Patterico's Pontifications

6/8/2007

Robert MacLean on How to Improve Air Security

Filed under: Air Security,General,Terrorism — Patterico @ 12:15 am

I asked Robert MacLean — a former air marshal who has been quoted in the Washington Times and on this blog — what we need to do to improve air security. Here is his thoughtful response, which deserves your attention:

After 9/11, immediately putting thousands of air marshals on flights was the right decision. But now, the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) misuse of the air marshal program as a visual deterrent is one of the worst threats to aviation security right now.

With the current checkpoint bypass and pre-boarding policies that TSA and the airline companies insist on, an air marshal team is going to get ambushed and their weapons will be used to take another plane down. Air marshals right now are sitting ducks with the current strategy.

All flight decks should be bullet-proof and have a shotgun with buckshot ammo — not the current forty-caliber pistols that will over-penetrate and hit an innocent passenger or easily get wrested away by a terrorist. The shotguns can be mounted in solenoid-release brackets just like police patrol cars have in their front seats. If a terrorist tries to force himself into the flight deck, his arm will be blown off at close quarters, and birdshot will harmlessly scatter down the aisle.

It is a lot safer to permanently mount a shotgun in every locked flight deck than to have thousands of pilots with handguns roaming around airports with the possibility of the handguns being lost or stolen.

Every time a pilot unlocks the flight deck door to use the lavatory or get food and drink, the aircraft is in danger. The forward areas need to be protected with the same ingenious steel cable barriers United Airlines uses.

If you do this on all aircraft, you can then put air marshals on the ground, gathering intelligence and conducting investigations to prevent terrorists from boarding, or sneaking bombs onto aircraft.

Air Marshals should then only be deployed during high threat conditions.

These changes are likely to never happen for the following reasons:

1. The municipalities and airline industry will never allow the TSA to tell them how air marshals will bypass security checkpoints or board aircraft, respectively. The airline industry is more worried about liability and prefers that everyone on the plane (including the flight attendants) know who the air marshals are, and where they are sitting. As evident in the NW flight 327 incident, only the pilot in command should know who the air marshals are — and should have the final say as to when they should break cover. When all the flight attendants know who the air marshals are, air marshals are likely to be quickly outed in a hostage situation.

2. The pilots are very happy with their federally issued handguns and badges. It will be very difficult to get them to hand them back over without them screaming about the 2nd Amendment.

3. Other than United Airlines, other airlines do not want to install these steel cable gates because it “alarms the passengers” — or they do not want to spend the money to purchase them and have them installed.

4. Having more air marshals working on the ground in airports, trying to prevent dangerous people or weapons from getting on the plane, is going to take measures that minority groups will misconstrue as “profiling.” Unfortunately, our system of justice prevents well-trained and experienced law enforcement officers from using race and national origin along with behavior factors to interview or detain would-be terrorists.

By the way, I asked Mr. MacLean about a concern I have expressed here before: the tendency of some flight patterns to come near skyscrapers. I said in this 2006 post:

As a downtown pedestrian, I have often noticed how absurdly close jet airliners seem to come to downtown’s skyscrapers. I once asked a friend who is an amateur pilot how long it would take for one of these airliners to divert from its flight pattern and crash into L.A.’s tallest skyscraper. He said twenty seconds.

To me, it looks like it would take only ten. But even twenty seconds seems like a very short time. Terrorists could take over a cockpit and crash the plane into the tower before most passengers even knew what was happening.

I asked Mr. MacLean: if a terrorist planned to take over a plane in Los Angeles at the point in its flight path when it came closest to skyscrapers, how long would it take? He said that for planes taking off from LAX headed eastbound, it would require less than a minute — but such flight patterns are very rare. Most planes take off headed over the ocean, which would require 5 minutes of control by the terrorists. What about planes circling downtown for a final approach to touchdown? I asked. He said that for a takeover during a final approach, “you would need at least 1 minute . . . depending on the vector for approach.”

So rest easy. No passengers would possibly allow terrorists to control a plane for a minute — right? (Yes, it’s sarcasm. In one minute most passengers probably would still be trying to process what was happening.)

But, Mr. MacLean pointed out, there are airplane terrorism scenarios that don’t require terrorists to board a regularly scheduled flight, present I.D., and take over the plane by force. But he suggested that I contact other experts about this alternate scenario. I have done so — so keep reading over the coming days.

More to come from other air marshals and other knowledgeable people on these and related issues. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: “Buck shot” has been changed to “birdshot” at Mr. MacLean’s request.

40 Responses to “Robert MacLean on How to Improve Air Security”

  1. So rest easy. No passengers would possibly allow terrorists to control a plane for a minute — right? (Yes, it’s sarcasm. In one minute most passengers probably would still be trying to process what was happening.)

    Well sir as someone who’s been airlining for 31+ years now I can say with some small authority due to experience that passengers now a days are much more observant and ready to take action since 9-11 than ever before…

    That does NOT mean that passengers on every flight will be more observant or proactive but the odds have gone up that they will be…

    What bothers me more than some collection of terrorists that might be on a flight is the possibility (especially in light of Ft. Dix and the recent attempt at JFK) is a cell of terrorists with shoulder fired SAMs or RPGs being quite close to the end of a runway of a major domestic airport where a large airliner makes a very juicy target on take off and approach…

    juandos (9c8c3b)

  2. That all well and good, but what suggestions does John Maclean have??

    Scott Jacobs (90eabe)

  3. Not so sure about the shotgun scenario. Buckshot is 8 .38 caliber lead balls at roughly 1200 feet per second. They will not be bouncing down the aisles. And how do you shoot through a bullet proof cockpit? Not trying to citicize as I don’t have any better ideas. Commentor #1 nails it though. Sooner or later these shoulder fired missiles will make it to the states. One or two shoot downs and the aviation industry is over.

    dan in michigan (f253a4)

  4. 1. The fear of legal liability is real. Remember, that there were over a hundred multi million dollar suits after 9-11 claiming the airlines were negligent….and I think most were actually settled before trial.

    2. TSA and ICE are more of the pre 9-11 crap. Schussel has done a good job of sticking it to ICE for the past two years and nobody pays attention. TSA at least, has been liberated from Norm Mineta and so we haven’t heard much about them lately.

    3. Deliberately fingering the air marshalls is more and more of more and more. The airline employees on the planes assure themselves of safety when they ID them. It’s like the difference between a traffic cop hiding behind a sign or exposing himself on a street corner; the first will get a lot of arrests for his record and save a few lives, the second will get no arrests and save a lot of them. The first cop gets promoted and the second is fired.

    Howard Veit (4ba8d4)

  5. Aalthough I’ve been constantly berated by certain commenters on this blog for being soft on terrorism, I have no objection to any of Mr. MacLean’s recommendations. They all seem to make good sense to me.

    The thing is, he doesn’t recommend that we refuse to allow “suspicious-looking” muslims/arab-looking folks on to flights. He doesn’t mention handcuffing of arab-looking people to their chairs if they talk loudly in arabic or run to the bathroom. In fact, he makes no mention of changing the way we screen passengers, or treat muslim/arab passengers who all attention to themselves, at all.

    I bet he’s just scared of being called racist/Islamaphobic.

    Phil (427875)

  6. Patrick, I’ll trust that Mr. McLean knows more about air security than he does firearms, but a shotgun with 00 buck is possibly the worst weapon I can imagine in an airline cockpit.

    First, using a long gun in close quarters is very difficult – and disarms for long guns are relatively easy and widely known.

    Second, as noted, 00 buck is basically nine .38 bullets headed downrange in a tight pattern – but there are often flyers (pellets that are far from the pattern). Sorry about that pellet in your forehead, grandma…

    No, an overall Bad Idea. It might make sense to have a shotgun loaded with less-lethal rounds (beanbags or foam slugs) on hand…but take a broomstick into your bathroom and try and move it around like a long gun. Trust me, not easy…

    A.L.

    Armed Liberal (98aa19)

  7. AL –

    I suspect that when he says shotgun, he’s not talking about a Remington you can buy at a gun store. The Federal Marshals have a concealable shotgun they use for witness protection. basicly a sawed off with a pistol grip.

    Much easier to use in tight spaces.

    Scott Jacobs (90eabe)

  8. Personally, I wouldn’t let illegal muslim terrorist visitors to this country drive. I don’t think we should permit other illegal entrants to this country drive. I’m scared by that.

    How about you Phil?

    daleyrocks (906622)

  9. If a terrorist tries to force himself into the flight deck, his arm will be blown off at close quarters, and buck shot will harmlessly scatter down the aisle.

    I stopped reading right here. this man is an idiot. A shotgun on an airplane? With #00 buckshot? Good god.

    Mark (e7967d)


  10. “Not so sure about the shotgun scenario. Buckshot is 8 .38 caliber lead balls at roughly 1200 feet per second. They will not be bouncing down the aisles. And how do you shoot through a bullet proof cockpit?”

    If the flight deck door is breached – then I would expect a pilot to engage with the shotgun.

    Buckshot ranges from 6 mm to 9.1 mmm diameter pellets. 6 mm pellets are many times less likely to over-penetrate like the .40 cal rounds that go through a pistol’s fluting.

    But I digress, I meant to write BIRDshot – not buckshot. Birdshot is very effective on muscle and bones with a contact shot (0 to 6 inches).

    I think some people are missing the point here: You cannot use the air marshal program as a “highly visible deterrent.” The overly exposed air marshals are bringing on board weapons and ammunition that terrorists can take away and use against anyone; and thousands of armed pilots with a few days of firearms training are roaming inside secure areas of our airports.

    The flight deck is 100% vulnerable until there is a safe and practicable weapon. Right now, the .40 cal pistol is not practicable and pilots routinely expose the flight deck with the United Airline cable gate.

    People argue that passengers will fight back, I disagree for the most part. Let’s look at what happened at Virginia Tech: Young, strong and vibrant students cringed and coward in fear while the gunman casually reloaded and turned his back to them – there were dozens of opportunities to overpower the gunman but nobody did. I do not fault the innocent students because they were not trained like soldiers or police to overcome fear and fight through a situation with the muscle-memory acquired through countless hours of training.

    Robert MacLean (452043)

  11. pilots routinely expose the flight deck with the United Airline cable gate.

    Mr. MacLean, do you mean that because UA has the gate, the flight deck doors are open more than they should be?

    Anwyn (a130c1)

  12. Birdshot? ok, now i’m on board…

    And I assume that when you said shotgun, you didn’t mean a shotgun used for skeet or hunting…

    remind me… “birdshot” and “rocksalt” are similar, right?

    Scott Jacobs (90eabe)

  13. Mr. MacLean, do you mean that because UA has the gate, the flight deck doors are open more than they should be?

    Anwyn: The UA cable gate is a device that is pulled across the area just before the forward galley area and locked in. It consists of about 8 to 10 horizontal ~1/4 inch diameter steel cables. Once the cables are pulled across, the pilot then opens the flight deck door and gets his/her food, drink or uses the lavatory. This cable system buys the crew enough time to re-secure the flight deck door in the case a passenger attempts to rush the flight deck. You have to see this system in person: Cheap, simple and effective – it one of those inventions that make you say, “DARN!! I could have thought of that.”

    Birdshot is usually lead. Rocksalt shot is another good idea, especially for those that argue they don’t want terrorists to suffer from lead-poisoning…

    This is great discussion, unfortunately this current administration and congress didn’t bother to have this discussion before these policies were put into effect.

    Robert MacLean (452043)

  14. Birdshot is usually lead. Rocksalt shot is another good idea, especially for those that argue they don’t want terrorists to suffer from lead-poisoning…

    Nahhhhhh…

    People would bitch about forcing an increase in their sodium intake…

    As for this being a great discussion, you should hear some of the idea my dad and I toss around…

    The benifits of being a non-linear thinker is you tend to think like the insane people who like to blow themselves up…

    Scott Jacobs (90eabe)

  15. “remind me… “birdshot” and “rocksalt” are similar, right?”

    Nope. Birdshot is what Cheney shot his hunting partner with. At about 10 feet #7 shot will make a ragged about 1.5″ hole with a cute little decorative pattern around it. But as the distance increases the very small pellets spread out and quickly lose energy and penetration.

    And the shotguns are likely to very similar to those used for hunting or skeet shooting unless the Congress amends the NFA to allow the airlines to possess the short-barrelled, stockless ones.

    nk (c66fe9)

  16. When people ask me what type of gun they should buy for home defense, I tell them a shotgun loaded with #6 birdshot so if they miss the intruder, the shot won’t go through the wall and injure/kill their kid, spouse, or family pet.

    A long gun is easily taken away and hard to bring on target in close quarters, so I tell them to get a slug barrel (18″) and a pistol grip kit and loose the shoulder stock. A Remington 870 pump w/ slug barrel is ideal.

    If it weren’t “scare the gun-confiscation freaks illegal,” I’d probably tell them to get a double-barrel and saw the barrels off at about 10″ past the end of the chamber.

    dubya (753723)

  17. Not to belabor the point, but I still don’t understand what you meant by this:

    The flight deck is 100% vulnerable until there is a safe and practicable weapon. Right now, the .40 cal pistol is not practicable and pilots routinely expose the flight deck with the United Airline cable gate.

    I get that making the cockpit impregnable should, far and away, be the most important air safety priority. I’m not understanding whate you’re saying they do *now*–they expose the flight deck even *with* the ingenious UA cable? Or did you perhaps mistype and they expose the flight deck *without* the cable gate?

    Anwyn (a130c1)

  18. Q: Why did the FBI kill Randy Weaver’s son, wife, and dog?

    A: Because he “allegedly” sold a sawed-off shotgun to somebody.

    dubya (753723)

  19. “After 9/11, immediately putting thousands of air marshals on flights was the right decision. But now, the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) misuse of the air marshal program as a visual deterrent is one of the worst threats to aviation security right now.”

    Ahhhhh, now I get it. Don’t you see, folks? This is what we call consensus building.

    Probably in the TSA we have two schools of thoughts. One school says air marshals should be undercover and blend in seamlessly with the passengers. The other school says air marshals should be deterrents and wear red helmets with bright shiny spinning lights and fluoroscent jackets with the words “AIR MARSHAL” clearly spelled out in English, Arabic, Farsi, and Esperanto.

    Now the sub rosa school of thought won’t give on their position and the deterrence school of thought won’t back down from theirs, either. So finally the TSA decides, “Okay, guys, we’ll make air marshals undercover, but not too undercover. Ridiculously rigid dress codes. Separate boarding procedures from other passengers. Awkward hotel accomodation requirements. This way air marshals will both blend in with passengers and stand out like a sore thumb! A down-the-middle compromise designed to please everybody!!

    I always wondered what the thinking was behind TSA management’s current air marshal policy. Now I know.

    [/sarcasm off]

    DubiousD (e715b1)

  20. You know, sawed offs are only illegal if they were made that way after a certain period. If you can certify the age of the modification, it should be legal (at least in some states)…

    I would love one, but a home-defense shotgun (one built to be BARELY legal) would suffice for me…

    And I intend for the first round to be 00 buck, the next two round slugs…

    Hey, if the guy goes behind a wall or door, I don’t want to have to wait…

    Scott Jacobs (90eabe)

  21. I get that making the cockpit impregnable should, far and away, be the most important air safety priority. I’m not understanding whate you’re saying they do *now*–they expose the flight deck even *with* the ingenious UA cable? Or did you perhaps mistype and they expose the flight deck *without* the cable gate?

    Comment by Anwyn — 6/8/2007 @ 9:47 am

    I’m sorry Anwyn, I mistyped. I did in fact mean WITHOUT the cable gate.

    Robert MacLean (452043)

  22. Mr. MacLean,

    My apologies for jumping all over your typo regarding buckshot/birdshot. It remains, however, that a shotgun is a lousy weapon for use on an airplane. Shotshell pellet sizes are approximately as follows

    http://www.wilsonprecision.com/shotinfo.html

    with typical 2-3/4″ field loads using 1-1/4 Oz of shot. Birdshot will penetrate less than buckshot, but any spillover can kill innocents at a surprising distance, not to mention blind them.

    I hunt pheasant a lot and listen for information on accidents. In two instances hunters fixated on a target and swung across their partner. One case at ~10 yds a kid shot his grandfather dead. Another, the shooter swung across his partner at ~20 yds and shot his face off, blinding him -he later committed suicide. A moron at a hunting club shot one of the rent-a-dogs at 30 yds and killed it. All these accidents occurred with #6 shot. It doesn’t “roll harmlessly down the aisle” until past 200yds.

    As for using the no stock pistol grip Hollywood specials witha 14″ barrel, forget it. The handling characteristics are terrible, recoil huge, aim and controllability awful.

    As for the .40cal, dial it back to 9mm and frangible slugs. One last things advertising air marshalls is stupid beyond belief.

    Mark (e7967d)

  23. As for using the no stock pistol grip Hollywood specials witha 14″ barrel, forget it. The handling characteristics are terrible, recoil huge, aim and controllability awful.

    Then again, in a cockpit, it wouldn’t so much be “aiming” as it would be “poking”…

    Scott Jacobs (90eabe)

  24. Then again, in a cockpit, it wouldn’t so much be “aiming” as it would be “poking”…

    And if the bad guys come throught the door in a “stack” and you do not have a weapon you can operate one handed while providing standoff distance for a shot, you are the “pokee”.

    Mark (e7967d)

  25. The thing is, he doesn’t recommend that we refuse to allow “suspicious-looking” muslims/arab-looking folks on to flights. He doesn’t mention handcuffing of arab-looking people to their chairs if they talk loudly in arabic or run to the bathroom.

    Phil, has anyone else suggested those things, or is it just you?

    Pablo (99243e)

  26. Ya know, I think after the first round, you have what I affectionately like to call an “ablative meatshield”. You nail the first guy, and have the space he makes to work the next round in, and you’re off to the races. Besides, even the most insane stop and think for a second when the guy infront of them is sporting a brand new chest-vent.

    Scott Jacobs (90eabe)

  27. So Phil cares mostly about charges of “racism” and Islamaphobia?

    Well that’s revealing.

    I for one would think it would be most sensible to have all Muslim men singled out for special searches and careful watchfulness. The latest Pew poll has 25% of American Muslim Men 18-34 approving of Jihad. And yes the government CAN and does discriminate for the public good. Affirmative Action being one example.

    Why shouldn’t Muslims in general face extra scrutiny? They commit the vast majority (about 98%) of terrorist acts both abroad and here in the US. As the JFK plot shows, naturalized and native born Muslim men have no problem in plotting to kill as many Americans as possible. They might not always have the means but the intent is clearly there.

    We know what the threat is, and who it will be. Muslims. Presbyterians, Scientologists, and Quakers are not going to be hijacking airplanes. Muslims will. Muslims are a threat. Not all Muslims are, but enough of them want to kill Americans that the rest should understand they will get and deserve special scrutiny. If they don’t like it they can leave for Muslim lands.

    But let’s be honest about the threat. It’s Muslims. Very likely Muslim men since they’d have to overpower the flight crew.

    Is this “discrimination?” Sure. So is Affirmative Action. The Supremes have held that the government can indeed discriminate against one group for public policy. Since the government has an interest in Muslims not crashing planes into skyscrapers, it’s in the best interest of the public to discriminate against Muslims flying by singling them out for discriminatory treatment.

    Are Muslim men unlikely to be happy about this? Sure. But they can leave for Muslim lands and be happy. Both Americans and Muslims win in that case.

    I don’t think MANPADs will be the attack (though LAX is terribly vulnerable, there are always surfers parked along Dockweiler State Beach in the Flight path over the ocean). Their jihad goal seems as much death as possible, the Muslim men who I assume I will be reading about next will try to crash the plane into, well not a building. More like a football stadium. Some games in the South have more than 100,000 spectators.

    Jim Rockford (e09923)

  28. As to tight-quarter (indoors) shotgun loads:
    The consensus in my part of the world is the first round is #6 bird-shot, followed by either #4 or #00 Buck. The #6 will at least get their attention – especially at very short (less than 15 ft.) range.
    Using an 18-1/2″ barrel (the practical, legal minimum) and and Improved Cylinder choke, will prevent scatter and give a better pattern than a cylinder bore. By using reduced power loads, recoil can be kept to a manageable level using a pistol-grip configuration (fore-end pistol-grip too for maximum control).
    As for collateral damage: Any civilian casualties would be considered an improvement over the loss of the airplane and its’ entire crew and passenger complement – plus whatever was hit on the ground.

    Another Drew (8018ee)

  29. Jim Rockford hasn’t addressed how we will identify the Muslim men (Reid the shoe bomber didn’t look Middle Eastern, and wasn’t). I suggest we pick up some Yellow fabric Stars, barely used, from the Euroweenies and put them on all Muslim clothing.

    Andrew J. Lazarus (458159)

  30. AJL, you are still one sick ass!

    Another Drew (8018ee)

  31. Andrew – Crescents would be more appropriate. If you’re going to be a bigot at least try to do it right, dipstick.

    daleyrocks (906622)

  32. have birds trained to bomb as birds do any of these terrorists they see i mean bird poop all over them SQUAWK SQUAWK

    krazy kagu (e7029d)

  33. 31, 32: I suggest you re-read comment 28 before criticizing mine.

    Andrew J. Lazarus (458159)

  34. Young, strong and vibrant [Virginia Tech] students cringed and coward in fear while the gunman casually reloaded and turned his back to them – there were dozens of opportunities to overpower the gunman but nobody did.

    As opposed to the cops who “coward” behind their cruisers as Cho finished off the last of 32 victims, then killed himself?

    We can all benefit from second-guessing. It helps shape and refine policy. But “dozens of opportunities” to take down the shooter? That’s comically spectral.

    steve (5e9c62)

  35. #29 Another Drew:

    As for collateral damage: Any civilian casualties would be considered an improvement over the loss of the airplane and its’ entire crew and passenger complement – plus whatever was hit on the ground.

    Well, forget about shotguns. Just mount an M-60 in the cockpit and hose everyone down.

    Mark (e7967d)

  36. 34. Sure Andrew. Whatever you say. No evidence of superior bigoted libs present on this blog. None whatsoever.

    daleyrocks (906622)

  37. Steve:

    Your comments regarding the police as compared to the students are valid. However, I am not sure if you are aware that the university police were unarmed and the Chancellor is proud of the fact that his police are unarmed.

    davod (3392f5)

  38. You hi-light the futility of this endeavor with this post.

    Getting a man trained with a weapon is easy. Getting one to blow another man away with a weapon in a given situation is very difficult. When you start with pilots willing to put up with the nonsense to get their own pistols into the airport and on the flight, you have winnowed down to one essential; the pilot will probably shoot a terrorist. A lone shotgun on the flightdeck with nobody who appeared willing to kill is just a juicy inducement to the killers who break into the flight deck.
    Your air marshall weenie is just that. He insists that the only person that can protect the sheep is one of his sheepdog types is full of shit. Anybody who passes the same certifications for carrying a firearm should be allowed to carry one on any public transport. COPS do, FEDs do, all of us do.

    Who is addressing the utter ridiculousness of allowing foreign flights into America? What of the Egyptian pilot who was blamed for flying a planeload of pax into the sea screaming allah akbar? Who did the background investigations on these people and was it the same clowns that gave Sandy Berger a security clearance or any of the current crop of losers at the CIA?

    Security is a sick joke and I’m tired of putting up with the bullshit of the TSA given the gaping holes they leave wide open for any clown who has an airport job and drives behind the airport fence to deliver meals on wheels to the aircraft, along with whatever guns or knives they feel are necessary for taking over aircraft…. you know, unless they just put their own pilots in command via the process for selecting commerical pilots now and in the past.

    curtis (eb120d)

  39. Do you suppose Clancy’s “Debt of Honor” was the inspiration for KSM and his nephew?

    dubya (c16726)


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