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Home > Fred Reed > Archive

Airline Security

by Fred Reed    --show me more like this

Fred Reed

A Great Debate still rages over whether pilots of airliners should carry weapons. Granted, debate in Washington intellectually parallels professional wrestling, but without the dignity. Still: Did we not lose four aircraft, several thousand people, two and a quarter buildings, get ourselves into an open-ended string of wars, and begin to turn ourselves into an officious security state, at a cost of many, many billions of dollars -- because pilots did not have guns?

Key point: A pistol is an overmatch for a small knife. You can probably keep guns off aircraft. You cannot keep sharp objects off. There exist, for example, hard, sharp plastic knives intended as weapons. I've seen them.

OK: Mahmud in economy whips out his box cutter, a stewardess shouts a warning and, as Mahmud rushes to the cockpit, the copilot opens the door and shoots him five times with a .45 semi-automatic. Mahmud ceases to be an international terrorist. He is now a carpet stain.

In fact, had the pilots been armed, do you suppose Mahmud would even have tried?

Yet here in the City of Living Tapioca, people argue that we should do anything but arm the pilots. Why? Because among the political overclass the ideological aversion to guns, and particularly to people who own guns, outweighs concern for lives.

What, pray, do we expect unarmed pilots to do? Idiotic suggestions abound. My favorite is that they should throw the terrorist off his feet by maneuvering violently, always a good idea in a 747. Let's imagine it:

Ahmet arises, whereupon the pilot maneuvers hard. Unsecured babies fly from their mothers' arms and smash against things. So do the stewardesses. (Exactly what one wants in an emergency: cripple the only people trained to handle it.) Heavy metal sandwich carts thunder about, crushing people. Passengers in the lavatories have their necks broken. Chaos, panic, wreckage prevail.

The terrorists, who knew this would happen, are least likely to be hurt because they will have been expecting it.

But . . . now what? The problem has not been solved. The terrorists are still there. People unbuckle, wanting to help the hurt. A mother will not sit insouciantly in her seat while her injured baby bleeds out of her reach. The pilot again violently maneuvers an aircraft not designed for it. Crash, thump, scream, maneuver wildly, crash, thump, scream.


But we mustn't shoot the sonsofbitches.

It gets sillier. In their February 18 issue, Aviation Week claimed, "Critics have warned that armed pilots would be more of a hazard to passengers than the remote threat of terrorist hijackings." Oh. We trust the pilots to take off in a huge aircraft, fly it and us at an altitude of seven miles across a cold, deep, and wet ocean, and land the brute in marginal weather at Heathrow – but we don't trust them with sidearms. What could be more reasonable?

Nice, frightened naifs say we should use non-lethal weapons. Good. Water cannon, perhaps. Rubber bullets? Tear gas? Foam? Flash-bangs? The salient characteristic of non-lethals is that they work poorly, especially in confined spaces.

Besides, I don't want non-lethal weapons. I want lethal ones. I don't like people who want to fly me into a large building. Killing them would suit me fine.

Sheer unfamiliarity with guns plays a large part here. I found myself talking some time ago with a pilot for American, one of apparently few who fear guns. The terrorists would take the guns away from the pilots, he worried, and kill them. The solution, he averred, was stronger cockpit doors.

Solution for whom? The passengers remain with the terrorists.

Having better doors to delay forced entry is a good idea. It isn't a guarantee. There are ways of opening locked doors quickly. I have seen adhesive-backed charges of plastic explosive that can be slapped against a hinge. They stick. The impact starts the ignition train, and five seconds later the hinge blows apart. They can be made with no metallic parts. SWAT teams and commandos have, or know how to make, such devices.

This guy didn't know that either. He knew how to fly an aircraft. He didn't know squat about protecting one. And he didn't know he didn't know.

But assume that the doors hold. The terrorists appear and begin cutting throats. First they kill the flight attendants. The pilots drive on, cowering behind the door that is their only protection. The terrorists say they will kill passengers until the pilots open the door. The pilots, now flying an abattoir, drive on – because, being unarmed, they have little choice. Should the terrorists figure out how to open the door, which is definitely doable, they will be helpless. Splendid.

But we mustn't shoot the sonsofbitches.

The fear of depressurizing the aircraft is exaggerated. Cabins are pressurized to something like 8,000 feet, well below 14.7 psi. Even if the aircraft were in orbit, it would be only a dozen or so psi over ambient. A bullet hole would make a hissing sound. It would not, a la Hollywood, suck people out. Aside from which there are frangible bullets, hard enough to kill a man but that shatter into powder on hitting metal.

But I doubt that the American guy knew about bullets either.

Now, AvWeek's polls found that 73% of air crew want arms on the flight deck. Most of the public agrees. The Overclass do not agree. Why?

On a guess, because they come from the coddled suburbs and pampered universities where it is always safe, where the police defend them from human reef life a mile away, where everyone is against violence and sings Kum BaYah and dabbles in Ethical Culture. As we become more effeminate, more a nation of mall children, the cosseted just don't know that, occasionally, it really is kill or be killed. They've probably never held a firearm.

And there is the curiously American disjuncture from reality, our penchant for insisting that the world is as it isn't, and then living as if it were. We begin a military campaign against the world's terrorists, people who avowedly want to kill us, drive aircraft into nuclear plants to poison us with radiation, destroy our cities – but pretend we don't need to arm ourselves. We know the terrorists are Moslem males, but act as if we didn't. We wage war on terrorists, but eject little boys from school if they draw pictures of soldiers.

And AvWeek's ominous phrase – "behind the scenes" – means that we are likely to get what the overclass wants, not what we want.


Copyright © 2002 Fred Reed.

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