Protecting Planes Against
How best to safely protect against the
In a perfect world, there would be no terrorists and
planes would be completely safe. No-one would have or
But the world is not
perfect, and no-one disputes the existence of terrorists
determined to take over planes and use them as flying bombs.
What is our best strategy to maximize
1 of a 2 part series - click for Parts
In the first part of this
series, we examine what would happen if unarmed terrorists attempt to take over a
plane that has neither armed air marshals nor armed pilots on
The purpose of this is to
determine if a plane is safe if no
passengers have guns or knives, or if a plane remains at risk
from relatively unarmed passengers.
If we could 100% guarantee that
there are no armed
terrorists on planes, would we still need armed marshals and
Let's assume that somehow our screening
becomes 100% secure, and there is a complete guarantee that
no-one can ever smuggle a firearm on board a flight. (Note that,
at present, some studies suggest that 20% or more of all illegal
items - including guns and knives - pass through security without detection.)
Do we still need armed
marshals or armed pilots in such a perfect world scenario? We've got the
pilots safely behind their bullet-proof door, and a plane full
of passengers, at least some of whom will likely choose to
actively resist and fight against terrorists.
Sorry - the flight is
absolutely not secure, and still very much at risk.
Not only guns and knives are
There are countless ways that skilled and motivated
terrorists could either smuggle aboard, or create from materials
on the plane, improvised weapons to give them an edge in any
on-plane struggle. See how many things you can think of -
here are just a few to get you started :
A broken off handle from a
carry on bag, and a set of keys threaded through your
fingers, could make a very nasty 'knuckleduster'.
A bottle of duty free liquor,
smashed open at the neck, would be another weapon.
Even a sturdy pen (perhaps
loaded with poisoned ink) could be used as a stiletto type
A laptop battery would make a
Break a pole off a suitcase's
wheeling along handle rod, and you have a spear.
Two bottles of normal seeming
liquids could be mixed together to form tear gas, or a
dangerous acid or strong poison - or powerful explosive.
Or, more simply, a martial arts expert would
likely not need any weapon at all! And there's no way that
security screening can prevent people skilled in martial arts
from boarding any flights they choose.
Passengers can't effectively
gang up against terrorists
odds might be something like 100 passengers against 4
terrorists, the reality is that only perhaps 10 or 20 of the
passengers would be capable of mounting a credible defense,
while the others would variously be too old or too young, or too
infirm, or just too terrified to do anything helpful.
Even if all the
passengers chose to actively fight the terrorists, there is
another problem. With narrow aisles on the plane, probably only one passenger at
a time could confront the terrorists. If you've ever tried
to squeeze past another person standing in the aisle, you'll
know that there is no way that two people could jointly confront
Sure, other passengers could
try clambering over seats to outflank the terrorist, but
whatever they do, there will only be an effective two or three
people able to fight against the terrorist(s) at any one time
(assuming a single aisle plane, of course).
And if the terrorists move
to the narrow passageway at the front of the plane that leads to
the cockpit, the number of passengers that can simultaneously
confront the terrorists effectively reduces down to only one.
What about the reinforced
At a cost, many times
exceeding $100,000 per door, the airlines have replaced their
flimsy doors with heavy duty and bullet proof doors, to make the
cockpit supposedly secure.
More than you ever
wanted to know about bullets
has very little force behind it - ignore the
movie images of people, when hit by a
bullet, being thrown spectacularly
backwards. It doesn't happen that way
in real life.
bullet, when it hits something, has no more
energy than the recoil experienced by the
person shooting the gun (remember your
physics - every action has an equal and
opposite reaction). If a person can
hold and shoot a gun with only one hand,
then obviously the bullet isn't very
lethality and danger of a bullet comes from
the fact that it's energy is concentrated in
a small and hard area - a bullet injures and
kills primarily by penetration, not by
a bullet-proof door can actually be very
light-weight, with just a layer of kevlar to
protect against high velocity bullet
penetration, while remaining vulnerable to
low speed battering ram type attacks.
This security is, alas,
largely an illusion. Based on the design specifications
for the strength of these doors, while they may well be
bulletproof, they are probably not person-proof.
A moderately heavy man could run up
to the cockpit door, throw himself against it, and burst it open. Any person could take a loaded
trolley and use that for extra mass to achieve the same result.
Furthermore, there's another
problem with cockpit doors - they are all the time being opened,
either by the pilots or by the flight attendants. While in
theory the pilots are supposed to carefully check that the area
is safe and secure each time before they open the door, what is
to stop a terrorist, who had been hiding just out of view around
the corner, from then rushing at the pilot while the door is
Recognizing this danger, El
Al has a double door system on its planes, like an airlock,
where only one door is ever open at a time. The new Airbus
A380 is expected to offer such a design as standard, but no
other planes currently offer this feature - it would take up too
much valuable space!
Could pilots make the plane do
crazy things and incapacitate the terrorists?
Many pilots will tell you,
with more than a trace of swagger, that as soon as they learn of
terrorists in the passenger cabin, they'll depressurize the
plane and do aerobatic maneuvers to make it impossible for the
terrorists to move about.
The aerobatic maneuvers
would immediately throw any passengers not wearing the seatbelts
all around the place, and could severely injure such passengers.
This would affect everyone that
didn't have their seat belt fastened securely - all the flight
attendants, anyone else out of their seats, and those foolish
passengers that didn't have their seat belt fastened. But,
fairly and realistically, breaking a few innocent bones, and
perhaps even one or two people being killed, is a small price to
pay to protect the plane, its other passengers, and the lives of
people in whatever ground target the terrorists had selected to
While the pilots are doing
wild and crazy aerobatics, they'd also be depressurizing the
cabin, bleeding all the air out of it. Regular passengers
would finally get a chance to use one of the oxygen masks that
would hopefully drop from the overhead panels.
Presumably, once the plane
had depressurized to the point that everyone needed to be using
an oxygen mask to breathe, the pilots would straighten up their
flying and head directly to a secure landing field somewhere.
Terrorists could certainly also use the oxygen masks, but they
couldn't freely move about the plane - the cords on the masks
aren't long enough!
Everyone would be
more or less imprisoned by the need to keep close to an oxygen
mask until such time as the plane descended below 15,000 ft,
although there is nothing to stop the terrorists from holding
their breath for a couple of minutes, leaving behind their
oxygen mask, doing something bad, then returning to another
oxygen mask for more air, a bit like divers going into the
ocean, then coming up for a breath of air, then going back down
When the plane got below
15,000 ft, the atmosphere starts to become sufficient for
people to breathe unassisted.
At that point, terrorists could start to move about the cabin
again, and certainly by the time the plane got
below 10,000 ft, they could act - and fight - pretty much
normally. There would be about 10 minutes of risk during
which time the terrorists could try and again take over the
The good news and bad news
of that scenario is that, by then, the plane would be 'escorted'
by fighter jets, and if the terrorists gained control, the
fighters would be authorized to destroy the plane, as being the
lesser of two evils (compared to having the plane flown into a
ground target). Depending on whether you're on the plane
or on the ground at the probable target may influence your
opinion as to if this is good or bad news!
Terrorists will avoid
Although we've considered
how the passengers and pilots could fight against an attempted
terrorist takeover of a plane, the reality is that sensible
terrorists will try and avoid all the scenarios we've considered
Ignore what you see in the
movies. Your typical terrorist does not stand up at the
very back of the plane and shout 'Allah Akhbar' or whatever and
then fight his way dramatically up to the cockpit.
Instead, and as we know from
the 9/11 terrorist actions, the terrorists will likely choose to
buy seats in the first class cabin of the plane, closest to the
cockpit (and also enabling them to better check out their fellow
passengers in the first class cabin, which is where any federal
air marshals will likely be found).
The terrorists will try and
take control of the plane by stealth, and - anticipating likely
responses from other passengers and air force fighter jets -
will probably wait until they are only 10 or 15 minutes from
their chosen target before making their move. A terrorist
takeover of a plane will be stealthy, surprising, and sudden.
How many terrorists will there
We should expect there will
be more than one terrorist. It is more likely that there
will be many terrorists taking part in any future attack (there
were an average of five terrorists on each of the four planes on
9/11). Particularly if the
terrorists are going to try and take over a plane without any
weapons, then obviously, the more of them on board, the easier
it becomes for them to succeed.
Why not have the terrorists
make a group booking of 20 or 40 or more people on their
targeted flight? This would go a long way to increase
their chances of success. 100 passengers against 4
terrorists is one thing, but 60 passengers (remembering the
usual mix of children, women, and elderly people) against 40
fighting fit terrorists is a very different scenario.
The 9/11 terrorist acts were
really very low tech, and so were hard to protect against.
A future terrorist act might be even lower tech still - with
just a large number of terrorists on a plane using their fists
and nothing else to take it over. How can we protect against
Read more in part two
two we talk about how
to safeguard a plane to prevent it from being taken over by
terrorists, and discuss the benefits and dangers of firearms on
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Originally published 30 January 2004, last update
20 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.