigny, the airline owned by the Guernsey government, said he and Malcolm Hart, his managing director, had conducted discussions over a period of months with Tait, who was using the name David Rich.
“Some of the things he said were the sort of things that were indicative that there might have been some substance to his claims,” said Coupar. “If they were real, then there would have been opportunities for us to expand our business and that’s not the sort of thing we are going to ignore.”
Tait also made approaches, with varying levels of success, to other airlines, including Titan Airways and Aer Arann.
When he made contact with Jersey airport, his patter was convincing enough to effect a 90-minute face-to-face meeting with Julian Green, the airport’s director, who said last night: “Jersey airport can confirm it has had discussions with Adam Tait over recent weeks about an ambitious network of services between Jersey, the UK and Europe.
“As further information has come to light in recent days, we can now confirm negotiations on the proposal have ceased.”
Tait gained some initial credibility with an article about his supposed airline which appeared in Airliner World.
Richard Maslen, the deputy editor, said: “We spoke to a few contacts in the industry and they had also heard whispers about this proposed start-up and as a result we ran a small news piece in the magazine.”
When Tait suggested further coverage, Maslen smelt a rat. His reporter recorded Tait talking, then played the tape to Coupar, who confirmed it was the same voice as “David Rich”.
The magazine suggested Tait do some photographs and he proposed Southend airport, where he said one of his company’s jets, a 93-seater BAe 146-200, was hangared.
Tait then contacted Airstream, the agent which markets the plane, and said his company wanted to lease it. Airstream took him at face value, even offering to pick him up and chauffeur him to the airport to inspect the plane.
However, oncerned about his stated intention to start up the plane’s engines, Airliner World tipped off police. Officers, who intercepted the teenager and a number of colleagues whom he had brought with him, warned Airstream that Tait was using multiple names and it should have nothing further to do with him.
When confronted by The Sunday Times at his family’s home in York, Tait initially denied any wrongdoing. He later admitted that he had “done some things in a bad way”, but said he had broken no laws and insisted he still harboured ambitions to make his “aviation business” take off.
His father argued that individuals with autism had great potential. He said of his son: “People like him are not criminals, they are just misguided — they don’t understand what they are doing. Can someone grab hold of these people and harness their energy and use them for something that could be good?
“If someone with little or no education who has extreme enterprise and talent could have his energy channelled in the right direction, what could they achieve for themselves and our country?”
Between the ages of 16 and 21, Frank Abagnale Jr posed as an airline pilot, a lawyer, a college professor and a paediatrician, fraudulently earning millions of dollars. After serving time in jail, Abagnale has since worked for 35 years as a security consultant, advising companies on fraud. His youthful exploits were made the subject of a Hollywood film, Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
(Source: The Sunday Times, July 19, 2009)