Guns on Planes - Yes or No
How best to safely protect against the
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?
2 of a 2 part series - click for Parts
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
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
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
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
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
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
Hood type products, which do double duty as excellent gas
masks, and which anyone can bring onboard a plane.
Non lethal defense - Physical
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
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
Guns might be bad, but what is
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, 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
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
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
What if a bullet shoots out a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.