Special Report: Aftermath
Are government and industry doing enough to make the sky secure?
- By Lester A. Reingold
- Air & Space magazine, January 2002
(Page 2 of 3)
The first four of 17 recommendations to Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, made three weeks after the attacks by a “rapid response team” on aircraft security, also focused on the cockpit door. The team, whose members were drawn from airline management, aviation unions, and the aerospace industry, called for a new cockpit door design within six months and retrofit of the entire U.S. fleet a year after that.
If the cockpit is being turned into a fortress, should there be guns inside to defend it? A weapon in the cockpit is illegal under current FAA regulations, but ALPA recommends a voluntary program. Under the ALPA plan, a pilot who signs up would go through extensive background checks, psychological evaluation, and firearms training. Then he or she would be deputized as a federal law enforcement officer and carry a federally authorized weapon. The ammunition would be frangible, which means the bullet disintegrates on impact with a hard surface, so it would be unlikely to ricochet or seriously damage the aircraft. Such armed pilots would not take the place of federal air marshals; in fact, the FAA has begun a drive to hire and train thousands of armed marshals to fly aboard both domestic and international routes.
Firearms aren’t the only means to foil a hijacking. A variety of non-lethal devices are being hurriedly reviewed. One that is making its way before the FAA, congressional committees, airlines, and unions is the Laser Dazzler, manufactured by LE Systems. It looks like a large flashlight and emits an intense beam of green, pulsating light. The laser is harmless even at close range, but the bursts of light leave those who see them disoriented. The device could also be mounted on an aircraft bulkhead and, should there be a threat in the cabin, activated by a remote switch.
Another defensive weapon can be the aircraft itself. In a normal flight, says Captain John Cox, ALPA executive air safety chairman, “the idea is don’t spill the coffee. But with a hijacker on board, a 2-G maneuver would double his weight, and that could help disable him.” There are risks, though, in attempting aerobatics with an airliner. Cox issued a bulletin to ALPA members warning, for example, that loose objects can be turned into projectiles and that “aggressive, sustained control inputs, especially at high altitudes, may cause an aircraft upset that could lead to loss of control.” The DOT’s rapid response team recommended that such maneuvers, including dives and intentional depressurization, be used only as a last resort.
The September 11 hijackers succeeded not only in diverting four aircraft but also in keeping ground authorities largely in the dark while they did so. Many technological fixes are being proposed to prevent that from happening again. These include a transponder that continues to transmit aircraft identification, altitude, and hijack signal, even if switched off from the flight deck. Honeywell is considering some form of “panic button” that would immediately downlink the data that is routinely stored in the cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder.
Remember HAL, the computer with a mind of its own in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? Picture hijackers aiming 767s at the World Trade Center and the aircraft, like HAL, refusing to do as commanded. Such a safeguard appears feasible. Even before September 11, NASA was exploring a number of “refuse to crash” technologies that would keep pilot mistakes from leading to accidents. Enhanced ground proximity warning systems (EGPWS) are already in use. Coupled to the radar altimeter, plain-vanilla EGPWS warns the pilot when the airplane is too close to the ground. The enhanced version consults a terrain database to warn that there’s a likely collision ahead. To turn this system into a hijacking countermeasure, those advisories would have to be converted into orders.
The next step could be to wrest control from the pilot altogether. Once a hijack attempt becomes evident, someone on the ground takes over and flies the airplane. James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), says that most of the ingredients for this scenario are already in use, such as flight management systems, fly-by-wire control, and auto-land capability. What’s still missing, he says, is a long-awaited broadband data link, which would replace much of the routine voice communication between air and ground. ALPA representatives, among others, are more skeptical. They point to the risk of accidental or even intentional misdirection from remote aircraft operators, and FAA spokesman Les Dorr classifies such technologies as long-term, since even the military has perfected remote control only with relatively simple, single-engine aircraft.
Of course it’s a lot safer to prevent a hijacking than to foil one in progress. That entails keeping terrorists, weapons, and bombs off aircraft in the first place. ALPA’s testimony to the U.S. Senate recommended 30 near- and long-term actions to improve airline safety. For example, the union suggested that the Immigration and Naturalization Service not be allowed to use scheduled airline flights to deport illegal aliens without the escort of armed INS agents. Currently, the INS allows up to 10 deportees to travel unescorted on a flight with paying passengers.