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The bad news - most airplanes are defenseless against SAMs. The worse news - there are thousands of SAMs potentially in the hands of terrorists.

So what is the good news? SAM attacks are not necessarily lethal, and can be defended against (if the airlines will pay for the costs).

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SAMs - The Unresolved Air Security Threat

This plane lost a major part of its fuselage (due to metal fatigue) but still landed safely. A missile would inflict less damage than this.



An unsuccessful missile attack on the Israeli charter plane flying out of Kenya on 28 November 2002 was briefly headline news. Then in February 2003 London's Heathrow Airport was surrounded by troops for several days, apparently due to fear of terrorists attacking planes with missiles.

Sadly, missile attacks on civilian planes are regrettably not something new, and most security experts predict an increase in this type of terrorist activity.

But the airlines are sitting on their hands and doing nothing to respond to this danger, due to the claimed high cost of protecting their planes (and our lives).

How Missiles Work

Anti-aircraft ('Surface to Air' or SAM) missiles come in many different shapes and sizes. However, terrorists are most likely to use small sized portable SAMs, known in the trade as 'Manpads' (MAn Portable Air Defense Systems).

These portable Manpads have a very small rocket in a launching tube. The user simply aims the rocket at the target and then pulls the launching trigger (they are very simple to operate). The rocket has a heat seeking nose that senses the heat from the target, which steers itself to the target. When the rocket physically hits the target, its explosive charge is detonated.

Because the missile flies directly into the hottest thing that it can see in the sky, it will typically lock onto engine exhausts - these are the hottest parts of most planes. For this reason, most missiles have to be fired from behind the plane, to make it easier for the missile to 'see' the exhaust coming out of the jet (or propeller) engines.

The US Stinger missile and the Soviet style SA-7 SAMs are the best known varieties of these Manpads. They typically have a range of 3 - 5 miles, and can attack targets up to about a maximum height of 10,000-12,000 ft.

It can take a soldier (or terrorist) as few as five seconds to ready a Stinger, aim it, and fire it. One terrorist could fire five rockets in a single minute. And it typically takes only 15 seconds for the missile to reach its target - it all happens incredibly quickly, with very little time for any defensive measures.

The technology is not new - SA-7s have been around for 35 years, and earlier SAMs were in use before then. They are inexpensive to manufacture, and the larger armed forces have many thousands of such weapons in their arsenals.

Because both Russia and the US (as well as other countries) have regularly provided such weapons to 'freedom fighters' around the world, there are a vast number - many thousands - of such weapons unaccounted for. They can be purchased on the arms black markets for only a few thousand dollars each.

The missiles don't have an infinite life. Their batteries eventually fail, but they are definitely reliable for at least five years, and potentially for ten years or longer.

When/Where Would a Terrorist Strike

Terrorists would usually choose to attack planes shortly after they had taken off. At this point the planes are very heavy and very slow, and their engines are on full power, giving off the most heat, making the plane most vulnerable. Plus the plane probably has full fuel tanks, and if it is over a populated area, there is the possibility of secondary damage if the plane crashes and its thousands of gallons of jet fuel burns.

Terrorists are unlikely to attack planes over water, for the simple reason that a plane crashing into the sea doesn't cause any additional death and destruction (except, perhaps, to a few fish). Prime attack positions will be where a plane crash will cause maximum on-the-ground damage.

Anywhere a plane is below 10,000 ft, it is potentially in danger, whether taking off, cruising, or landing. The first 20 miles, and the entire last 30 miles (sometimes more) of most flights have the plane below this altitude.

The Security Problem

The range of these missiles is sufficient to allow a terrorist to be located anywhere in the general vicinity of the 30 or more miles of flight paths into and out of airports. When taking off, the pilot generally sounds a little 'gong' noise through the intercom when passing through 10,000 ft, at which point the crew get up and start moving around, and, when landing, from the time you are told to put your seat backs upright, the plane is usually below 10,000 ft and is within range of missiles.

In many cases, airports are surrounded by industrial or even residential areas that can not be secured, due to the high concentration of people and traffic in those areas. A terrorist simply needs to be in a car or van, come to a stop, jump out with a missile, fire it, then drive off again (just like the Washington sniper a couple of months ago). Total time from stopping the car to starting it again (if a plane was nearby) - less than 30 seconds! By the time anyone knew what was happening, it would be much too late.

This situation is essential to keep in mind when understanding the nature of the risk and how to protect against it. There is no way that any type of security force can react in less than 30 seconds to a car pulling over, a person getting out, readying, aiming, and firing a Manpads. And the suggestion, sometimes made, that people in 'at risk' neighborhoods should be encouraged to report 'suspicious activity' to the authorities is laughably naive. By the time a person had finished dialing 911, the missile would have already been launched. Unless you have a constant presence, everywhere in the at risk areas, of heavily armed (fully automatic weapons, not just pistols) security personnel, a determined terrorist will always be able to launch a SAM with no-one able to stop him in time.

Although authorities around the world have several times tried to suggest otherwise, for the reasons listed above, it is absolutely not possible to prevent missile attacks by 'securing' the ground underneath airplane flight paths.

The only way to guarantee safety would be to completely close off a strip ten miles wide and fifty miles long around every airport's approach paths and a strip ten miles wide and twenty miles long around every airport's take-off routes, too. Remember that airports have multiple paths that planes take in and out, and you basically end up needing to have a 'secure zone' with an almost 50 mile radius around every commercial airport in the country. This is obviously both impossible and impractical.

How Likely is it that a Missile would Hit an Undefended Plane

Assuming that the plane has no countermeasures (see below) then the probability of it being hit by a missile is anything up to about 90% in a 'perfect' scenario.

If the missile is in poor condition, and if it is not correctly sighted and fired, or if the plane isn't in a good position relative to the missile launch, then of course this probability greatly reduces, and it seems that typical 'success' rates for missiles being fired in real world conditions against undefended planes are in the 50% range. In addition is another unknown - the number of times that would-be attackers don't launch missiles due to being unable to get a good firing solution.

How the Israeli 757-300 Avoided Two Missiles

This is an intriguing mystery. Officially, the Israeli plane was not carrying any countermeasures, but somehow two missiles both missed the plane. There are several possible explanations - maybe the missiles were old and faulty, and maybe they were incorrectly fired.

Some insiders guess this plane did indeed have countermeasures.  It is generally believed that all El Al planes have missile countermeasures.  This was a charter plane, not an El Al plane, but it may also have been the charter plane that the Israeli Prime Minister had been using just several weeks earlier - and you just absolutely know, for sure, that anything the Israeli Prime Minister flies on would have lots of protection.

There have also been some puzzling descriptions about noises coming from the rear of the plane while the missiles were approaching. That suggests, to me, the sound of flare dispensers firing out their flares.

And so, although the Israelis officially deny this, it is likely the plane was equipped with counter measures, and the counter measures were probably the main factor enabling the plane to escape from the two missiles. Defenseless planes are unlikely to be as lucky.

What Damage Would Occur

Strangely, a civilian airplane is much harder to destroy than a military jet. A heat seeking missile is probably going to hit and explode either right inside an engine or else very close to it.

In the case of a military jet, its engines are tightly integrated inside the main fuselage of the plane, and an explosion in an engine will probably damage a lot more than the engine alone. But a regular passenger plane has engines suspended on pylons from the wings. An explosion inside one of those engines may cause less damage. Sure, the engine will probably be destroyed, but all jets can safely fly on one less engine.

The unknown is whether the explosion will then cause pieces of metal to fly into the wing and possibly damage hydraulic lines, control surfaces, or fuel tanks, and what the implications of this additional damage might be.

Manpads don't have very large warheads. Typically they have perhaps 2-4 pounds of high explosive. This is enough to destroy an engine or to cause localised damage to part of a wing, but it may not be enough to cause the wing to fall off, and it may or may not cause critical damage that prevents the plane from limping back to an airport. Perhaps it is a good thing that attacks are only likely close to airports - an injured plane would not need to fly very far to an airport.

Of the five Boeing 727s and 737s hit by Manpads, three were destroyed (and remember that the 727 is more vulnerable than the 737 due to having its engines close to the fuselage).

Another attack occurred in November 2003 when a DHL A300 was attacked by one or perhaps two missiles while taking off from Baghdad. One missile hit the plane on a wing, but it remained structurally intact, as can be seen from the two images above. The plane was able to return and land safely at the airport.

Joining theory and observed reality together would suggest that there is probably slightly less than a 50% chance of a single missile hit causing a modern passenger plane to crash. Two missile hits would increase that probability up to perhaps 67%.

How to Defend Against SAMs

There are five main types of countermeasures against an IR SAM attack.

  • The first is evasive maneuvering of the plane to avoid the missile. However, that is close to impossible for a passenger plane in the few minutes immediately after take-off or before landing.

  • The second is to release small flares - little matchbox sized objects that burn very intensely and hotly for a short while. In theory the missile sees the flare and ignores the airplane. A potential problem is that flares, if ejected at low altitude, may land on the ground (or on people or cars or buildings) while still burning, causing damage and potentially starting fires.

  • The third is to use an IR 'jammer' - devices on the plane that send out special IR radiation that confuses the missile and causes it to fly off course.

  • The fourth is a new capability of using a high power laser to burn out the seeker head on the missile so that it is 'blinded' and flies harmlessly off course. I don't know much about this, but it seems to me that a laser powerful enough to burn out the seeker head could burn out a lot of other things, too, that came in its path.

  • A fifth possibility is to have military fighters escorting all passenger planes in and out of the highest risk areas around airports. Although this has been suggested, the costs of this would be exorbitant, air traffic control issues would be a nightmare, and it is not a practical solution.

    Worst of all, the mere presence of a fighter plane doesn't mean that it will be able to defend a civilian airliner against missile attack.  What would it do?  Sacrifice itself?  Try and shoot the missile down?

How Effective are Countermeasures?

The debate about whether planes should be equipped with missile countermeasures seldom extends to considering if the countermeasures would actually be effective. There seems to be an unstated assumption that if you're going to spend millions of dollars to equip a plane with missile defenses, then 'of course' they will work.

The reality is not so encouraging. Considering the above list of five strategies, the first defense (evasive maneuvering) is not a practical option for a passenger plane. The fifth defense (fighter plane patrols) is unrealistic and unlikely to be effective.

The fourth possibility - a laser beam - is still experimental and as yet unproven. Which leaves the two remaining concepts - flares and jammers. These have only limited effectiveness against the latest generation of SAMs, which have much greater 'intelligence' enabling them to defeat some countermeasures and increasing their likelihood of reaching their target.

Even the most sophisticated combination of defensive strategies are unlikely to provide 100% protection against the latest generation of SAMs.  For example, the Russian SA-18 Igla missile has a dual band IR seeker to prevent it being confused by flares or IR jammers.  There are thousands of SA-18s in military inventories around the world.

How Likely is a Terrorist Missile Attack

As we improve security in other parts of aviation, using missiles to crash planes is becoming increasingly the easiest option for terrorists to take.

This is not a new threat. An FAA study in 1993 noted that, as passenger and baggage screening became more rigorous, the chances of missile strikes would rise. And the attempted attack on the Israeli plane is not the first such attempt. Estimates suggest as many as 42 civilian planes have been fired on in various places around the world since the 1970s (killing over 900 passengers).

Missiles are plentiful and freely available. A massive 5,592 missiles were captured from Al-Qaeda bases during the Afghanistan campaign last year. "There are vast numbers of these missiles around in the world," said Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, an annual publication which tracks international arms supplies. "You can get one from under $5,000 from arms traders with connections." Jane's estimates that 27 militia groups and terrorist organizations currently own portable anti-aircraft missiles.

Neither are U.S. stockpiles completely safe. After completing an inspection of U.S. military storage depots, the General Accounting Office concluded that inventory control of domestic shoulder-fired missile stockpiles has been so poor that the military could not account for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of its portable missiles.

In May this year, the FBI warned U.S. law-enforcement agencies and airlines that intelligence reports indicated Islamic extremists may have already smuggled SA-7s and U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles into the United States.

The TSA held a classified meeting with 25 airline CEOs and others in the industry on 5 November 2002 to discuss the danger posed by missiles, according to their spokesman. But the TSA's jurisdiction is only from the airport perimeter fence and inwards - attacks are most likely to occur some miles distant from the airport itself.

"You need to be mindful of and concerned about the fact that these things are fairly small, and it is not difficult to smuggle them anywhere," said a U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. A second U.S. official said an attack against a U.S. airliner using a shoulder-fired portable missile is a danger. "It's an issue that concerns us," the official said.

"This is not only an Israeli problem," said Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman. "What can be done against an Israeli aircraft, can easily be done against a European or American one."

So far, neither the government nor the airline industry has been able to do much to mitigate the danger of what the head of one security firm describes as 'aviation's dirty little secret.' "(If a) dedicated person wanted to shoot down a plane, there's nothing to stop them," said Todd Curtis, the creator of and a former Air Force officer and Boeing safety analyst.

Simple to launch, such weapons "are a serious threat, (and) not enough is being done to deal with it," said retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for President Ronald Reagan.

An interesting and comprehensive analysis of the problem and some partial solutions is on the Federation of American Scientists website.

What the Airlines are Doing About This

In a single word - nothing.

When I first wrote this, in December 2002, a set of basic defensive measures was being quoted as costing about $3 million to install on an airplane. This price would likely drop substantially in the case of a massive program to install systems on the entire US airplane fleet. Subsequently, this cost estimate has several times reduced, and now (April 03) some authorities are suggesting that defensive measures could be fitted for as little as $1 million per plane.

Even if it costs $3 million, this amount - as a percentage of the cost of a new plane (anything up to $200+ million dollars) - is truly insignificant. But, multiply it by thousands of planes, and it comes to billions of dollars, which the airline industry is unwilling to invest to protect against what it considers to be a future possible threat (as opposed to a clear and present danger).

While November's incident in Kenya may have woken up both the government and the airline industry to the threat, experts have long felt frustrated in their attempts to sound the alarm. During a classified briefing at the annual Aircraft Survivability conference in Monterey in 1999, a Federal Aviation Official described the difficulty in getting airlines to address the threat of shoulder-fired missiles.

A subsequent report from the National Defense Industrial Association, which sponsored the conference, noted that "since there have been no confirmed incidents in the US, it is difficult to convince aircraft manufacturers and airline companies of the potential cost benefits to making the aircraft less susceptible and less vulnerable to Manpads."

"The threats are real and the countermeasures exist," said a retired government anti-terrorism expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Some of us are perplexed as to why a greater sense of urgency hasn't been demonstrated in securing our airspace."

Said Daniel Benjamin, the former director for counterterrorism for President Bill Clinton's National Security Council: "No shortage of studies have been done, and up till now, the industry has been unwilling to consider paying for the defensive measures.

"In the post-9/11 environment, with Washington dictating more in the way of security improvements," Benjamin added, "there needs to be another look at the issue. With many airlines facing huge financial problems and some staring at insolvency, the problem of paying for the improvements -- which is considerable -- is not going away."

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned in December 02 of new terrorist attacks on U.S. targets and called on the Bush administration to take immediate steps to protect U.S. airliners from attacks by shoulder-fired missiles.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, said American aircraft in U.S. airspace were especially vulnerable. "There are thousands of these surface-to-air missiles around the world," he said.

"The airline industry is very, very vulnerable," said Steve Luckey of the Air Line Pilots Association.

And So?

It seems blindingly obvious to everyone that this is a major and present threat to our air safety. But are we doomed to yet again suffer from reactive rather than proactive security?

Will we have to wait until after a terrorist successfully destroys one or more US planes, and then suffer an extended period of vulnerability while the airlines take months to equip their fleets with countermeasures?

Will it take another 9/11 type event before anyone responds to this danger?

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Originally published 6 Dec 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020

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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