Movie-Plot Threat: Open Airplane Cockpit Doors During Bathroom Breaks

James Fallows has a nice debunking of a movie-plot threat.

Posted on August 22, 2011 at 1:30 PM • 33 Comments

Comments

Danny MoulesAugust 23, 2011 9:09 AM

"Suppose every subway and bus stop said, "Any person near you could be carrying A BOMB!!!" At a literal level it's true, but hysteria doesn't help anyone -- except, the terrorists!"

There's a police (or some government initiative) poster which is often on buses where I live in the UK with something along the lines of 'if you see anything suspicious, don't be afraid to call'. Sometimes I see people looking around the bus, trying to get the measure of all the buses' 'threats' after spotting it.

One time I nodded and waved at somebody doing just that. Rather than noting this as suspicious and calling the number, they slumped back in to their seat and lowered their head.

Anyway: very solid article and extra credit to the guy for crossing his colleagues to write it.

FrankAugust 23, 2011 9:16 AM

On flights that I have taken the flight attendants place the drink cart strategically to create a barrier, perfect no, zero cost and fairly effective. Hurdling a drink cart to dive through the open cockpit door would certainly require movie-grade acrobatic skill combined with martial arts ala Angelina Jolie as Salt.

Clive RobinsonAugust 23, 2011 9:44 AM

The thing is a terrorist would not attack as the pilot came out, but on the way back from the "potty-break" because the terrorist then knows the pilot is out and will be back shortly...

That said however the article authors list of things the terrorist has to rely on is not wrong (and I can think of a few more to add).

But lets assume on a single door aircraft a terrorist does get through to the cockpit what happens next...

Firstly the terrorist does not know what's waiting for them on the other side of the door.

Secondly I'm assuming that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility the likes of the DHS and TSA etc have come up with a measure such as "check words" for pilots etc to indicate that there has been a loss of control of the aircraft. In which case I expect the same agencies have plans to divert it and shoot it down if the airplain does not do exectly as instructed.

However back to a double doors or "airlock" system. It sounds like it would be usefull in new aircraft designs and it would not be difficult to design in.

The question then arises as to what do you do with the dead space that would occur around the "airlock tunnel" created?

Whilst thinking about that ask yourself the question "what would happen if a bomb exploded in the "airlock tunnel"...

It is at this point you realise that the double door system only sounds good and infact it is probably a very bad idea all things considered...

bcsAugust 23, 2011 10:57 AM

Once you start talking about changing the design of aircraft, there are 2 solutions that I think would have WAY more impact: quit issuing type certificates to plains that carry more than some set mass of fuel or do away with interior cockpit doors.

Not that I actually think these should (or shouldn't) be done but they would markedly reduce the danger caused by a hijacking.

Captain ObviousAugust 23, 2011 11:21 AM

Just makes you wonder why some pilots are paid to carry guns. Are they really going to open the secure door when there's trouble in the cabin?

MeMyselfAndIAugust 23, 2011 11:53 AM

Secondly I'm assuming that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility the likes of the DHS and TSA etc have come up with a measure such as "check words" for pilots etc to indicate that there has been a loss of control of the aircraft.

There is a special transponder code (7500 if I remember right) that the aircraft can beacon in case of a hijack. Has been there since the 70s. Makes the plane show up red on any ATC system.

YMMVAugust 23, 2011 1:16 PM

@Danny Moules.

I had exactly that experience on a train in the UK today. I'd just changed from a 3 hour long inter-city with no terrorist warnings to an all stops rural train with both scrolling matrix messages telling people to 'Stay Vigilant' and similar audio announcements. I found myself smiling broadly during one of these announcements while thinking More Security Theatre when someone caught me smiling during this obviously serious message and looked very concerned - which only added to my amusement!

PackagedBlueAugust 23, 2011 2:19 PM

Denial is a fun form of security feeling, the old, calm before a storm.

9/11 was written off as a movie-plot threat.

Good procedures are cheap, even a security net that blocks a rush attack can be very cheap.

Richard Steven HackAugust 23, 2011 3:37 PM

"9/11 was written off as a movie-plot threat."

Apparently not everyone knows that it WAS a "move-plot".

The pilot episode of Chris Carter's The Lone Gunman had precisely this plot: a faction of the US government interested in increasing arms sales after the fall of the Soviet Union took remote control of an aircraft and attempted to fly it into the World Trade Center. They were of course foiled by our heroes The Lone Gunmen team of "conspiracy theorists".

This plot aired in March 2001 - six months before 9/11.

Which makes hash of Condoleeza Rice's subsequent stupid remark that "no one could have imagined" this sort of attack.

Richard Steven HackAugust 23, 2011 3:52 PM

Despite all the alleged impediments to the execution of this sort of attack, a properly trained team could undoubtedly pull it off.

As Clive suggested, you simply grab the pilot as he emerges from the john. Then he has a simple choice: open the door or die. If his colleagues in the cockpit need to open it from the inside and won't, he dies. His colleagues then need to explicitly sacrifice him (as well as the flight attendants who are now also under control) in order to prevent losing control of the plane.

If the terrorists are well trained in martial arts, especially using found objects, they can then proceed to start killing passengers. It may turn into a free-for-all and the terrorists might lose once the passengers rushed them en mass (there are ways to deal with a large group of attackers in martial arts), but it would be nearly as effective a hijacking as gaining control of the plane as far as the effect on the flying public is concerned.

It wouldn't be hard to find terrorists willing to go this route. What WOULD be hard is finding terrorists with sufficient martial arts training emphasizing the ability to use common objects as weapons. Most terrorist "training" is as crappy and incompetent as most military or corporate "training".

The smart move, as Matt indicates, is to simply forbid the pilots from emerging from the cockpit for ANY reason, including a cabin emergency of ANY sort. Simply stash a porta-potty with a screen in the cockpit for long distance flights. If you have room for drop-down seats for deadheading pilots, you have room for a john.

But as the article indicates and I've said repeatedly, there are a lot more effective ways to stop the airline industry from flying. So, yes, the alarmism over this tactic is ridiculous.

Dr. TAugust 23, 2011 4:54 PM

"9/11 was written off as a movie-plot threat."

Tom Clancy's 1996 novel "Executive Orders" featured the use of a 747 to destroy the Capitol.

Richard Steven HackAugust 23, 2011 5:06 PM

Also, there was a story about a group of weapons dealers who would buy freight aircraft, load them up with explosives, and dive them into various targets such as the Federal Express hub in order to do stock manipulation of airline stocks.

I think this book came out after 9/11 IIRC, though.

The importance of the Lone Gunmen story, however, was the coincidence of the plot precisely mirroring all the "conspiracy theories" which came out after and the precise nature of the attack being mirrored in those theories. It wasn't a general "airplanes used as weapons" story, it actually involved a government faction using a plane against the 9/11 target AND doing so precisely to stimulate the arms market - which is exactly what Bush and Cheney proceeded to do.

It's enough to make you wonder just what Chris Carter knew and when. Or whether someone saw the episode and thought, "Hey! We could do that!"

The ArchonAugust 23, 2011 5:23 PM

"The pilot episode of Chris Carter's The Lone Gunman had precisely this plot: a faction of the US government interested in increasing arms sales after the fall of the Soviet Union took remote control of an aircraft and attempted to fly it into the World Trade Center."

See also: The series finale of "Martial Law" which involved terrorists remote-controlling multiple planes into NYC targets. Also predates 9/11, since the rerun schedule on SpikeTV (or TNN or whatever it was at the time) was abruptly changed to remove any episode with references to terrorism or damaged buildings, and then AGAIN to remove any references to biological agents after the anthrax scare.

mcbAugust 23, 2011 7:18 PM

@ Dr. T

"Tom Clancy's 1996 novel 'Executive Orders' featured the use of a 747 to destroy the Capitol."

Ah yes, a 747-400 with fuel for Tokyo...

Never got around to "Executive Orders" but that was also the end of "Debt of Honor." I recall Clancy looked totally gobsmacked while providing color commentary the evening of 9/11.

That One GuyAugust 23, 2011 7:25 PM

"Also, there was a story about a group of weapons dealers who would buy freight aircraft, load them up with explosives, and dive them into various targets such as the Federal Express hub in order to do stock manipulation of airline stocks."

That would be the 1994 novel "Storming Heaven" by Dale Brown. Not a terrifically good book, but ironically a pretty good airport read.

The stock manipulation is secondary however, simply a way for the terrorists to continue funding their rampage while attaining their true goal, that of flying a 747-400 directly into the white house. And dropping a pair of FAEs on the lower half of Washington DC to boot.

Really, the number of writers who thought up 'fly a big plane into a significant target' as a scenario is pretty large. A fairly basic understanding of physics is all that's necessary to realize that a 400 ton object moving at near-mach speeds will cause a whole hell of a lot of damage if used as a battering ram.

It would actually be an interesting study to go through all the b-grade 'thriller' novels that litter the shelves at bookstores and produce a matrix showing the relative frequency of targets and attack types. I bet that even pre-2001 books will show a fair number of cases involving use of aircraft against landmark buildings.

John David GaltAugust 23, 2011 7:33 PM

Hijacking a passenger plane to use it as a weapon, as on 9/11, became impossible that same day, as Flight 93 proved. Now that passengers know to fight back, it can never possibly work again.

And the feds know this. So I think it's time we all demand they get the damn Keystone Gestapo out of the airports and keep them out. Flying was already enough a pain before 2001; I haven't wanted to do it since, because I don't need both my attitude and the electronics in my bags to be subjected to the judgment of a bunch of self-important idiot bureaucrats who wouldn't know a real threat if it bit them on the ass.

Richard Steven HackAugust 23, 2011 8:15 PM

"Storming Heaven" - yup, that was it. Pretty good read.

That One Guy: As I recall, the primary motivation of the group was money, not terrorism. Although the leader did get ticked off at being pursued and vowed to raise a terrorist army by invading the White House and raping the First Lady. His associate proceeded to shoot him for that notion. :-)

Galt: I wouldn't count on it never happening again, regardless of the passengers. Plus, you can always use freight aircraft like the Storming Heaven book.

tommyAugust 24, 2011 4:56 AM

@ MeMyselfandI:

"There is a special transponder code (7500 if I remember right) that the aircraft can beacon in case of a hijack. Has been there since the 70s. Makes the plane show up red on any ATC system."

It's been a while since I used my pilot's license, but if *I* remember correctly, you don't remember right. But I'm not going to give the correct one, because then the hijackers would know it!

Oh, wait... that was your plan all along. Publish the wrong code, so that when the pilot sets the xponder to the "I've been hijacked" code, the bad guys don't get alarmed, prohibit the change, etc. Very clever!

RookieAugust 24, 2011 2:09 PM

@RSH "... which is exactly what Bush and Cheney proceeded to do."

What?

"...Condoleeza Rice's subsequent stupid remark that "no one could have imagined" this sort of attack."
I think that was said with the understanding that it was exactly a "movie plot" kind of threat which wasn't rated very high on the risk assessments at the time, not that no fiction writer had ever dreamt up such a scenario.

On topic:
I agree with the author, pilot's restroom breaks are not a glaring hole in the anti-hijacking strategy, and there are ways of mitigating that risk if it is a concern. It's much more likely, however, that if another big terrorist attack happens in the US it won't involve airplanes.

anon e mousAugust 24, 2011 3:09 PM

"Potential hijackers could get through all the TSA impedimenta with weapons that could overcome flight attendants, pilots, and other passengers;"

Those ceramic knives that are becoming popular don't show up on the X-ray machine, do they?....

Richard Steven HackAugust 24, 2011 3:43 PM

Anon e mous: A guy well trained with one of these really tiny but razor sharp steel folders you can hang around your neck on a lanyard can slice you to ribbons in seconds. With enough blood flying around, passengers would be really hesitant to keep pushing forward.

Getting one for each member of a terrorist team on the plane would be quite feasible assuming you can get them past the magnetic detectors by bypassing them via some other channel.

Ceramic blades would work, too, and be easier to get past the magnetic detectors.

Rookie: Nice reading Condoleeza's mind. Not buying it. The specific attack WAS identified by a variety of intelligence agencies as a feasible attack - and indeed is obviously feasible to a five-year-old. There were specific warnings given to the US intelligence agencies by other countries concerning an aircraft-related terrorist attack.

As FBI agent Colleen Rowley put it, "jokes were actually made that the key FBIHQ personnel had to be spies or moles, like Robert Hanssen, who were actually working for Osama Bin Laden to have so undercut Minneapolis' effort."

She also said "In all of their conversations and correspondence, HQ personnel never disclosed to the Minneapolis agents that the Phoenix Division had, only approximately three weeks earlier, warned of Al Qaeda operatives in flight schools seeking flight training for terrorist purposes!"

There is no question that Rice was being disingenuous at best and covering up at worst.

Also, Bush/Cheney and the neocon crowd had stated much earlier in the PNAC documents that they had to be prepared for a "terrorist Pearl Harbor". Given that Bush had a plan to invade Afghanistan developed BEFORE 9/11 and Cheney had a plan to divvy up Iraq's oil BEFORE 9/11, I'd say they very definitely had plans to take advantage of the 9/11 attack.

And the stimulation of the military-industrial complex is obviously a part of that. The US defense budget has DOUBLED since 9/11.

And nothing has changed under Obama. He continues to push Iran about its nuclear program despite ZERO evidence that Iran has or ever had a nuclear weapons program of any kind. This is being done solely to set up the US for yet another "endless war" to keep certain segments of the US corporate elite (and in Obama's case we know exactly who - General Dynamics among others) flush while the average US citizen see his segment of the economy evaporate.

As General Smedley Butler once wrote, "War is a racket."

Clive RobinsonAugust 24, 2011 4:30 PM

@ That One Guy,

"It would actually be an interesting study to go through all the b-grade 'thriller' novels that litter the shelves at bookstores and produce a matrix showing the relative frequency of targets and attack types."

!!! Old Movie Plot Alert !!!

The Robert Redford 1975 movie "There days of the Condor".

The plot was the CIA had a section who's job was to read thriller books and analyse the plots Robert Redford was one of them with the code name "Condor". Unfortunatly one plot of a "secret agency within an agency" was true... So the secret agency decided to hire a hit man to kill all the book readers. Unfortunatly for the hit men Robert Redford was "out getting coffee" when "The Mail Man Came to Call".

Henrik HolstAugust 24, 2011 4:50 PM

"A guy well trained with one of these really tiny but razor sharp steel folders you can hang around your neck on a lanyard can slice you to ribbons in seconds. With enough blood flying around, passengers would be really hesitant to keep pushing forward."

Perhaps, but are you willing to risk your whole terrorist operation on that? After all the passengers do know that they will die if they become hesitant. Then again people don't always react logically in such situations.

Richard Steven HackAugust 24, 2011 7:00 PM

Henrik: If the takeover of the plane fails, you've managed to kill or seriously wound numerous passengers. That's almost as good as far as the impact on air travel is concerned.

Especially if you do it several times a month.

But as I've said often, there's almost no terrorist group competent enough to pull such a thing off.

I just read an article that said the total expenditure Al Qaeda put on "weapons of mass destruction" research - and almost all of it was on primitive chemical weapons - was - wait for it - $2-4,000...

Really terrifying...

ZingusAugust 24, 2011 7:52 PM

Voldemort should have an easy time with that scenario. We should screen for magic wands.

emkAugust 26, 2011 5:40 PM

We should just go back to horses.

Oh wait!

Some terrorist might set off a dirty bomb by riding a fully "fueled" horse into the Washington monument!

emk

Another KevinAugust 27, 2011 3:40 PM

I don't see the risk in telling anyone that 7700 is 'emergency while VFR', 7600 is 'lost communication with ATC' and 7500 is 'unlawful interference with flight,' since the FAA publishes the information on its own web site. (And I suspect that this post has branded me a terrorist sympathizer.)

HeatblizzardDecember 5, 2013 1:43 AM

The entire 9/11 episode almost sounds like a plot Voldermort would conjure up to *get even* with the muggles especially since there are lots of holes in the official 9/11 theory the Neo Cons don't surrender like decent men with moral values would.

There is only one political party and that's the government party and it's been that way since the 60s. Actually the early 1800s for AMerica but even more so since the 60s.

HeatblizzardDecember 5, 2013 1:44 AM

Should airports look out for illegal wands? Can't allow those wooden wands onboard airplanes as who knows what kind of damage they can do!

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