Dangerous Security Theater: Scrambling Fighter Jets

This story exemplifies everything that's wrong with our see-something-say-something war on terror: a perfectly innocent person on an airplane, a random person identifying him as a terrorist threat, and a complete overreaction on the part of the authorities.

Typical overreaction, but in this case -- as in several others over the past decade -- F-15 fighter jets were scrambled to escort the airplane to the ground. Very expensive, and potentially catastrophically fatal.

This blog post makes the point well:

What bothers me about this is not so much that they interrogated the wrong person -- that happens all the time, not that it's okay -- but rather the fighter jets. I think most people probably understand this, but just to make it totally clear, if they send up fighters that is not because they are bringing the first-class passengers some more of those little hot towels. It is so they can be ready to SHOOT YOU DOWN if necessary. Now, I realize the odds that would ever happen, even accidentally, are very tiny. I still question whether it's wise to put fighters next to a passenger plane at the drop of a hat, or in this case because of an anonymous tip about a sleeping passenger.

[...]

According to the Seattle Times report, though, interceptions like this are apparently much more common than I thought. Citing a NORAD spokesman, it says this has happened "thousands of times" since 9/11. In this press release NORAD says there have been "over fifteen hundred" since 9/11, most apparently involving planes that violated "temporary flight restriction" areas. Either way, while this is a small percentage of all flights, of course, it still seems like one hell of a lot of interceptions -- especially since in every single case, it has been unnecessary, and is (as NORAD admits) "at great expense to the taxpayer."

Posted on January 28, 2013 at 1:25 PM • 61 Comments

Comments

PersonOfInterestJanuary 28, 2013 1:51 PM

Also a great DOS vector:

"I'm calling from flight 1111. The guy next to me is mumbling something about bombs!"
"I'm calling from flight 1112. The guy next to me is mumbling something about bombs!"
"I'm calling from flight 1113. The guy next to me is mumbling something about bombs!"
"I'm calling from flight 1114. The guy next to me is mumbling something about bombs!"

...etc...

AlanJanuary 28, 2013 2:41 PM

IMO, scrambling fighter jets doesn't cost the tax payer anything (up to a point). The pilots and mission personnel need training and experience in order to be ready to do their jobs when it counts. These interceptions are simply a form of training exercise and a fair bit more cost effective than sending the pilots and planes over to the mideast. I'm all in favor of them (up to a point).

bcsJanuary 28, 2013 2:53 PM

@Alan: the "up to a point" I'd even be willing to consider is a) the normal FAA Separation minimum rules and b) any munitions or guidance systems being armed beyond the bare minimum state.

Steven HooberJanuary 28, 2013 2:56 PM

> scrambling fighter jets doesn't cost the tax payer anything

Fuel costs are extremely high. Many thousands of dollars an hour. And aircraft require a non-trivial amount of maintenance for each hour flown.

General aviation (private planes) that violate airspace have traditionally been billed for the interception. It is not a small fee. I would very much like to see TSA have to carry the costs of stupid interceptions instead of USAF et. al.

MattJanuary 28, 2013 2:57 PM

Sorry if this is a little off topic, but I don't understand why the cockpit is accessible during flight from the passenger compartment.

There is no reason that I can think of not to put a foot-thick steel door that can only be opened by the pilot or co-pilot. The only case where I could see this being an issue is if both the pilot dies and the dies co-pilot before she or he can make an emergency landing at the nearest airport. Otherwise, the stewardesses and stewards would have an intercom where they can relay import information such as an ill passenger. The pilots can have their own microwave and bathroom.

Alternatively, they could use a system with a set of two doors (the second with a large window so that they can see that it is just the steward with their dinner or the co-pilot returning from the restroom). If it's a person with a gun, lock both doors and land immediately.

At this point, it would become virtually impossible to hijack the plane. Sure, you could sneak a bomb and blow it up, but you could probably get a better body count at a high school football game (which have far more lax security). I feel like at this point, retrofitting commercial aircraft is the most cost effective option (best estimate I could find was $10,000/hour for scrambling alone - http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/01/...

bcsJanuary 28, 2013 3:02 PM

@Matt

You just more or less described how I've seen things be done in recent years (I think per FFA regs.). You can't get into the cockpit if the people in there don't want you to get in.

W.M.H.January 28, 2013 3:10 PM

Important terrorist tip... Most potential terrorists will not be sleeping peacefully in their airline seats. If in doubt, a quick, "Sir, is there anything I can get you?" should provide important behavioral info. (Hint: Irritation at being awakened should be considered to be in the range of normal behavior.)

Steven HooberJanuary 28, 2013 3:10 PM

Matt, because a foot of steel weighs a lot. As does an extra bathroom, extra food service equipment, etc.

Pre 9/11 (well... a few times before that, but we ignored them) hijackings usually used the existing aircrew and held the aircraft, crew and passengers hostage. Since then, we put locks on the doors. Pretty easy. Not a problem now.

MattJanuary 28, 2013 3:13 PM

@bcs

Thanks for response.

Then I guess I don't see why we are so up in arms (literally speaking, in this case). Or does it have more to give people the impression they are secure than actually providing physical security?

pwnellJanuary 28, 2013 3:21 PM

@Matt - I think you are missing the point. You can put a ten foot thick layer of carbon nanotubes for all I care - the vulnerability is not the divider between the pilot and the passengers, it is human nature. All you need is a terrorist that has no regard for human life (how hard can that be?), who threatens to kill a passenger every minute the cockpit is not opened. I am sure by the third or fourth death the cockpit will be opened...

MattJanuary 28, 2013 3:31 PM

@pwnell

I understand that, but by opening the cockpit though the pilot would knowingly be killing everyone on board, in addition to people on the ground. It would be hard, but part of the idea behind the intercom and thick door was to prevent them from hearing things like screaming or gunshots to help them keep their resolve in a tense situation.

edgarjpubliusJanuary 28, 2013 3:37 PM

I'm not sure this totally qualifies as 'bad security theater'. The threat of shooting down an airliner rather than allowing it to potentially be used in another 9/11 suicide attack really is an effective deterrent to skyjackings.

Also, 1500+ incidents so far with no accidents or mistakes doesn't seem very dangerous, except in the abstract.

It is probably ridiculously expensive though. 1500+ incidents definitely indicates that fighters are being scrambled an excessive amount.

On the other hand though, if you wait until people on the ground can find out for sure that an airliner has been taken over and diverted, it may be too late to scramble a fighter intercept.

pwnellJanuary 28, 2013 3:38 PM

@Matt - I guess that makes sense. In the end it is a tradeoff between known loss of lives vs. the hope that a reasonable resolve can be reached. Though that is not guaranteed. But that being said, AFAIK there has not been many attacks where a plane was used as a missile... Might be more plausible the plane is being hijacked for another purpose?

Michael.January 28, 2013 3:51 PM

So was a call of "yeah, this guy on this flight, he's a terrorist" all that was needed? Or was it a little bit more sophisticated, e.g. "yeah, this guy on this flight has a bomb that's in his hand luggage and it's made from sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, and the detonator is phosphorus sesquisulfide on a wooden stick". Or like what is required to get fighters to scramble to intercept a plane, and to have a (presumably innocent) person interrogated? And what recourse is their for passengers and the innocent passenger in particular against the government? Haha, that's a funny joke isn't it. There's no recourse is there...

PubliusJanuary 28, 2013 3:52 PM

The only time fighter jets should have been scrambled was 9/11 but the score was zero that whole morning. Civilians had to do the job in Pennsylvania.

Scrambling escorts is obviously worse than nothing.

David D.January 28, 2013 3:56 PM

I think the issue here, is that we should respond to only "credible" threats with actions that are in proportion to a) how credible they are and b) a reasonable assessment of the things at risk.

Anonymous calls that a sleeping passenger might be an Arab and as such "might" be a terrorist are not very credible.

Sure, investigate further on all calls to see if you can get something more credible. A more reasonable response might be to have the flight attendant check on it, but even that's a bit heavy handed for anonymous, non-specific tips of low risk, security screened airplanes.

using both handsJanuary 28, 2013 4:21 PM

Wow, 1500+ scrambles since 9/11?

If my estimations are correct, that works out to about 10 per month. !!!

I don't remember hearing about that on the news....

DFJanuary 28, 2013 4:34 PM

Since most of those 1500 incidents were for violations of "temporary restricted airspace" my guess is that jets weren't scrambled but were already airborne and were simply directed towards planes that momentarily violated the restricted space.

SnortwoodJanuary 28, 2013 4:46 PM

Scrambling fighter jets is not theater.

meanwhile - 1500 / (11.5*365) = about a 36% chance on any one day of a fighter jet scramble since 2001.09.11, or one every 3 days. probably more back in 2001 and 2002, but since then, overall, around 1 time every 3 days.

considering the thousands of flights per day and the effort made to Color Alert and see-something say-something, this is a rather uninspiring level of paranoia inspired by the fearmongers.

NostradamusJanuary 28, 2013 4:50 PM

So, ten time a month, on average, the US Military, at the behest of Dept of Homeland (show me your papers) Security launches armed war planes against unarmed, civilian passenger jets, and some of you think that this is OK? You are truly fools, one can only pray that when the inevitable accident happens that those of you that think this is OK are on that plane that "...accidentally..." gets shot down...because you had diarrhea and were exhibiting "...scary behavior..."

MattJanuary 28, 2013 5:01 PM

Let's assume, for the time being, that the cockpit door is about as secure as an electronics store's emergency exit facing a back alley--impenetrable to a meth addict with a crowbar, and will withstand power-tool attack long enough to make a hardened burglar nervous. Let's assume that a hijacker puts a cordless circular saw with a metal-cutting blade and fully charged battery in their carry-on. Let's assume that this circular saw can, in 2 minutes, cut a hole in the cockpit door big enough for the hijacker to reach inside and unlock the door.

Won't happen. Try charging the cockpit with a running circular saw, and you'll be gang-rushed by the passengers and crew. Knowing that they are no longer getting a free trip to Latin America, passengers assume that a hijacker _is going to intentionally crash the plane_, and _will not allow a hijacking to happen_, end of story.

Let's stop trying to cook up elaborate movie-plot threats and try to figure out countermeasures. More people die in car crashes than a 9/11 every month, and I don't see anyone up in arms about that.

Regarding these scrambled fighter jets...assuming there's no real threat, does the pilot have the physical ability to shoot without first receiving radioed-in clearance from ground control? Or can the pilot "pull the trigger" for run and shoot down the plane for no reason? If the latter is true, I feel it will be a matter of time before a trigger-happy pilot decides to "waste me some Arabs" and shoot the plane down for jollies.

Wang-LoJanuary 28, 2013 6:08 PM

@Matt: "...it will be a matter of time before a trigger-happy pilot decides to "waste me some Arabs" and shoot the plane down for jollies."

Perhaps even now terrorist moles have become USAF fighter pilots and are only waiting to be scrambled against an airliner.

-Wang-Lo.

PeterJanuary 28, 2013 6:25 PM

@Publius - The score wasn't zero. Quite a few planes were intercepted that day. Just not the few that mattered.

One came uncomfortably close to being shot down near my house. A flight to Detroit was ordered to land at the small airport in Hamilton, Ontario, west of Toronto. It made an (probably half-hearted) aborted attempt, then the pilot (having no idea what was going on) announced it was carrying on to Detroit. It was made abundantly clear to the pilot, with vivid demonstrations, that that was not a good idea.

There were quite a number of similar events. Of course, they were of no significance since they were not in the US (but Americans were involved, so that should could for something).

MarkHJanuary 28, 2013 6:27 PM

There is a small but non-zero risk of a collision between intercepting combat aircraft and the plane being intercepted. This has happened with the US Air Force.

If such extravagant "scrambles" must be done, it would be prudent to maintain standard aircraft separation distances, at least.

The odds against passengers gaining control of an airliner in order to use it as a weapon are very steep -- the three 9/11 successes were absolutely dependent on surprise, as demonstrated by the failure of the fourth try, and passenger response to attempted violence since then.

Would-be mass murderers can see this for themselves, and so are unlikely to attempt it. The 9/11 attackers used this tactic because they reasoned (correctly) that it had a fair chance of succeeding -- that's simply not true anymore.

And if an airliner is NOT under the control of a hijacker, but rather has a "suspicious" person in the cabin, of what use is a fighter escort?

jdgaltJanuary 28, 2013 6:38 PM

For every single time this has been done, the person who ordered the scramble needs to be in jail. Now. Before he kills more innocent people than any non-state terrorist ever will.

John SchillingJanuary 28, 2013 6:49 PM

The use of a fighter escort is, for the most part, the ability to directly verify that the airliner is not under the control of a hijacker. Or, alternately, that it is. Not with 100.00% confidence, of course but, visual observation and communication at close range offers information not available to remote observers with only radio and radar to go on.

The danger, strikes me as grossly overstated. How many people here fear for their lives when they see a police car one lane over on the freeway? The police carry guns; they could shoot out your tires and cause a fatal crash (or just shoot you in the head) if they get suspicious or trigger-happy, right? And the average policeman works with much looser rules of engagement and less training and discipline than anyone you'll find behind the stick of an F-15.

DavidJanuary 28, 2013 6:57 PM

Just a note, scrambling fighter jets may or may not cost the taxpayer money. One cannot tell from the information given. First, fuel. Fuel has a shelf life. If fuel isn't consumed, eventually it goes "bad" and must be destroyed. The military routinely plans training to accommodate both the pilot's need for experience as well as the need to use up fuel before it goes bad (along with other considerations, I’m sure). Wear and tear on the aircraft also has a shelf life. Aircraft not used frequently enough will also go "bad" at the most inopportune time. In addition, aircraft faults found during peacetime use help improve reliability during wartime. So there is a built-in cost during peacetime to be ready for war when it’s necessary. Bottom line, the only time scrambling jets for incidents such as this would cost the taxpayer more that we already pay is if the number of incidents is greater than that which is already planned for.

BrianJanuary 28, 2013 7:06 PM

The crucial detail missing from this report would seem to be the substance of the report of a "possible hijacker". There is nothing wrong with a fighter escort and questioning someone IF the information seemed credible and worth acting on. On the other hand, if it was a reaction to some racist notice there was an "Ayrab" on his flight and assuming he was a terrorist...it was a HUGE overreaction and I hope the accuser gets fined at the very least (some jail time or a massive lawsuit from the accused would be acceptable karma too).

The potential problem with "see something, say something" isn't the reaction, it's whether the reaction is based at all on the credibility of the report. Most people aren't anti-terrorism experts, so it makes sense to careful consider the report before sending armed fighter jets up after a passenger plane or detaining some random (almost certainly innocent) person for questioning.

AndrewJanuary 28, 2013 7:43 PM

Who is going to make a decision to shoot down a plane full of innocent civilians based on random speculation about a possible terrorist? Even if you could see some crazy guy waving a gun in the cockpit, you aren't on board and you don't know for sure what is going to happen. Once you decide to shoot it's going to be a national disaster. I can't imagine anyone, not even the President, saying "yeah lets kill 200 people because one of them might be thinking of doing something evil".

Sam JJanuary 28, 2013 8:04 PM

It doesn't cost the taxpayers anything. Fighter pilots have a quota of hours they must spend in the air for given periods of time, and outside of regular combat sorties they never hit them without just going up in the air and flying around for a while. These interception flights count towards that quota. They'd be flying those hours anyway regardless of whether it was for a purpose or not.

Same goes for flyovers at sporting events. They'd be flying those hours regardless of whether they were using them to make a cool impression at a game.

ProhiasJanuary 28, 2013 9:57 PM

@Sam J - and you don't think there has been quota creep at the USAF because of the need for fly-bys?

-BJanuary 28, 2013 11:00 PM

"All you need is a terrorist that has no regard for human life (how hard can that be?), who threatens to kill a passenger every minute the cockpit is not opened."

Easy. Do what you want with them. This door ain't opening and we're diverting to the nearest LZ. Next?

WaelJanuary 29, 2013 12:21 AM

@ John Schilling

visual observation and communication at close range offers information not available to remote observers with only radio and radar to go on.

In this day and age, I would think a satellite or a set of them can "see" and track the details of the pilots and what goes on in the cockpit real time, even in a fast moving aircraft... I guess the technology is not there yet?

theyDidJanuary 29, 2013 12:23 AM

@Publius: "The only time fighter jets should have been scrambled was 9/11 but the score was zero that whole morning. Civilians had to do the job in Pennsylvania."

I think they did. After the twin towers were both attacked, they downed the two other planes. But could not say so to the press, they covered as they could afterwards.

Let's see what uncovers in 50 years.

FirefoxJanuary 29, 2013 4:08 AM

I'm surprised nobody has commented on this from the Air Force point of view.  Could it be that for them, it's just fun?  A chance to make like Top Gun?  Scramble, scramble!  Full-boost afterburner takeoff!  All that stuff.  FAA separation rules?  Hah.  Watch any military pilots – leader and wingman.  They may not be the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels but they're experienced high-speed formation flyers and an intercepted civilian isn't in danger if she keeps her head, which she should.  Weren't we all told about intercept procedures in basic training? 

In a situation like that, what are the fighter pilots' rules of engagement?  I'd think there's no way that an interceptor is empowered to shoot down an airliner without specific authority from top brass, who will have been called at the same time as the scramble.

PilotJanuary 29, 2013 4:47 AM

Hi,

I have a license since a few years and did my military time in the air force (but obviously not as pilot). Intercepting planes which are entering restricted areas are pretty "common", and generally does not cost so much money, because as some of the commenters already pointed out, it can be just accounted to the flight hours that the pilots would do anyway.
Then, to scramble jets based on some dubious tips, that's something else.
I have seen documentary on the pilots who flew during 9/11, they were ready to shoot the airplanes (on high command orders of course). One of the pilots said that he would have of course obeyed that order, since a pilot is not the one who has to think..

AutolykosJanuary 29, 2013 5:38 AM

All this aircraft hysteria (and the fighter escorts in particular) are IMHO a great example of "generals fighting the last war". Might well be the third classic blunder :)
Fact is, aircraft hijackings won't happen anymore since the passengers can be reasonably sure they have nothing to lose now. A handful of terrorists can't hope to control a hundred or more people fighting for their lives, no matter what weapons they smuggle on board. They might have trouble even carrying that much ammo.
Terrorists will use different plans now, and pre-9/11-measures combined with the changed passenger mindset is more than enough to make these attacks practically impossible in the future anyway. Every additional dollar spent on airline security is wasted.
Otoh, I think most commenters here are right - scrambling the jets won't cost a single cent since they would have to be flown anyway. It's probably the most cost efficient security theater I've yet seen.

No OneJanuary 29, 2013 7:08 AM

Here's my suggestion for absolutely stopping all hijacking attempts into the future:

1. The cockpit may talk to the cabin. The cabin only has one communication mechanism with the cockpit: The big red button.

2. When the big red button is pressed the cockpit is instructed to land at the nearest airport with access to a full service hospital.

3. The procedure upon big red button emergency landing is that a SWAT team storms the plane.

4. Once SWAT clears the plane paramedics can then get whatever sick passenger caused the emergency.

Why this could work -- hijackers have no chance to negotiate. Hijackers can't tell the pilots what to do. The pilots can't be threatened or coerced, they're always locked away in a secure cabin. The only option, if you're a hijacker, is a violent death and probably a failed mission. Medical emergencies are still dealt with.

How this could fail -- If SWAT gets trigger happy they could kill a freaking out husband who really just wants medical attention for his wife. If the terrorists are good enough they might be able to take out the SWAT team and open up a dialogue once on the ground.

Snarki, child of LokiJanuary 29, 2013 7:35 AM

@Alan, @David, et al "scrambling fighter jets doesn't cost the tax payer anything "

@Hoober: "General aviation (private planes) that violate airspace have traditionally been billed for the interception. It is not a small fee."

So which is it? Or is the USG just treating interceptions as a profit center?

nycmanJanuary 29, 2013 9:19 AM

Although concerning, I don't see the USAF intercepting U.S. aircraft as being very dangerous. The problem is now every country with the capability will do this, and how do you deal with aircraft flying over a foreign land? Would you like it if an American aircraft is shot down in another country? Foreign aircraft shot down here? There will have to be a combination of failures, but the probability of that combination is not zero. Language barrier, miscommunication, pilots flying a new route, nav or comm equipment failure, or just someone putting a nav/comm jammer on a timer in checked luggage. Add some chatter on the usual message boards and well placed "evidence" making the threat "credible". See KL007.

jim CJanuary 29, 2013 9:52 AM

We also would intercept flights prior to 9/11. While I was in SAC in the 1980's we usually had a fighter squadron on the same based with 1 or 2 planes on alert. Certain "airlines", usually operated by nations sympathetic to the former USSR, would often have "navigational" errors and fly into restricted space. Add to that deliberate attempts to enter our airspace by the soviets and you had a number of scrambles and intercepts every year.

We also had a number incursions by civilian pilots usually cause by ignorance of restricted airspace. I remember at least twice that lost pilots would land on our runways not knowing where they were.

John SchillingJanuary 29, 2013 10:22 AM

@Wael: There aren't enough high-resolution imaging satellites to provide global real-time coverage no matter how important the target is. In the real world, even Jack Bauer hot on the trail of a stolen nuke has to submit his request and wait a few hours to get his pictures. Also, "high resolution" corresponds to an effective pixel size of maybe ten centimeters, which is marginal for distinguishing between terrorists and civilians even under the best of circumstances.

This would be the sort of thing UAVs might be good for, except that A: UAVs still have some bugs to work out in the "don't crash into things" department, and B: there aren't any operational UAVs that can keep pace with a 747 at cruise altitude and airspeed. Fighter planes and fighter pilots, at least in first-world air forces, really are very good at this.

mooJanuary 29, 2013 10:49 AM

Holy cow, talk about a lack of perspective in some of these comments! What is wrong with you people?

When aircraft violate restricted airspace or might be taken over / about to be taken over by hijackers, scrambling fighter jets is a standard response. They need to be in position to shoot them down if it becomes necessary. It's expensive, but obviously prudent (and if they didn't have these incidents to practice on, they'd just do additional training flights out in the middle of nowhere instead, so the "actual" cost of these incidents is not as high as it might appear).

Even with so many intercepts, how many airliners have been accidentally blown up by jock fighter pilots with itchy trigger fingers? That's right, zero! Fighter pilots are not exactly rent-a-cops. They are highly trained professionals following a detailed procedure for this situation. They don't just shoot from the hip, their rules of engagement are designed to prevent accidentally shooting down planes that aren't actual hostiles. They announce themselves over radio, they visually make contact with the pilots, it is impossible for the pilots of the target plane not to notice that they are there. They give multiple warnings, and they don't arm their weapons without authorization from the ground.

Shooting down a civilian plane during peacetime is an absolute last resort. That's why it never happens in these typical false-alarm situations when civilian airliners just stray into restricted airspace by accident. But the capability needs to exist, and they need to be ready to use it to prevent more severe casualties if a plane actually gets taken over by terrorists who are intent on crashing it into something. This is not theatre, it's just common sense.

Regarding the potential for collisions, its not that dangerous. Fighter jets are far more manuverable than civilian craft, and they want to be _behind_ a target plane to shoot it down. Getting close enough to an airliner to establish visual contact with the pilots is a bit dangerous, but they do it hundreds of times in training exercises.

Mike BJanuary 29, 2013 1:30 PM

Repost in correct topic.

I would like to offer a slightly different viewpoint on these "fighter intercept" situations. If you go back to the 1990's and before Air National Guard fighters would frequently "intercept" civil airlines as part of routine air defense training. Ground controlled interception, even of civil airlines, is not some walk in the park that any pilot can just go out and do without a modicum of practice.

Then a little thing called TCAS or Traffic collision avoidance system was installed on all civil airliners which resulted in civil airliners taking evasive action when intercepted by Air Force or Air Guard jets. Previously the airliners had simply been unaware of the interceptions, but the new collision warning systems would detect the incoming fighter jets as a threat resulting in rather harrowing experiences for both pilots and passengers. If you go back and search news archives there were several of these events that took place off the coast of NJ in the late 1990s (as well as another incident where a Jersey Air Guard plane strafed a school with 20mm cannon fire, but that's another story).

Anyway, the scramble-to-intercept training using civilian airliners as targets was drastically curtailed following these incidents. However 9/11 happened and soon fighter units everywhere were handed a brand new opportunity to train both scrambling and intercept with the advent of the terrorist hijack threat. Whenever you see "security theatre" there are often other motivations aside from pure CYA. Usually someone is making money, but in this case I believe that the Air Force and Air National Guard sees a valuable opportunity for "real world" training since the old style training intercepts were curtailed and the Russians stopped flying Tu-95s at North American airspace so frequently.

mooJanuary 29, 2013 4:22 PM

@kevinm:

Apologies, I should have said "domestic airliners". What I really meant was, we don't see the US military shooting down civilian airliners over US airspace, they're careful not to do that. Neither of your examples happened in North America.

One of your examples is an Iranian airliner shot down by a US Navy cruiser over the Strait of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war, after they misidentified it as an enemy F-14.

The other one was shot down by the Soviets because it had flown through their airspace and they misidentified it as a U.S. spy plane.

Its hard to imagine the kind of confusion it would take to get a similar incident over U.S. soil. I'll admit that if there were some kind of "terror alert" going on at the time, that kind of mistake probably becomes more likely.

AutolykosJanuary 30, 2013 5:12 AM

@Snarki: It is quite possible (and somewhat probable) that both are correct. There's nothing keeping the Air Force from billing a lost pilot for a flight they'd otherwise have to pay themselves (if it was just a training flight without any objective). If they can get away with getting paid twice, they'll probably do it.

bodeJanuary 30, 2013 9:42 AM

This is completely ridiculous:

First, scrambling the jets is nothing new to 9/11. This has always been the case with presidential travel: poor guy in a Cesna smuggling weed through LA, forgot to check the NOTAM? Well, encroach on air force 1, get the F15. Happens virtually every time Obama comes to LA. Is it over-reacting in that case? Seems prudent to me. Look up Payne Stewart for another non-terrorist F15 intercept.

As everyone else has said (and it is actually true): the hours cost nothing, they're just flight hours. Same as the flight over the Super Bowl (and get the GSA report if you want; they are training hours: which yes cost a lot). However, what costs a lot (and what NORAD meant) is that 24-7 "always hot" costs something.

But I don't think anyone is going to suggest we abandon 24-7 fighter availability. There are very real threats in this world, and that's the only solution.

Finally: this whole "OMG maybe an F-15 pilot will accidentally shoot down a United 767 because the weapons don't work," give me a break. Domestically air force planes fly with real guns and ammo all the time. The rules of engagement are clear, and no one is going to accidentally get blown up. Of course anything is possible: a 787 could crash due to battery fire or San Onofre could suffer a core breach. So too could an F15 accidentally strafe a passenger airplane.

Anyway, I respect Bruce a lot. Scrambling the jets is just pure PR theater: but it's not dangerous and it's not wasting money. I think it's pretty good practice for our air force, and I feel better knowing that should the need arise our nation can do something (even if the need is to check on a G550 that suffered explosive decompression).

John SchillingJanuary 30, 2013 10:47 AM

"Good ole wikipedia has a List of airliner shootdown incidents..."

Which comes to:

Three shot down by the Germans or their allies during WWII,

Four shot down by the Russians or their allies during the Cold War,

One shot down by the Israelis during the War of Attrition,

Nine shot down by ground-launched missiles,

and three unverified incidents that seem to be a mix of ground fire and conspiracy theory.

So: Keep your airliners away from war zones if at all possible. Particularly wars involving Nazis, Commies, or Israelis.

And if there's any question about whether or not an airliner might need to be shot down, try to avoid leaving the decision to some guy on the ground with a missile launcher. A blip on the radar that doesn't answer the radio makes for much easier mistakes than, e.g., seeing a guy in an airline pilot's uniform point to his earphones and shake his head "no", then follow the F-15 wherever it leads him.

echowitJanuary 30, 2013 12:53 PM

@Snarki
"So which is it? Or is the USG just treating interceptions as a profit center?"

Maybe a not too subtle fine for the violation?

TylerFebruary 2, 2013 7:19 PM

To be clear, the reason why the faa sends fighter jets isn't to shoot an aircraft down. The reason fighter jets are sent to intercept is because no other vehicle in existence can move fast enough. And without a trusted set of eyes in the air alongside the distressed aircraft, the faa has nothing to go on other than radio and radar, and that isn't much to go on. Fighter jets have saved lives.

FricnFracFebruary 17, 2013 7:51 AM

John Schilling, plus it's fun ! Don't underestimate how much we like to play "Die Hard' even if we do it while wearing uniforms of one sort or another and saluting each other and making noise about security. No one gets demoted for a stupid, wasteful intercept.

PubliusFebruary 22, 2013 4:58 PM

>According to the Seattle Times report, though, interceptions like this are apparently much more common than I thought. Citing a NORAD spokesman, it says this has happened "thousands of times" since 9/11.


Not a single time did a jet escort get performed on 9/11, oddly. Yet, suspicious jets were flying all morning over the span of hours from first to last attack.

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