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9/11 clearly showed that terrorists are more imaginative than we are.

How then can we protect against whatever new way of taking over a plane terrorists might come up with in the future?

 
 
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Guns on Planes - Yes or No

How best to safely protect against the terrorist threat
 

In the first part of this series, we conclusively showed that flight safety is at risk, even if terrorists are completely unarmed.

Is arming pilots and adding air marshals the answer?

Part 2 of a 2 part series - click for Parts  One  Two

 

 

In the first part of this series, we examined what would happen if unarmed terrorists attempt to take over a plane that has neither armed air marshals nor armed pilots on board.

Having determined that even unarmed terrorists can take over a plane, we now look at how to protect our flights from this threat.

Our official lack of foresight

9/11 should not have been a surprise to anyone.  The concept of terrorists as suicide bombers is far from new.  Suicide bombers are all too regularly blowing themselves and other people up in Israel.

The concept of terrorists taking over planes and crashing them into buildings is also not new.  Several books have featured such ideas, indeed, super-bestselling author Tom Clancy had this as a major part of one of his Jack Ryan series books, with terrorists crashing a plane into the Capitol building and killing the President.

But see what Cathal L Flynn, former associate administrator of civil aviation security at the FAA said in testimony, in early 2004, to the Commission investigating the 9/11 hijackings.  Talking about the FAA's evaluation of the potential risk of suicide hijackers, he stated

It isn't that we disregarded them. There were disconnects. How would you coerce a pilot to fly into a building that's got people in it? ... How would you do that? The notion of a full-fledged Al Qaeda member being a pilot ... did not occur to me.

How is it possible that the people responsible for the safety of our planes can be so short-sighted?

Keep these comments from this formerly senior member of the FAA in mind next time the government assures you of the safety of our aviation system.

With people like Mr Flynn responsible for our protection, with apparently 20% or more of weapons slipping through security undetected, and with risks even from unarmed terrorists, we clearly need a last level of protection, on the plane itself.

Non lethal defense - Taser

Some people advocate arming marshals and pilots (and even flight attendants) with stun guns.

The most suitable type of stun gun would be a Taser brand or equivalent.  This is different to (and better than) the 'cattle prod' type.  It shoots two darts attached to thin wires, with a practical working range of about 6' - 12'.  If the darts hook into the target (person), the Taser then sends an electronic shock down the wires and into the person, briefly disabling them.

Tasers can work spectacularly well in the case of 'many police against one assailant', but they have severe limitations for controlling a multi-terrorist situation on a plane.

The first limitation is that one Taser can control only one attacker at one time.  If there are two or four terrorists on the plane, you're going to need at least as many Tasers.

The second limitation is that the Taser induces only a temporary loss of control.  Within perhaps 30 seconds (and sometimes a lot less) the attacker is recovering his fighting ability.  In a normal police situation, that isn't a problem.  You have two or four policemen, that first shoot the attacker with the Taser, then immediately physically overpower him and handcuff him while he is suffering from the effects of the Taser shock.

But if you have only one or two air marshals on a plane, confronting an equal or greater number of terrorists, the brief disabling effect of the Taser is almost useless, because they won't be able to then handcuff the terrorist, due to being too busy trying to fight off the other terrorists.

There may be a third limitation.  There is rumored to be a way of protecting yourself from the effects of a Taser shock.

The bottom line - Tasers are great for briefly incapacitating one person.  But in an airline hijack situation, perhaps with more hijackers than defenders, they would not be sufficient.

Non lethal defense - Tear Gas

This would be an incredibly bad idea!  Tear gas could incapacitate the terrorists, but it would do the same to the other people in the cabin as well.

Worse still, it might not incapacitate the terrorists - not if they were wearing these legal Smoke Hood type products, which do double duty as excellent gas masks, and which anyone can bring onboard a plane.

Non lethal defense - Physical Obstructions

The only practical and effective defense - for the overall safety of the plane, might be a truly impregnable cockpit that was sealed prior to take-off and not opened again until after landing.

If cockpits were designed so that there was absolutely no way that attackers could smash their way through the door or through the bulkhead, and if the cockpit included a toilet and sleeping facilities and room for relief crew and meals (on long flights), and if the cockpit was kept completely sealed for the entire flight, this would be an effective way of increasing the likelihood that the plane remained under control of the pilot, no matter what else happened in the cabin.

But, if you happen to be one of the passengers, you're probably not going to be too happy, because, for sure, the terrorists won't just give up, return to their seats, and apologize for the inconvenience of their failed attempt at taking over the plane.  They'll run amok.

They'll probably kill everyone on board (why not?).  They'll break through the floor, go through the cargo space, and try and break in through the cockpit floor.  Or perhaps they'll access the avionics cage and disable the plane's control systems so that it crashes, out of control, no matter who is in the cockpit.

Securing the cockpit is an essential layer of defense.  But it is necessary to control and secure the passenger cabin, too.

Which brings us to armed law enforcement officers.

Please excuse the brutal directness of what follows.  But please also try and consider this issue unemotionally and intellectually, rather than cringe in horror and dismiss all thoughts as being 'too horrible to think about'.  You can be sure that our opponents are thinking about these things right now.  Don't be like FAA - indeed, insist that the authorities who are charged with our protection actually create fully secured environments for us.

Good things about guns

The obvious and best thing about using a firearm to defend a plane is that it immediately gives almost complete control of the situation to the person with the firearm.  Assuming a basic level of training and ability, an armed defender can maintain the integrity of the plane's safety, without needing to use his weapon at all - the mere sight of an armed and determined defender would deter all but the most motivated of attackers.

But, of course, terrorists are likely to be highly motivated, and unconcerned by threats to their personal safety.

The next good thing about using a firearm to defend the plane is that would be attackers can be quickly and conveniently neutralized.  Or, to put it another way, it is dead simple to shoot them from a comfortable distance away, and when the terrorists are dead or dying, they're no longer a threat to the plane and its passengers.

A single handgun can contain as many as 15-18 bullets.  Reloading a fresh magazine, holding another 15-18 bullets can be done in a second.  A single marshal with a single handgun has enormous firepower and can defeat a large group of terrorists.

Bad things about guns

People that don't like guns point out that guns are dangerous, guns kill people, guns make a lot of noise.  A person shooting a gun on a plane full of people may not only hit terrorists, but might also injure or kill innocent passengers.  The terrorists might overpower the air marshal(s) and take their guns from them.

Worse still, a bullet might smash through the skin of the plane and trigger an explosive decompression, like we've all seen in the movies, or perhaps a bullet might cut an essential control cable, making the plane crash.

Guns might be bad, but what is the alternative?

Before looking at the relevance of the preceding comments, let's first of all pretend that they are all completely true.  But, so what?  Consider the alternative!

  • No guns = terrorists take over the plane, crash it into a major building, and kill everyone on the plane and thousands of people on the ground.

or

  • No guns = terrorists take over the plane, the Air Force scrambles fighter jets, and shoots the plane down before it can crash into a public building, killing everyone on the plane and anyone unlucky enough to be on the ground where the plane crashes.

These are the only two alternatives.

Anything that brings about less harm, less loss of life, and less property damage, than these two alternatives is surely better.  So what if half the innocent passengers are killed in a massive gun battle between marshals and terrorists on the plane?  At least the other half lived!

Yes, guns are nasty.  But terrorists are nastier.

Now let's consider the situation with armed marshals protecting our planes, recognizing the ugly truth of the alternative.
 

Special bullets - safe for the plane and passengers, dangerous for terrorists

A special type of frangible bullet would be used by Air Marshals.  These bullets are made up of lots of little bits of metal (or plastic) and when they hit someone or something, they break up into their many small pieces.

If the bullet hits a person, the fact that they break up into many small pieces increases the severity of the bullet wound.  The person will become much more seriously injured and will lose their capacity to resist much more quickly than if a 'normal' bullet simply drilled a quick clean hole through them (and then kept on going).  This increased lethality is a very good thing when combating terrorists at close quarters.  A regular bullet does not necessarily immediately incapacitate an attacker, indeed, in some cases, attackers have persisted in their attack after being shot five or six (or more!) times.

Because the bullet breaks up and stays inside the target, it doesn't travel through the target and then injure someone else behind the target.  This is another good thing.

If the bullet hits something solid (like the skin of the plane) it will break up and not penetrate.  You could shoot a frangible bullet at the sheetrock partitions in your office and it will probably not penetrate to the other side.  This is another good thing.

What happens if a bullet shoots a hole in the plane

Nothing.  Forget what you've seen in the movies!  A small hole in the plane won't make any difference to the safety or strength of the plane's structure, and air will bleed out through the hole so slowly that the normal cabin pressurization system will have no problem replenishing the air going through the slow leak.


An airplane can withstand a lot more damage than a few small bullet holes and still fly and land safely, as this Aloha Airlines 737 demonstrated.

 

The plane's pressurization system can probably cope with 50 or even 100 bullet holes and still maintain a breathable environment without needing the oxygen masks.

What if a bullet shoots out a window

It is possible that a bullet might shatter the toughened clear plastic in the plane's window.  But, just like your double glazing at home, there are multiple layers of plastic in the window.

Even if all layers of the window broke, you're still not going to be sucked out the small window like in the movies.  Yes, this large hole would probably depressurize the plane - over a period of some minutes - but that is what the overhead oxygen masks are for.

What if a bullet damages a vital control

This is very unlikely, and even if it did occur, most of the truly vital controls on a plane have double or triple redundancy.  That means that one of the control systems could fail, and there would still be one or two backup systems to take over and ensure the continued safe operation of the plane.

And, remember - the air marshal is using the special frangible bullets, that won't penetrate through the control conduit anyway.

Innocent people might get shot

Yes, innocent people might get shot, and even killed.  But, for sure, if there isn't an air marshal defending the plane, very many innocent people, on the plane and on the ground, will get killed.

Terrorists might overpower the air marshals and take their weapons

This could be a valid concern, in one special situation.  If the air marshal had his weapon drawn, then there should be no way that it would be taken from him, because he is authorized to use it to protect the plane.  He'd shoot an attacker without hesitation - it is only if a person with a weapon hesitates to use it that it can be taken from them.

But, while the air marshals are under cover, attempting to act normally, they can't simultaneously adopt a 'ready' defensive poster.  And, because they are in aisle seats, in the front few rows of the plane, it would be conceivable for for terrorists to innocently wander through the cabin, pause alongside the air marshals, and then suddenly, with the benefit of surprise, disable them and seize their weapons.

See the next section for the solution.

Secret Air Marshals - or Uniformed Air Cops?

The problem with having undercover air marshals on a plane is that they are vulnerable to being overpowered by terrorists.  It is easier for a terrorist to identify the air marshals than it is for the undercover air marshals to identify the terrorists.

Many frequent fliers today boast at how they can always spot the air marshals on a flight, and the air marshals themselves complain loud and long to their unresponsive management about being forced to do certain things that broadcasts the fact that they are air marshals to people that know what to look for.

The 'benefit' in having under cover air marshals is two-fold.  Firstly, it might make for what some people would consider a less oppressive and more friendly seeming environment on board a normal flight, as compared to having armed policemen patrolling up and down the aisle.

Secondly, it saves money.  Very few flights have air marshals on them, and the illusion of security is better served by not disclosing which flights have air marshals and which ones don't.

But this illusion of security is exactly that.  Just an illusion.

Travel commentator Joe Brancatelli developed an excellent suggestion - why not have uniformed air policemen on all flights.  The extra cost of having uniformed police on every flight could be balanced out by spending less money on the largely ineffective security in the airports at present, with the net result being better overall flight safety.

Having two air policemen standing guard at the front of the plane, with a 'do not cross' safety rope across the aisle six feet in front of them is all that would be needed.  Anyone that crossed the do not cross line would be deemed to be a terrorist and immediately incapacitated by whatever means necessary - perhaps with a Taser first, but definitely with lethal force if the threat persisted or increased.

No-one could surprise the policemen on duty.  No-one could approach them unawares and take their weapons from them.

Would this not be a low tech and completely practical approach to airplane safety?

Can't Hurt, Might Help

Why do some people so fiercely oppose adding armed marshals to flights?  Surely, in the worst case scenario, it can't hurt, and in a better case scenario, it might very well save a plane, its passengers, and countless thousands of others on the ground as well.

Maybe armed marshals aren't the 100% solution.  But they are definitely a big improvement on the present situation.

Read part one as well

In part one of this series, we analyze whether or not a plane can be truly secured from terrorist attack, even with the guarantee that would-be terrorists are unarmed.
 

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Originally published 6 Feb 2004, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 

 


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