PARIS — When three inmates, including one of Belgium’s most dangerous criminals, escaped from a prison near Bruges last month, the script appeared to be straight out of an action film. The group made its brazen jailbreak in broad daylight with the help of a pair of handguns, a loyal girlfriend and its getaway vehicle of choice: a hijacked helicopter.
The inmates and two accomplices executed the breakout with military like precision, witnesses said. But the novelty of an aerial escape should not have caught prison officials by surprise, law enforcement experts and criminologists said.
In the past eight years, according to Interpol, there have been at least 14 successful helicopter jailbreaks worldwide and all but three have been in Europe. In most cases, the fugitives were quickly recaptured, though some remained at large for years. A few have even managed to pull off the same feat twice.
There are several reasons for the phenomenon, experts say, including substandard security at private heliports; overcrowding and a shortage of guards and other resources at prisons; and national regulations that prohibit prison guards in some countries from shooting at helicopters.
The escape last month near Bruges was the third time that inmates in Belgium had used a helicopter to break free. It was followed by two more escapes, both conventional, including one Tuesday at the central courthouse in Brussels.
In all, 39 people have escaped from Belgium’s prisons this year, prompting editorial cartoons lampooning the authorities and opinion articles lamenting the country’s “Swiss cheese” prisons.
The previous prison break that used a helicopter took place in Greece in February. Vassilis Paleokostas, a convicted bank robber who is among Greece’s most notorious convicts, and Alket Rizaj, an Albanian serving a life sentence for murder, were plucked by a hijacked helicopter from the Korydallos prison near Athens. The escape was captured on amateur video.
France has had a persistent problem with helicopters aiding in prison breaks, averaging one escape or attempted escape per year in the country and its territories this decade; one occurred in April on the French island of Réunion, near Madagascar.
Pascal Payet, a convicted killer and an organized crime boss from Marseille, escaped from a French prison in 2001 by helicopter; he subsequently hijacked a helicopter to free three friends from the same prison two years later. Mr. Payet was soon recaptured along with the others, but he then escaped yet again in a helicopter from a prison in southeast France in 2007.
“It’s kind of part of our culture” to romanticize outlaws, said Eric Lemoine, a prison guard and spokesman for the CGT prison employees’ union. Examples include French literary characters like those portrayed in Alexandre Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers” and characters based on real life as in the film “La Fille de l’Air,” in which the wife of a convicted killer plucks her husband from La Santé prison in Paris with a helicopter.
In Europe, prisons are often located in densely populated areas, and the protocol for prison guards is to avoid shooting at a helicopter.
“In that situation, a helicopter is a kind of a bomb, so we consider this too dangerous,” said Philippe Obligis, deputy director for security for the French prison administration.
After three prison breaks aided by helicopters in 2001, the French government allocated $55 million to reinforce security at the country’s 196 prisons. A large part of the money was used to install steel mesh nets — known as chopper stoppers — over exercise yards to prevent a helicopter from landing. In other prisons, clusters of antennas, seven to eight yards high, were placed on the roofs.
Because it was not feasible to install nets at every site, Mr. Obligis said, France had put them in about 80 prisons that house the country’s most dangerous criminals.
Britain, which has not experienced a helicopter escape since the late 1970s, has been more aggressive about installing antihelicopter nets in its prisons.
Belgium budgeted $5.8 million in 2007 to secure its prisons against helicopter escapes after an inmate, Nordin Benallal, broke out of prison after a helicopter hijacked by his accomplices crash landed on the grounds.
Some critics contend that many European jails have been made more vulnerable to unconventional escapes by overcrowding. According to the Council of Europe, prisons in France, Belgium and Greece are among the most crowded in the region.
Others said that it was a matter of money. “We haven’t invested in prisons in the way we should have,” said Caroline Sägesser, a political analyst at Crisp, a Brussels research group. “Prison guards are underpaid and demotivated.”
The authorities said that the breakout near Bruges last month was planned by Ashraf Sekkaki, 25, who has a record of more than 16 convictions, including bank robbery and kidnapping. He and two other inmates, Abdelhaq Melloul-Khayari and Mohammed Johry, were whisked from the prison yard in a helicopter that had been hijacked by Mr. Johry’s girlfriend, Lesley Deckers, and a friend of Mr. Sekkaki’s, Lahoucine El Haddouchi. Mr. Melloul-Khayari and Mr. Johry were caught last week.
Ms. Deckers and Mr. Haddouchi had booked a sightseeing tour at a nearby heliport and then took over the helicopter by aiming a gun at the pilot a few minutes into the flight. The pilot, Ludwig Louwagie, said in an interview that he was directed where to land at the prison by an inmate waving a gun. He said he was in the prison yard for about five minutes and never saw a guard. Belgian officials declined to comment on the breakout, saying that an investigation was continuing.
Security experts said that many helicopter operators did not screen their passengers or use other basic security measures. Officials in France and other countries have been pressing charter companies to increase security. But even with better security, the authorities said, the most determined criminals might not be deterred.
“Even if everyone plays the game the way they should, it will not prevent every attempted helicopter escape,” Mr. Obligis said. “But the more difficult we make it, the fewer people will try.”