Every day more than 30,000 potential threats take flight, carrying more than two million potential victims, in the United States. The security presence in and around airports is apparent to all, with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) overseeing the screening of all passengers and the vast majority of airport staff, aided by local and federal law enforcement, private security, as well as Federal Air Marshals on board flights.
Security for passengers is a constant source for debate, but what is rarely discussed is the risk aircraft face outside the airport perimeter. Aviation security threat analysts focusing on the external threats to aircraft in flight seemingly sit in the shadows away from the light of those focusing the passenger-based threats. The ranges of threats to aircraft in flight often appear to be either insane or nuts … with a fine line differentiating the two.
On the insane scale of threats is an air-to-air attack on a commercial aircraft. Air-to-air attacks on a commercial airline falls under nuts because of how unlikely it is. A successful attack would require an aircraft that can keep up with a commercial airliner … and it is not exactly easy to acquire an operational fighter jet with weapons … or an aircraft going unnoticed while loitering in the air space around a commercial airport to strike slow moving aircraft landing or taking off.
One such air-to-air threat that was allegedly investigated involved a Cessna 172 that would have been used to attack a Boeing 777-300/ER. The details are somewhat vague, however in simple terms, the Cessna 172, which is a 27 feet long propeller plane with a top speed of 188mph would seek to aerially engage a Boeing 777-300/ER, which is 242-feet 4-inches long, powered by two General Electric GE90-115B1 engines and a top speed of 590 miles per hour.
How exactly a propeller plane with a service ceiling of 13,500 feet would engage a jet airliner with a service ceiling of 43,100 feet is unclear. The basic gist of the planned attack, that appears to have been motivated by a dislike for Middle East, is that the Cessna would be flying low, loitering just outside the perimeter of a major congested airport, and then take on the Boeing 777-300/ER as it took off … which is why I mark this down as “insane.”
On the nuts scale of threats to commercial jet airliners are home built small guided missiles. While most home build rockets are harmless, and are launched away from airports, there have been a number of identified threats related to home build rockets with guidance systems … which are less than legal. Operating a large amateur rocket requires following specific Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines, however anyone building a guided amateur rocket with the intent to pack it full of explosives and launch it into an airliner is likely not following FAA guidelines. There seem to be a number of investigations involving what would be home build guided missiles. The speed an accuracy of a homemade guided missile appears to be surprisingly good, which is alarming. Putting a small fast moving missile through the relatively fragile skin of an airliner must be done at a low altitude, but depending on the damage inflicted, there could be minimal recovery time for the aircraft, resulting in disaster.
Given that one person was reportedly looking into building a homemade guided missile because he didn’t like the noise of aircraft constantly flying over their house, I mark this down as “nuts.”
If you don’t like the planes over your house … don’t live near an airport.
Over the past few years there have been countless incidents involving people blinding pilots with lasers as they approach an airport. Any simple laser pointer you can buy at Radio Shack can effectively blind a pilot, green lasers being far more devastating to a pilot’s vision.
Law enforcement has been able to apprehend a number of people who have aimed lasers into cockpits, but it does not stop the problem.
While the Transportation Security Administration’s budget decreased 8.63% to US$7.398-billion, and includes millions of dollars for experimental technologies and systems that at times ineffectively reinvent the wheel, could the agency partner with other agencies to better protect aircraft in flight?
Now, I know what you are saying … no one has successfully taken a plane out of the sky over the United States, but then again the TSA has never stopped or captured a terrorist seeking to board a flight in the United States. The threats are real and just because they have not come to fruition does not mean we need to ignore the real threats.
While airports are secure within their borders, what technologies exist to look just past the immediate fence line?
Back in 2008 American Airlines, ABX and FedEx experimented with BAE Systems’ JetEye Infrared Missile Defense Systems, as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Counter-Man-Portable Air Defense System (C-MANPADS) evaluations, at an estimated total cost of US$150,000,000, that fired lasers to divert in-bound missiles away from the aircraft. While the BAE JetEye system is effective, it is costly and only deters heat seeking missiles.
In 2009 the JetEye system, had been removed from all commercial test bed aircraft and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated the hardware exceeded its goals, while not actually achieving its target of 3,000 operational hours between failures, Additionally neither the BAE JetEye system nor the Northrop-Grumman Guardian systems met the cost requirements of support costs not exceeding US$350 per flight hour, although Northrop Grumman claims their system costs US$200 per flight hour … but let’s be realistic at US$600,000 per aircraft for hardware alone, not including installation, continuing operating costs, excess weight and fuel burn, no airline will be installing these systems even if they were ready to enter commercial service.
With the costly options, with incredibly limited usage, off the table, what other technologies can be explored for protecting aircraft in flight?
The DHS’s Science & Technology Directorate current annual budget is US$831,472,000, with US$478,048,000 ear marked for Research, Development, and Innovation … but the innovation is where much of what is created seems to fall short.
Can commercial aircraft in flight be protected from potential threats that intend to do it harm?