Making the Air Safe for Terror

National Review

Making the Air Safe for Terror
Turning airplanes into safe zones for hijackers.

By Dave Kopel, research director, Independence Institute & Captain David Petteys, retired United Airlines pilot, Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, author of Marine Helo
September 16, 2001 9:30 a.m.

We will not allow the enemy to win this war by restricting our freedom of mobility," claimed Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, as he announced a series of restrictions that will sharply reduce mobility.

If one has to arrive at the airport two or three hours before boarding, many businesspeople will choose not to fly. The immediate alternative is driving, especially for trips of less than 500 miles, and in the long term, videoconferencing will be bolstered.

Families with small children will find air travel even more onerous. No longer will grandma be able to meet mom at the airport gate, and help her take a baby and a toddler down the concourse. No longer will Aunt Joan be able to escort her 11-year-old niece to the boarding gate. Spending two or three hours in an airport before a flight will make travel all the more difficult and stressful for children, and many families will choose to vacation by driving rather than flying. Air destinations like Disneyworld will suffer substantially in the long run.

As Glenn Reynolds argues in his InstaPundit weblog, bans on steak knives in first class, bans on pocket knives among all passengers, prohibitions on plastic cutlery in airports, and similar measures fulfill the terrorist goal of portraying America is incapable of meaningful response. In addition, measures further disarming the law-abiding on the plane only worsen the current policy of turning airplanes into safe zones for hijackers.

The 30-year-old FAA anti-hijacking strategy was built on the following assumptions:

That the hijackers are not suicidal (hence the negotiating teams, etc.).

That the weapon of choice would be a metal object such as a pistol (thus the airport metal detectors).

That the flight crew would remain in control of the aircraft (leading to elaborate signaling procedures and delaying tactics for hijacked aircraft).

That the flight crew should NOT to resist the hijackers (hoping to open negotiations and resolution).

All these assumptions were rendered null and void on Sept 11, 2001.

The first people to realize this were the heroes of United Flight 93. Thanks to cell phones, they realized that their plane had been turned into a weapon. And they resolved to die a little sooner as they fought to save thousands of lives, rather than to sit still and wait. What a wonderful rejection of the advice that the gun-prohibition lobbies, the depend-on-government lobbies, and much of the media have been droning into the American public for so long. In truth, "Give the criminals what they want. Don't resist," isn't always safer. In a shooting in a subway or school, passivity can get you and dozens more people killed. In a hijacking, it may get thousands more killed.

Suppose that in September 1941, Nazi or Japanese terrorists armed only with knives had taken the controls of a plane, a train, or a bus. Would the Americans of 1941 have obeyed all the hijackers' instructions, or would they have rushed the hijackers en masse, knowing that some passengers would die, but that the hijackers would be stopped? If America is to be "changed forever" by the war which began on September 11, 2001, the first change should be the end of the culture of passivity.

The most constructive step taken by the Secretary of Transportation was to begin placing armed federal air marshals on random flights. Back in the early 1970s, the last time that air marshals were in routine use on domestic flights, they were often armed with .44 magnum snub-nosed revolvers. The revolvers often carried "prefragmented" ammunition, such as the Glaser round, which is composed of buckshot pellets.

The short barrel of the revolver means that the round is fired at relatively lower velocity. Fragmenting rounds have very low penetrability — since their kinetic energy is dispersed in many small projectiles, rather than in a single bullet, and since they are less dense than regular bullets. Glaser fragmenting rounds typically will fail even to penetrate a wood door.

The tradeoff is that such bullets tend to produce shallow wounds, which reduces their ability to instantly kill or incapacitate their target.

Perhaps not too far in the future, dart guns, or other high-tech less than lethal weapons might become practical for airplane use, but for now, however, firearms are the usable weapon.

With prefragmented ammunition, the chance of a stray round penetrating the aluminum body of the plane is virtually nil. With less exotic ammunition, it is theoretically possible, but hardly certain, that a stray bullet could penetrate an airplane’s body.

What would happen in such a case? Would the plane crash instantly? World War II veterans may remember that B-17 bombers which had numerous holes ripped open by hostile machine gun bullets had a legendary ability to stay aloft.

Unlike the B-17, however, modern commercial aircraft are pressurized for passenger comfort. Today’s commercial airliners have pressurized cabin altitudes that climb to a maximum of around 8,000 feet (which amounts to about 8.6 psi pressure differential compared to the outside atmosphere).

Could a couple of holes from the biggest bullets in the world — about a half-inch in diameter — cause an explosive decompression? Not really. The higher pressure cabin air would start to leak out, but the difference between the inside and the outside air pressure would not be sufficient to rip the plane’s frame apart.

There is only one known instance in which a bullet hole in an aircraft frame yanked objects across the plane, expanded, and sucked a person out into the sky. That was the James Bond movie Goldfinger. The movie was not intended to teach real-life lessons about physics.

Should the laws of physics somehow be altered so that a stray bullet could cause an explosive decompression, a big hole in a plane doesn't cause a crash. What’s really dangerous about a sudden loss of cabin pressure is that passengers can't breathe. The procedure is to put on your oxygen mask and do a "High Dive" to 10,000 feet (or to 3,000 feet above the highest terrain — which means if you were west of Denver you would only dive to 17,000 feet before leveling off), thus entering an atmosphere that can sustain life. In fact, the altitude limitation placed on aircraft is based on their ability to descend to a breathable altitude in a given amount of time.

Would a direct hit on a hydraulic line cause a crash? No, because modern commercial aircraft are built with redundancies to cover the failure of any single system.

And even if Goldfinger were real life and a small hole in an airplane frame could cause a crash, that is still a better result than the plane being turned into a weapon against an American city.

We can no longer allow the assumption that hijackers are not intending to kill thousands.

So armed air marshals are a good idea, but there are some limitations. The number of air marshals cannot even come close to providing full coverage for commercial flights.

How can we make it a certainty that every potential hijacker knows that there is no possibility he will gain control of an airplane?

The most realistic plan is to apply the policy behind air-marshal deployment on a broader scale, ensuring that every plane is protected.

Federal law has always allowed federal law-enforcement personnel, such as FBI agents, to carry their firearms on board. Even though federal agents have sometimes committed crimes, including murder, on balance the law promotes safety.

The policy should be expanded to allow state and local law enforcement personnel to carry firearms. Currently, state and local law enforcement must be on-duty (or required to go on duty immediately upon arrival). How stringently these rules enforced varies among airports and airlines.

What about pilots? Some have proposed armoring the cockpit wall and door, and locking pilots in for the duration of the flight. It appears that Tuesday’s hijackers killed stewardesses in order to draw pilots out of the cockpit. This ploy was necessary because current anti-hijacking training stresses keeping the cockpit secure. If pilots were locked inside (with the key held by somebody on the ground), pilots would become de facto prisoners — a visible triumph of the terrorist objective of destroying America’s strength as a free society. Also, the cockpit is intended to be an exit route for passengers in case of a crash.

It is already legal for pilots and stewards to carry firearms on a plane, if they have the consent of the airline, and they have "successfully completed a course of training in the use of firearms acceptable to the Administrator" of the Federal Aviation Administration. (14 Code of Federal Regulations section 108.11.)

On Wednesday, the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute in Southern California announced that it would offer free defensive firearms training to certified commercial airline pilots. Front Sight’s announcement was accompanied by endorsements from commercial pilots who have trained with Front Sight.

Both airlines and the federal government ought to encourage pilots and stewards to take the appropriate training, and become ready to protect their passengers. Surely if we can trust a pilot with a $50 million plane and the lives of three hundred passengers, we can trust him not to use a gun in way that would endanger his passengers or himself.

Shooting somebody from a few feet away doesn't require expert marksmanship. In a hijacking, unlike in many situations faced by police on the ground (e.g., responding to a domestic violence call), it will usually be quite clear who the criminal is. There are always risks that a particular hostage, or somebody near the hijacker, might be wounded or killed by a missed shot. But this is still better than everyone on the plane being killed, or thousands of people in some nearby city being killed.

Of course some gun-prohibition advocates will object. "We don't trust flight crews with weapons" they may say. "Putting a gun in a volatile situation just makes things more dangerous," they insist. But Sept 11th makes a shamble of these arguments. At least on airplanes, "the best defense is to put up no defense — give them what they want," is no longer valid. (The quote comes from a book by the late Pete Shields, the former President of Handgun Control, Inc. Guns Don't Die: People Do, p. 125.)

Whatever increases the safety of the flight crew increases the safety of the passengers. No two groups of people have interests that are more aligned.

And yes, even though stewardesses can sometimes get nasty with passengers, they too are capable of carrying firearms responsibly. Israel’s El Al airline arms its flight stewards and pilots.

What about passengers being allowed to protect themselves — rather then being forbidden even to have plastic knives?

First of all, in a situation like Tuesday’s hijackings (and we can never again assume that hijackers intend not to hit a building), then even the most inept response by an armed passenger would do no net harm, and might even help. In other words, if a passenger with a high-powered hunting rifle confronted some hijackers, shot at them and missed, and killed some other passengers, all the passengers are doing to die soon anyway. If the bullets rip open the airplane frame, and cause a catastrophic decompression, then it is much better for the plane to crash under circumstances in which the hijackers cannot control it, than at the time and place of the hijackers' choosing.

But the risks of armed passengers can be substantially reduced. First, a passenger who wants to travel armed should have to possess a valid concealed handgun carry license. The majority of states currently issue such licenses to qualified applicants.

Second, the passenger would have to identify himself at the airline at check-in. This would allow him to carry a firearm past security. Flight attendants would not serve him alcohol (or would serve only a single drink). Like the air marshals, passengers would have to bring only firearms from a list of particularly suitable guns, and would have to use ammunition with high frangibility. If necessary, airlines could even supply (for a fee) the appropriate type of ammunition.

If necessary, passengers who wish to carry on-board might be required to pass a special training class related to firearms on planes, similar to the classes required for flight crews.

Now the idea of armed passengers is extremely offensive to the gunphobics who have spent the last thirty years inflicting their aesthetic sensibilities on the America, and turning airports, schools, and too many workplaces into "gun-free zones" — which in practice has meant turning them into criminal safety zones, where it easy to kill a lot of people — especially people who believe that "the best defense is to put up no defense — give them what they want."

A second objection is that armed passengers will get irritated with flight delays, rude stewardesses, etc., and start killing people. Nearly identical objections have been raised nearly everywhere the handgun carry licensing laws have been introduced, and in every single state where the laws are in effect, these mean-spirited warning have been proven to be false. Data from states such as Florida show that people with concealed handgun permits are much, much more law-abiding than the rest of the population.

Given the vast number of witnesses to any potential crime, and the guarantee that there will be other armed people on the plane who won't tolerate misconduct, a plane would be an especially unlikely place for a person to expect to get away with misusing a gun.

Years ago, airlines used to offer "smoking" and "non-smoking" flights. It would be interesting to see what would happen if airlines began offering "armed" and "unarmed flights." Which planes do you think that would-be hijackers would prefer to take?

We also know that the greater publicity given to an anti-crime program, the greater its potential deterrent effect. The introduction of sky marshals ended hijackings, without a single marshal having to fire a single shot. When Kennesaw, Georgia, enacted a nationally publicized law to require mandatory gun ownership for families, violent crime and home burglaries plunged. Again, the announcement of a viable program to stop criminals resulted in crime being stopped without a need for actually firing weapons.

Of course planes are not the only possible targets of the war being waged by bin Laden and the governments which support him. We don't know where they will strike next. The evil governments and groups which nurture terrorism have so much to resent about the United States, because so much of the United States is a demonstration of why freedom prospers and dictatorship and dark ages theocracy fail. What we do know is that shopping malls, schools, and other public places will be safer if terrorists will encounter immediate opposition. Law-enforcement officers cannot be everywhere, but an armed, trained citizenry can be. As John Lott, now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, details in the second edition of his book More Guns: Less Crime, the introduction of concealed handgun licensing laws leads to a drop of approximately 90% in mass killings in public places.

Anyone with a gun — an air marshal, a law-enforcement officer, a pilot, a stewardess, or a trained citizen — could make a mistake, and there is no guarantee that a mistake will never be made. But the nationwide American experience of air marshals and law-enforcement officers carrying guns on planes, the experience of the many states which issue handgun permits to law-abiding peaceful citizens, and the experience of El Al’s flight crews all suggest that these risks are relatively small.

It would be possible to decide to allow the armament of only some of the categories of people we have discussed in this article. But the safest strategy is for all of them to be armed, if they so choose, and if they pass appropriate training and background checks, and carry appropriate weapons. When we make it near-certain statistically that on every commercial flight, some of the crew and a few of the passengers will be armed, then we create the near-certainty that never again will the enemies of freedom be able to use American aircraft as a weapon against American cities.

We can also guarantee that allowing passengers and crew to carry the tools to defeat hijackers will not impose massive delays on the American traveling public or sharply reduce the utility of air travel for business and public, and therefore will not significantly harm the free American economy. The same cannot be said of the Department of Transportation's current approach.