It's 5:43 a.m. on a Tuesday, and you're standing bleary-eyed in the airport security line hoping to make your flight to Dallas. All around you, blue-uniformed Transportation Security Agency (TSA) officers are barking out instructions. "Please remove all shoes, belts, wallets, cell phones and keys!" "Please take out all laptop computers and place them in a separate bin!" "Please place all gels and liquids in a zip-top bag!"
Shuffling along in your socks, your belt-less pants slowly slipping south, you pass a sign displaying the list of prohibited items: guns, knives, Tasers, lighters, fireworks, combustible liquids. As you hand your photo ID to the TSA agent, you can't help but wonder if this is all a huge waste of time. After all, how many morons really try to bring a gun onto an airplane in this age of post-9/11 hyper-security?
According to the TSA, exactly 1,813 of them in 2013.
For the record, a TSA spokesperson informed us that agents do not confiscate contraband items. They allow a passenger to give the item to the friend who dropped him off; to mail it somewhere or to surrender it to the TSA. Most choose the latter.
When it comes to weird things found by TSA agents, guns are just the tip of the psycho iceberg. Keep reading to hear about bold travelers who tried to smuggle bags of live eels, chain saws and human skull fragments through security. Just be thankful you weren't behind them in line.
It was another busy morning at the Indianapolis International Airport security checkpoint in March 2013 when a carry-on bag set off alarms in the X-ray machine. Imagine the look on the agent's face when he pulled out what appeared to be a fully loaded suicide vest complete with plastic wires and pouches stuffed with explosives.
The passenger, it turns out, was an "explosives instructor" who used the inert suicide vest — yes, it was only a fake — as a training tool. Also inside the bag were 30 electric matches and unopened packets of potassium chlorate and titanium powder, highly combustible compounds used to make real explosives [source: Burns].
Explosives instructor or not, what would possess him to pack a replica suicide vest in his carry-on bag? Did he plan on putting it on if the cabin temperature turned a bit chilly? Did he want to impress his seatmate with pyrotechnic demonstrations after the complimentary beverage service?
If you think navigating the airport security scrum by yourself is difficult, try doing it with a gaggle of small children. As you fold up strollers and herd wandering toddlers out of the full-body scanner, it's fair to ask if kids really need the same security scrutiny as adults.
And then you hear about this guy.
A traveler at T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., tried to smuggle a disassembled handgun through security by hiding the weapon's three separate components inside his toddler's two stuffed bears and a Mickey Mouse doll. The .40-caliber firearm was one in stuffed animal , the magazine with two rounds and a firing pin was in a second one, while the third critter held the slide [source: Burns]. Nice one, dad. I hope you get out of jail in time for his preschool graduation.
Like small children, you could argue that seriously old people deserve a "free pass" through airport security. But just when you think that suspender-wearing grandpas are nothing but harmless coots, some old guy tries to shuffle through airport security with a knife strapped to his walker.
Yes, TSA officers at New York's JFK airport spotted a silver knife surreptitiously stowed against the legs of a walker back in 2012 [source: Burns]. Upon close inspection, the weapon looks more like a long butter knife than a dagger, but you still have to question the motives of smuggling it onboard. Then again, have you tried spreading cold butter on a roll at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) with nothing but a plastic spork?
Canes are another unexpected source of deadly contraband. Every year, TSA officers confiscate dozens of "cane swords," otherwise harmless-looking walking aids that conceal full-length swords and smaller daggers [source: Burns]. Moral of the story: Never cross an old person.
It's happened to all of us. You're packing for a trip to visit relatives in Cleveland and your uncle calls to ask if he can borrow your chain saw. "Sure!" you reply. "Let me just gas it up and stuff it in my suitcase!"
On second thought, that's never happened to anyone. Except one apparently insane person passing through the Elmira Corning Regional Airport in New York. In January 2012, TSA agents removed the offending power tool – gas being flammable and all [source: Burns]. Interestingly, it's perfectly kosher to pack a chain saw into your checked luggage as long as it isn't filled with gasoline.
Here's a tip for all of you amateur drug smugglers out there: If you're going to attempt to sneak a bag of marijuana through airport security, it might not be the best idea to conceal it inside a full-size replica of a deadly explosive device. While TSA agents aren't tasked with sniffing out drugs, they have a knack for spotting items on the X-ray screen that are the exact shape and size of a hand grenade.
A dazed and confused Denver passenger came to this decidedly un-groovy realization when TSA officers removed a novelty hand grenade from his bag and discovered that it was stuffed with, in the immortal words of a TSA blog writer, "a green leafy substance" [source: Burns]. Two strikes for our intrepid traveler. Next time, cram it in your child's Barney doll.
If looks could kill, then the weapon of choice would probably be a lipstick stun gun. In one particularly productive week back in 2012, TSA officers in Burlington, Vt., and Akron, Ohio, confiscated not one, but two weapons posing as harmless lipstick applicators. One was a 350,000-volt lipstick stun gun and the other a lipstick knife with a 2-inch (5-centimeter) blade [source: Burns]. TSA agents also have confiscated lipstick pepper spray.
It makes you wonder, though, isn't there an inherent danger to disguising a 350,000-volt stun gun as something that you might absentmindedly put to your lips at a stoplight? Either way, add "women wearing lipstick" to the list of people not to cross.
You're on vacation in an exotic country and decide to pick up a souvenir made by local artisans. You don't speak whatever language they're speaking, so you point to an earthenware pot that looks like it would hold your umbrella collection. The shop owner makes the international sign for "No, no, no, that pot contains the remains of my dead grandmother!" but you think he's just playing hardball. You hand him a few extra greenbacks and grab the pot as you go.
You only realize your mistake when a TSA agent in Florida takes out the clay pot for further inspection and discovers that it indeed contains a well-preserved human skull. As usual, your wife was right; you should have just bought the "Hard Rock Cafe Turkmenistan" T-shirt.
Yes, TSA agents really did make this gruesome discovery in a checked baggage screening area at the Fort Lauderdale airport in 2013. The passenger claimed ignorance as to the pot's contents. This find naturally slowed down screening as the area turned into a crime scene [source: Burns].
This one is going to take some explaining. When you hear that TSA officers confiscated "a mace," you might assume they found a bottle of self-defense pepper spray. Or, if you're the culinary type, you might think they discovered a smuggled shipment of the fragrant dried nutmeg husk from East India used to make the spice called mace. But you would be wrong again.
The mace that TSA agents confiscated from a traveler at Chicago Midway in 2013 was, in fact, the kind of old-school weapon that barbarians used to swing over their heads when storming a medieval castle. The thick wooden handle of the confiscated mace measured more than a foot (30 centimeters) long and was connected by a long chain to a heavy spiked metal ball [source: Burns]. Just the kind of thing you want to fall out of the overhead luggage compartment during a bumpy landing.
Is there anything more gag-inducing than a bag full of live slithering eels swimming in putrid yellow water? How would you like to have been the TSA agent who unzipped a traveler's checked luggage in Miami to discover not only the "bag o' eels," but dozens of plastic sacks containing a total of 163 tropical fish, 12 tiny sea turtles, plus several other invertebrates and pieces of live coral [source: Burns]? The answer: not very much.
The passenger was apparently trying to smuggle the rare sea creatures from Miami to Maracaibo, Venezuela. Somewhere, a Venezuelan pet store owner is staring longingly at an empty aquarium, waiting on a warm bag of eels that will never arrive.
Privacy advocates lashed out at the full-body scanners the TSA began installing at its security checkpoints in 2007, likening the revealing X-ray images to an illegal "strip search" [source: Martín]. In 2013, hundreds of these scanners were removed from U.S. airports and replaced with less-invasive ones [source: Plungis].
But not before one unlucky passenger had her, uh, highly restrictive undergarment detected by a body scanner in 2012. Yes, the TSA agent on duty had to pull the traveler aside and confirm that she was, indeed, wearing a chastity belt. And no, the confusing piece of clothing was not confiscated, since it was not considered contraband. Plus, no one had the key [source: Burns].
If you're into weird lists like this, keep reading. We've got enough HowStuffWorks links on the next page to fill 13 airport security bins.
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Author's Note: 10 Weirdest Things Spotted by the TSA
My best TSA confiscation story doesn't involve the actual TSA, but an eagle-eyed airport security officer in Mexico. My wife and I were living in Mexico at the time and had just had our second child, a baby boy less than 6 weeks old. It was June, and we were flying back to the U.S. for an extended trip to visit both of our parents. We had our flights booked for months and roused the whole family at 3:30 a.m. to drive the hour-and-a-half to the airport.
Once we negotiated the usual confusion at the ticket counter, we finally breathed easy and made our way through security. I held our 20-month-old's hand and my wife carried the newborn in a colorful sling wrapped tightly around her shoulder and hip. Only after we had passed through the metal detectors and went to grab our carry-on luggage did one of the security agents ask my wife if she could take off her "shawl." My wife smilingly explained that "the baby's sleeping." "What baby?" asked the security officer. It was then that we realized that nobody in the security area or at the ticket counter had any idea that my wife was smuggling a newborn human. For the record, the baby's pacifier did not double as a stun gun.
- Burns, Bob. "TSA Blog Year in Review: 2013." The TSA Blog. Jan. 24, 2014. (March 20, 2014) http://blog.tsa.gov/2014/01/tsa-blog-year-in-review-2013.html
- Burns, Bob. "42 Firearms Discovered This Week at TSA Checkpoints (38 Loaded)." The TSA Blog. Oct. 26, 2012. (March 20, 2014) http://blog.tsa.gov/2012/10/tsa-week-in-review-42-firearms.html
- Burns, Bob. "46 Firearms Discovered This Week at TSA Checkpoints (40 Loaded)." The TSA Blog. Sept. 20, 2013. (March 20, 2014) http://blog.tsa.gov/2013/09/tsa-week-in-review-46-firearms.html
- Burns, Bob. "TSA Week in Review: Disassembled Gun and Ammo Found in Three Stuffed Animals." The TSA Blog. May 11, 2012. (March 20, 2014) http://blog.tsa.gov/2012/05/tsa-week-in-review-disassembled-gun-and.html
- Burns, Bob. "TSA Week in Review: Eels on a Plane?" The TSA Blog. March 9, 2012. (March 20, 2014) http://blog.tsa.gov/2012/03/tsa-week-in-review-eels-on-plane.html
- Burns, Bob. "TSA Week in Review: Gassed Up Chainsaw and Deadly Lipstick." The TSA Blog. Jan. 13, 2012. (March 20, 2014) http://blog.tsa.gov/2012/01/tsa-week-in-review-gassed-up-chainsaw.html
- Burns, Bob. "TSA Week in Review: Inert Detonator Discovered in Checked Bag." The TSA Blog. June 8, 2012. (March 20, 2014) http://blog.tsa.gov/2012/06/tsa-week-in-review-inert-detonator.html
- Burns, Bob. "TSA Week in Review: Inert Suicide Vest, Grenades, Guns and More..." The TSA Blog. March 8, 2013. (March 20, 2014) http://blog.tsa.gov/2013/03/tsa-week-in-review-inert-suicide-vest.html
- Burns, Bob. "TSA Week in Review: Plastic Dagger Found with Body Scanner." The TSA Blog. May 4, 2012. (March 20, 2014) http://blog.tsa.gov/2012/05/tsa-week-in-review-plastic-dagger-found.html
- Martín, Hugo. "Controversial full-body scanners to be removed from airports." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 18, 2013. (March 20, 2014) http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/18/business/la-fi-tsa-rapiscan-20130119
- Plungis, Jeff. "Naked-Image Scanners to Be Removed From U.S. Airports." Bloomberg. Jan. 18, 2013. (March 20, 2014) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-18/naked-image-scanners-to-be-removed-from-u-s-airports.html