WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration should worry less about beefing up security at airport
terminals and gates, and more about fortifying airplane cockpits to thwart hijackers, captains of two major airlines told WorldNetDaily yesterday.
They argue that no matter what changes are made on the ground, terrorists will still find a way to sneak aboard commercial flights with weapons. The key, they say, is preventing them from breaking into the cockpit and taking over the flight controls once they’re aboard.
Pilots urge the FAA and airlines to make the following security improvements:
- Replace cockpit doors and walls on all aircraft with strong panels lined with bulletproof Kevlar material;
- Install video cameras outside cockpit doors, and monitors inside the cockpit, so pilots can see what’s going on back in the cabin without opening the door;
- Take cockpit keys away from flight attendants, so hijackers can’t wrest control of them and gain entry to the cockpit;
- Change flight-crew training so that pilots are discouraged, even prohibited, from leaving the cockpit to resolve passenger or other problems in the back of the plane;
- Allow pilots to carry guns that fire rubber bullets, or a subsonic, frangible round, that would not puncture the aircraft’s outer shell during pressurized flight.
Pilots interviewed by WorldNetDaily argue that they’re much more qualified than government security experts or politicians – who “have failed us,” as one American Airlines captain charged – to come up with better ideas to protect their planes and passengers.
Eight American Airlines and United Airlines pilots, along with all their flight attendants and passengers, died on four separate flights Sept. 11 after anti-American Islamic terrorists forced their way into the cockpits of their Boeing 757s and 767s, took the controls and, at least in three of the flights, intentionally crashed their fuel-laden planes into the Pentagon and both World Trade Center towers. Passengers apparently foiled the plans of hijackers aboard a fourth plane, which reportedly was headed for another Washington target. It crashed in a field outside of Pittsburgh.
“Why should we listen to the security experts now, after the fact, when they have failed us so badly? We’re the ones still walking point without a weapon,” fumed American Airlines Captain Scott Gibson, who flies Boeing 767s out of Miami. “When a hijacking like this takes place, all these security experts are drinking coffee and eating donuts while watching it unfold on TV. They’re not up there with the bad guys at their throats.”
Fearing passenger perception of a “police state,” he and other captains adamantly oppose posting sky marshals on planes, and would rather see the FAA empower pilots. Arming them and reinforcing their cockpits would let terrorists know they’d have to win a gun battle with pilots, many of whom are ex-military, protected by a bullet-proof bunker.
Cockpit doors. Jetliners are equipped with “flimsy” cockpit doors that are easy to penetrate, even when locked, pilots say.
“The FAA has permitted a flimsy cockpit door which really wouldn’t keep anybody out,” said Ralph Omholt, a licensed captain who flies Boeing 757s and 767s for a major airline, the name of which he asked not to disclose. “They’ve had cockpit break-ins before by sky-ragers, so this terrorist break-in isn’t anything new.”
“A large man running at full speed can break it down,” Gibson said of the door.
Actually, it doesn’t even take a large man.
“A woman on PCP kicked in a cockpit door not too long ago on a flight from Houston to Los Angeles,” noted
Steve Elson, a former FAA airport security inspector, in an interview with WorldNetDaily.
Elson’s common-sense approach to safety was not warmly received in Washington, he says, so he quit in 1999. He’s blown the whistle on what he views as the FAA’s repeated failures to effectively improve security at the nation’s airports.
Elson agrees that cockpit doors should be hardened. At a minimum, he says, they should be secured by a deadbolt.
Gibson wants to see the entire back wall of cockpits replaced with bulletproof paneling.
Cockpit keys. In a brave stand, two stewardesses on American flight 11 out of Boston, the first plane to hit the trade center, tried to bar terrorists from entering the flight deck. But the terrorists slit their throats and apparently took the cockpit keys off them. They then opened the door and, more than likely, overcame the pilots – possibly killing them like the stewardesses – and steered the plane like a guided missile into the north tower.
It was a tragic lesson, pilots say.
“We should take the keys out of the flight attendants’ hands,” Gibson asserted. “The only ones who should have a key to the cockpit are the pilots. If the flight attendants want access, they should be allowed to enter only by calling the pilots on the flight interphone.”
To let them in, Gibson favors an electronic door lock that pilots can buzz open from inside the cockpit.
Cockpit cameras. Pilots like the idea of installing a hidden video camera in the ceiling just outside the cockpit door, and a viewing monitor inside the cockpit. That way, they can identify visitors, and keep an eye on activities just outside the flight deck, without opening the door.
“We should be able to see who’s standing out there without opening the door,” Gibson said.
He suggests the camera be encased in Kevlar and secured with a strong lock, so hijackers can’t remove it or shoot it out. It should also tape on a continuous loop like the cockpit voice recorder, he says.
Visiting the cabin. This should be a big no-no, pilots agree. U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, husband of United flight 77 victim Barbara Olson, says that in his two cell phone calls he received from her on the fatal flight that struck the Pentagon, he got the sense that the pilots were in the back of the plane with her.
It’s not clear if the pilots were herded back there by the terrorists, possibly at knife-point, or if they left the flight deck on their own to help passengers.
Either way, captains agree, pilots should be trained never to leave the cockpit — period.
That’s not the rule now.
“It’s a pilot’s option, as a last resort, to go back and resolve a dispute,” Gibson said. “But I think that’s all going to change now, and we’re no longer going to be allowed to go back there.”
“I think we’re just going to have to land and throw them [hijackers] off, assuming we get an impenetrable door,” he added. “In fact, that’s the way it should be.”
What about the fate of the passengers who would be left to deal with the terrorists, on their own, back in the cabin?
“If there’s somebody back there killing people – hey, you know what? – it’s better to triage 20 to 30 people in the back than 5,000 under a building,” Gibson said. “It’s a tough thing to say, but sometimes life is tough.”
Elson agrees with that strategy, saying the military has a term for it – “acceptable losses.”
He doesn’t think that pilots should leave the cockpit under any circumstances – even when nature calls. Another door to the lavatory could be added from the cockpit side, he suggests, to accommodate pilots’ bathroom needs.
Under current rules, the cockpit door doesn’t even have to be locked all the time, which is a big mistake, Elson says.
“Those cockpit doors never, never, should be left unlocked,” he said. “And as far as I’m concerned, the doors shouldn’t even be opened” during flight.
“If the pilot in command hears ‘knock-knock’ on his door, and it’s Abdul who says he’s got box-cutters and is going to start cutting if he doesn’t open up, the captain should say, ‘OK, go cut some boxes, Abdul, we’re going to land,’” Elson said.
Arming pilots. Pilots argue that if they can be entrusted with passengers’ lives, they can be entrusted with handling a weapon responsibly.
“If you can trust me with 100,000 pounds of explosives [jet fuel] in the wings every time I take off, I think I can be trusted to handle a firearm safely as well,” said American Airlines Captain Russell T. Cowles.
They also argue that, unlike sky marshals, they know the state of pressurization of their aircraft and, therefore, when and when not to fire a gun in any phase of flight.
As an added precaution, Gibson proposes letting pilots carry only guns firing rubber bullets or frangible rounds that “would do minimum damage to the aircraft during a discharge in pressurized flight.” He admits, however, it would be a “huge hurdle” for the FAA to OK such a move.
But the alternative of posting federal marshals on all commercial flights – something airlines once did – would be extremely costly, he argues.
“What a waste of money,” Gibson said. “You’d just have some guy spending his whole career riding in an airplane eating airline food.”
“He’d end up weighing 300 pounds,” he joked. “I mean, think about it. The sky marshal would be so easy to
identify – he’d be the fattest guy on the airplane.”
Gibson, who’s flown for American since 1987 and commercially since 1977, is against arming passengers and flight attendants – not even with stun-guns or mace.
“That’s a bad idea,” he said, explaining that trained terrorists could turn such weapons against them.
The key to frustrating terrorists, pilots stress, is turning the cockpit into a fortress, and pilots into armed guards.
“We can have better [airport terminal] security screening and things like that,” Gibson said, “but if these guys are committed terrorists, they’re going to figure out how to get a weapon in.”
Or, they’ll figure a way to fashion a weapon on the plane, Elson says – not unlike prison inmates who learn to turn just about any otherwise harmless material into a shank.
“You can make a weapon better on the plane than most of that stuff [pocket knives and razors] they’re going to screen for now,” Elson said. “You can find metal that’s sharp on board.”