How to stop commercial air hijackings without inconveniencing air travelers
...and how to find out with 100% confidence whether bin Laden really did
it...and how to find bin Laden...
Steve Kirsch, firstname.lastname@example.org 408
Version 19. 9/20/01
If you are reading a paper copy, you should check to see you have
the latest version:
Short on time? See the 3 page Summary of
techniques for preventing air hijackings
- The rules of engagement have changed; we need to adjust our behavior and
policies to reflect that, not apply the same old rules to a new problem.
- We've already tried beefing up security after every hijacking; we
repeatedly fail; why do we continue to take an approach that has proven time
and again not to work? In addition to changes in security, why don't we ALSO
try something different?
- Instead of just focusing on keeping terrorists off the plane, why don't we
ALSO take steps to make the plan an "unattractive" target?
- There are a number of simple things we can do to increase security and to
make the plane unattractive; some we can do virtually immediately; some we
can phase in over time. Some are very high tech and some are incredibly
- No single "action" is without a counter-measure. We should take
a number of actions and should put first priority on things that:
- Would have frustrated the methods used in the 9/11 attacks so that we
can't have a repeat
- Make the plane a less attractive target to hijackers or screen
passengers in a new way
- Do not inconvenience passengers, free trade, or damage our economy
- Can be implemented immediately or soon
- Are low cost to implement
- Have minimal "unintended consequences"
- We seem to be our own worst enemy here. We did a lot of unnecessary damage
the economy by halting flights for a week. We still restrict crop dusters
- Congress should request that the FAA evaluate ideas consistent with the
above and send an analysis of their recommendations to Congress for their
input. I've listed many suggestions below for both increasing security and
making the plane a less attractive with minimal passenger inconvenience.
Many can be implemented immediately, at virtually no cost. I'd
be glad to send the FAA the complete list of hundreds of suggestions I've
- Why don't we try a few of the ideas below in planes now and see if they
work (like the pilot announcement and/or pepper spray and/or police officers
carrying guns fly free)? Most are super-easy and
super-safe to try. Let's not shoot down good ideas if we haven't tested
- Don't focus on SAFE mode below. SAFE mode is just one idea (and has a
relatively long gestation period). There are
others that are better, cheaper, safer, faster to implement and more
effective. Read on...
- Also included below are methods to conclusively determine whether bin
Laden really did it, methods to find bin Laden, and an offer we should
extend to bin Laden before we take any military action (an offer he can't
- The smartest thing is for Congress to immediately stabilize
air travel by making it safe in consumers' eyes. That would mean adopting a
system proven to work, e.g., El Al's procedures. You can
fine tune it later. Right now, we should copy what works. If not El Al, then
someone else. No reason to re-invent the wheel here. We don't have time.
- So the FAA or Congress should:
- Immediately implement those El Al procedures that can be done immediately
and easily and inexpensively
- Get public input and comment on other ideas such as the ones below
- Report on pro/con on these ideas and get a decision on which to try
- Try out these low-cost/fast to implement suggestions on a small scale
to ensure they work, then deploy on a mass scale (e.g, pepper
spray, pilot announcements, etc).
- Prepare a report on longer term solutions with pros/cons. Invite
public comment. Try them out on a small scale (cheapest/easiest ones
first). If effective, implement on large scale
- Most promising long term idea in my opinion is to use a few
relatively inexpensive high-tech techniques to totally eliminate terrorists
from the country. See The Ultimate Terrorist
Elimination Solution for details on how we can do this using technology
that exists today. And we can do it with nearly 100% certainty without
invading people's privacy. Heck, if our war is on terrorism and our purpose
is to eliminate it, isn't the best way to eliminate the terrorists from the
country? Or is it better to inconvenience everyone (and destroy our economy)
so that the terrorists can continue to live among us? The WTC bombing was a
distraction. If we focus our resources on air safety instead of terrorism,
we've just made the terrorists job even easier. Instead, we must focus on a
zero-tolerance program for terrorism as a whole.
Most promising ideas
If it were my decision, I'd put together several small teams of people with
complementary backgrounds and have them brainstorm ideas, and solicit input from
the public as well. Then I'd implement the simplest easiest ideas first so that
flying is the safest form of transit. Here are some of my favorite ideas...a
combination of very high-tech and very low-tech (some we can do tomorrow at very
low cost; we have the technology to do them all today):
- Install a secure cockpit double-door system on existing aircraft so that
pilots are isolated from passengers (just like on El Al)
- Instruct pilots never to come out of the cockpit in the event of a
terrorist attack (just like on El Al)
- Just copy what El Al does, hook, line, and sinker. Don't re-evaluate. Just
copy everything now, evaluate later which procedures, if any, to modify.
There is no sense in trying to invent systems that haven't been tested when
we can implement a system right now that has proven to work. If you do this
quickly, it can restore passenger confidence. Take too long and there is a
big economic ripple effect.
- In the event of a terrorist attack, pilots should be instructed randomly
select one or more procedures to re-gain control over the aircraft. These
procedures could include: (a) tell the passengers to buckle up, and then do
random high-G force maneuvers, (b) dump the cabin pressure (allow pilots to
over-ride the limiting valve in an emergency situation), immediately take
the jet to 15,000 feet and land the plane at the nearest airport (c) gas the
cabin with sleeping gas, etc. Having an extensive set of
"procedures" (signal the sky marshal, de-pressurize, gas, G-force,
etc) and allowing the pilots to choose which procedure and in which order is
the most effective because it is harder for a terrorist to prepare if he
doesn't know what he's going to be hit with next.
- Require pilots to have lie detector and/or brain
fingerprinting once a year (to avoid the Egyptian air disaster)
- Let police officers fly for free if they carry a gun (with low-velocity
ammo) and handcuffs on board
- Give crew members handcuffs
- Adopt a "there is no such thing as a live hostage" policy
- Allow pilots to carry a gun if they are certified (what's the downside)
- Stop disarming the passengers...terrorists aren't going to attack people
with silverware. All we are doing is taking ridiculous measures that disarm
the public and leave the terrorist armed. A terrorist can easily bring in a
sharpened plastic credit card. And we've disarmed everyone on the plane to
make the terrorist's task even easier than it was before!!
- Forget the curbside check and parking restrictions. This just
unnecessarily and expensively inconveniences passengers and closes just one
small way a terrorist can attack. Not worth it. If we're searching the cars
before they enter the parking structure, isn't that sufficient?
- Require at least one plainclothes federal sky marshal on every flight.
Assign them to flights such that the marshal doesn't know in advance what
plane he will be on. The sky marshal can carry any FAA-approved weapons and
a very small oxygen-canister. To be certified, you must pass FBI screening,
periodic lie detector tests and brain fingerprinting (a 100% accurate
"knowledge" detector that is impossible to fool...as seen on the brain
fingerprinting segment on 60 Minutes), and special training.
- Instruct passengers that in a terrorist situation, they may make any
decision that they believe will minimize loss of life. For example, change
the official pilot's welcome message to be something like this (this is from
an actual United Airlines commercial flight...passengers applauded and
some cried after they heard this):
- "First I want to thank you for being brave enough to fly today.
The doors are now closed and we have no help from the outside for any
problems that might occur inside this plane. As you could tell when you
checked in, the government has made some changes to increase security in
the airports. They have not, however, made any rules about what happens
after those doors close. Until they do that, we have made our own rules
and I want to share them with you. Once those doors close, we only have
each other. The security has taken care of a threat like guns with all
of the increased scanning, etc. Then we have the supposed bomb. If you
have a bomb, there is no need to tell me about it, or anyone else on
this plane; you are already in control. So, for this flight, there are
no bombs that exist on this plane. Now, the threats that are left are
things like plastics, wood, knives, and other weapons that can be made
or things like that which can be used as weapons. Here is our plan and
our rules. If someone or several people stand up and say they are
hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together. Then take
whatever you have available to you and throw it at them. Throw it at
their faces and heads so they will have to raise their hands to protect
themselves. The very best protection you have against knives are the
pillows and blankets. Whoever is close to these people should then try
to get a blanket over their head--then they won't be able to see. Once
that is done, get them down and keep them there. Do not let them up. I
will then land the plane at the closest place and we WILL take care of
them. After all, there are usually only a few of them and we are 200+
strong! We will not allow them to take over this plane."
- Put pepper spray in in the oxygen mask compartment. In the event of a
hijacking, and in the event that other measures have failed, open the
compartment. Again, the order of counter-measures should be completely at
the discretion of the pilot.
- Iris-screen each passenger and crew member to board the plane (right now,
you can easily switch your boarding pass after you get it). Disallow people
to fly on the FBI "suspect" list (flying is not a right!). If you
are a sky marshal, the iris scan will also indicate whether you are allowed
to carry a weapon on board.
- People who are on the FBI's "suspect" list can still fly if they
pass a brain fingerprint for terrorism. The test takes about 1 hour. Allow
no more than two "at risk" people on any given flight, search them
more completely, and completely disallow passage to people who are high risk
(according to the FBI).
- Require something like SAFE mode on new aircraft that are capable of category IIIC landings,
where, if a pilot has determined that the integrity of the cockpit has been
breached, either pilot can actuate this mode which will land the plane at
the nearest safe airport (the pilot will still get to pick
from a limited number of airports and runway approaches suggested by the
computer). Even if the SAFE mode had a 2% failure rate, this is still far
far preferable than leaving the cockpit empty or in the hands of a terrorist
who could use the plane as a bomb.
I've received over 17,000 page views of this web page and received over 300
e-mails. I've had a number of prominent people tell me they love and
would forward it to the FAA and DOT. I've upgraded the page with the best
ideas from AnchorDesk readers (some remarkably low-tech but very effective and
wouldn't inconvenience passengers at all), and offered to send the e-mail
archive of ideas to the FAA.
Unfortunately, no one from the FAA, Department of Transportation, airline, or
jet manufacturer has contacted me and asked for the e-mail archive. A few of
these techniques (suggested by readers) would have stopped the 9/11 hijackers,
would cost next to nothing to implement, could be implemented virtually
immediately, and result in a much higher confidence of safety than ever before.
Yet they are not being considered by anyone that I'm aware of. This is
unfortunate because the repercussions are huge layoffs at Boeing, huge layoffs
at major airlines, major federal expense bailing out the airlines ($24B) ....all
(possibly) completely unnecessary. Not only that, but those layoffs will have a
domino effect on other industries, putting more downward pressure on the
The changes that have been implemented by the FAA would not have stopped the
9/11 hijackers. Any group could use the exact same technique as used by the 9/11
terrorists tomorrow and the new security measures wouldn't stop them. Many of
suggestions on this page would have had a high likelihood of having prevented
this tragedy. Why we continue to implement measures that we know wouldn't have
worked when there are cheaper, more effective, and more convenient methods is
beyond me. Why we don't try some of the simpler ideas below is beyond me. What
are we afraid of? Let's try it on a controlled situation first, and if that
works, on a few planes. Now!
Things to keep in mind when reading the article below:
- The ideas below are significantly improved and simplified from the original idea described on
ZDNet and the SJ Merc
- The ideas below include ideas from several hundred people who wrote me to
offer suggestions/improvements/other ideas, as well as a few of my own
- No method is perfect. No one single solution will completely solve the
problem. Listed below are many simple independent steps we could take
without impacting innocent travelers. Some can be implemented today. Some
can be required on all new planes. Some can be easily retro-fitted on
- Some ideas below can be done partially and still have a significant effect.
- SAFE mode is only one solution
I don't get it... We just had over 5,000 people die, 2 buildings destroyed,
one badly damaged. Our reaction is to take steps that would not have made any
difference at all in preventing the methods used by the attackers!!?!
HUH?!?! Why aren't we implementing 5 things that would have (or had a high
probability of having) made a difference in the 9/11 attack? Instead, we
implement things like stopping international flights, eliminating curbside
check-in, and so on.
Net result of our current tactics:
- virtually zero impact on the hijacking method we just saw (which would not
have been impacted at all by the new restrictions)
- major inconvenience to air travelers
- major negative financial impact to the airlines (by making flying so
unattractive with 3 hour lines, etc you reduce demand for air travel)
- major negative impact to our economy (our own people can't get back in, no
international trade, etc.).
A trained hijacker can slit your throat with a credit card.
Are we trying to
stop the amateurs or the professionals? If it's the latter, even grossly beefed
up physical checks (and super-expensive luggage scanners) won't do it.
We should start with those changes (both short and long-term)
that make it undesirable to hijack a commercial airliner, yet that
do not inconvenience the air traveler. Many such ideas are described below. Some
are cost free, remarkably simple, and extremely effective. After we've
implemented those, if they do not work, then, and only then, should we take more
extreme methods. Instead, we're doing things backwards...Doing the stuff that
impacts innocent travelers that has no impact on terrorists!
Willie Sutton is famous for saying he robbed banks because "that's where
the money is." Remove or nullify the booty, and you eliminate the problem.
Consider this: How
many bank robberies would we have if every bank teller had a secret button they
could press that would instantly (a) seal the doors until the police arrived, (b) call the police,
(c) time-lock the safe, and (d) vaporize all the petty cash? None, because at that point, a bank could only be
used to secure hostages. But if someone wanted to do that, a department store
would be a far easier and safer target for a terrorist. Bottom line: no more
bank robberies. And we didn't have to beef up security in the bank (no
security questions or extra guards) or scan
people with metal detectors as they walk in!
We can apply exactly the same logic to planes with some simple measures that
will make it very unfulfilling to hijack a plane.
Here's one idea. Many others are listed below...
For new fly-by-wire planes with category IIIC landing ability meaning they are
certified to land without any pilot assistance (such as Airbus, Boeing 777),
require the installation of a "SAFE mode" panic button. If one of the
pilots believes that the cockpit or cabin integrity has been breached by a
hijacker, the pilot presses the button. This puts the plane into an irrevocable
auto-pilot that lands the plane at the safest, nearest airport. The pilot is
allowed to modify the choice for airport (within narrow choice limits),
approach, runway, and modify the timing with a delay of up to 15 minutes (to
allow for runway clearance).
The main points are: (a) the pilots are always in control of the plane, (b)
this mode would only be activated in the event of an imminent loss of control of
the cockpit, (c) even if activated by accident, this mode is "safe",
(d) this will save the lives of the people on the plane as well as prevent the
plane from being used as a bomb.
We might also consider a SAFE mode on non-fly-by-wire planes since at a
minimum, it would tie up one hijacker who would have to be an experienced pilot.
However, this is a much more speculative cost/benefit value. Much smarter to
adopt the other methods in this page.
It's important there there not be a way to override the system once it is
engaged. This technique works because you irrevocably take both the pilots and the terrorists out
of a control situation. A terrorist can no longer threaten the pilot to "do
this or I will kill people" because once the plane is in SAFE mode, the terrorist knows that the pilot
can't accommodate the demand no matter what the pilot wants to do. So the
terrorist can't get what he wants...the only thing he can do is kill all the
people on the plane...and if he just wanted to kill people, bus hijackings are
MUCH easier than plane hijackings.
There are a few extra details we have to consider to make this practical so
that even if both pilots (and some or all of the crew) are terrorists, it will
still work! Here are a few of them:
- As soon as a panic button
has been pressed, ground crews are automatically notified.
- Air traffic control on the
ground could initiate a safe mode on a plane, after conferring with the
airline to get the codes to enable them to do this. This would only happen
if the ground can't get radio contact with the plane and the plane appears
to be heading off-course
- SAFE mode is automatically
enabled if the cockpit door is opened without an authorization code, so a terrorist couldn't enter the cockpit
without triggering SAFE mode. And the plane would revert to complete
autopilot/land at nearest airport mode if there is any attempt to destroy
the cockpit controls (the SAFE mode/autopilot computers are safely tucked in
an area only accessible from outside the aircraft, i.e., you've got to be on
the ground and not moving to access it).
- SAFE mode could be activated
automatically upon certain serious events, e.g., entry into airspace far afield
from the original flight plan (the pilot would have to enter an override
code to prevent actuation of safe mode), attempt to head the plane
into a known obstacle (these are already charted by the FAA), loss of cabin
pressure, entry into restricted airspace, extended loss of signal from the ground, tampering
with the GPS signal (i.e., the signal suddenly seems out of whack with other
instruments), lack of pilot responses to regularly sent
"challenge" questions, lack of detection of anybody in the
cockpit, if a periodic thumb print/retina scan of the pilot
- When SAFE mode is activated,
transmit the FDR and CVR data both to the black boxes on the plane as well
as to a ground station. That way, you don't lose any time hunting for the
black boxes. Also, once safe mode is activated, the transponders, CVR, and
FDR can not be
shut off (this is easier said than done since every system has a circuit
breaker for safety reasons, e.g., the transponder catches fire).
- We also might allow a
single accidental button push in the cockpit (or cabin keypad) to be overridden by entering a
3 digit override code within 10 seconds (first time only; the second time
could not be cancelled). Otherwise, the only way to disable safe mode is
from outside the plane.
- Once the plane is on the
ground, SAFE mode would keep it from taking off again until SAFE mode is
reset which would require outside access to the plane (i.e., when it is
The bottom line is simple: the ability to use the plane as a bomb or getaway
vehicle will be completely eliminated. Hijacking a plane will be very
unattractive relative to other methods (such as hijacking a bus) because in a plane, the hijacker is
completely locked up, he has no control over his destination, and he would have
to deal with an armed sky marshal on board, the potential of passenger riots
(who will now believe they have nothing to lose by attacking a hijacker), and a small army of SWAT officers
There are many other ideas to make a plane unattractive to terrorists.
Here are some things that would have had a high probability of stopping the 9/11
terrorists. I'm NOT suggestion we do all of them. For example, there is a
great argument to be made for skipping the G-force tricks (which could injure
passengers) and going directly to drop down pepper spray canisters to instantly
arm all the passengers in the event of a terrorist threat. So this is a
collection of suggestions which can be taken, in whole or in part, as
- Upon signal from a flight attendant emergency button (could be wireless),
and pilot verification on video cabin monitors, instruct t he pilot to have the passengers fasten their seat belts, then do
some high G-force maneuvers to destabilize the hijackers.
- Run an instructional video before the flight on terrorism instructing
people that in the event of a terrorist attack, to fasten your seat belt
while the captain tries to destabilize the terrorists and the crew attempts
to disable them (pepper spray, etc). In the event that the crew is
unsuccessful, we should instruct people to take any actions they deem
appropriate under the circumstances to minimize the loss of life both
on-board the aircraft and on the ground. Ideally, the scenario never
happens, but the mere idea of a gang attack should reduce the incentive to
hijackers. This is cheap to do and we know this works! When the Pennsylvania
passengers found out about the WTC, they took actions that saved thousands
of lives (had they done what "experts" advised, the White House
probably would have been hit).
- Put pepper spray/mace in the compartment with the oxygen masks. So, in the
event that the pilot and crew were unsuccessful in disabling the hijackers,
the captain can instantly arm all passengers with pepper spray just by
pressing a button! And even if the terrorists put on gas masks, the
passengers would have an excellent chance of removing those. This may sound
a bit draconian, but the very existence of the pepper spray and a mob attack
should act as a very effective deterrent. And nobody is forcing any
passenger to use the spray or get involved. And unlike guns, there is no
liability that someone will get accidentally killed by issuing all
passengers pepper spray.
- Equip the crew (and perhaps certified individuals as in the point below)
with pepper spray, tazers, or some other instantly disabling chemical/device to foil the
hijackers. No bullets, no fears of cabin depressurization, no loss of life.
This is an easy solution, it can be implemented rapidly. The Wall St.
Journal suggested the same thing.
- If pepper spray and other measures to subdue the terrorists are
unsuccessful, and if the terrorists attempt to enter the cockpit and seize
control of the aircraft (i.e., only if the aircraft is "at
risk" of being used as a weapon), require that the pilots turn off the
engines in a hostage/terrorist situation until the terrorists give up their
hostages. If all pilots follow instructions, the worst that can happen is
that the terrorists limit the destruction to the plane and people on board.
While on the surface you appear to put innocent lives at risk this way, if
the threat is believable, it creates the deterrence (sort of like mutually
assured destruction keeps nuclear powers at bay).
- Completely isolate the cockpit from the rest of the aircraft
with impregnable kevlar doors that cannot be opened in flight for any reason (or
a separate pilot entrance only accessible from outside the plane). In an
emergency, the pilots would not have access to the plane to manually
fix/inspect something; so they would have to rely on a trained crewmember to
carry out such a task. This does not prevent the Egyptian air disaster
however, where one of the pilots was a terrorist.
- Isolate the cockpit with a secure double door system. Instruct pilots not
to leave the cockpit in a terrorist situation, but instead do G-force
- Require that the pilots never leave the cabin in a terrorist attack.
- Either gas or depressurize the
cabin as necessary to disable hijackers (both are not without their
- Enable a special "911" code on air phones. So anyone could call
in a skyjacking and fighters would immediately scramble and be absolutely
ordered to shoot the plane down if it did not cooperate.
- We already know how hard black boxes are to recover. Don't we ever learn?
Why not require a system such as FlightStat
to be incorporated in new commercial aircraft?
- Instruct the flight crew how to turn wine glasses into sharp objects (by
- Put arms (e.g., guns with bullets that can injure people but not penetrate
the plane) in the cockpit
- Scramble military jets at the first sign of a course deviation from the
plan that cannot be confirmed with the pilot in 15 seconds (the pilot must
utter a secret phrase for the controller to believe him since the pilot
might be coerced into responding like nothing is happening. The absence of
the "safety phrase" means trouble.) This starts making life very
risky, very fast for a terrorist. Planes could be equipped with parachutes
to bring them down safely (you can parachute even a 747 to ground safely...it's
- If a plane deviates from it's course, and the pilots cannot be contacted,
ATC can call the airline and get a secret code for the plane. The code would
immediately cut the engines (perhaps both electronically and physical
damage) and parachute the plane down to the ground. Since ATC would control
when the system is engaged, the hijacker would not be able to know where the
plane will land.
- Allow individuals (including pilots) who pass a very stringent set
of qualifications (training and security clearance) to carry concealed
weapons on board a plane that are loaded with bullets that can do bodily
harm, but not penetrate the aircraft. Of course, not all flights will have
people who are so armed, but nobody would know ahead of time how many such
people would be boarding a flight and that information would not be
recorded. Terrorists won't know if there are 20 armed people or none.
Terrorists don't like uncertainty. Over time, as more and more people are
certified, the chances of many armed and trained passengers increases.
- Fingerprint, face recognize (1010 Net/Soft Systems has developed software
that can perform the match instantly), or retina scan (the iris is the most
accurate biometric indicator; each iris is unique and can be recognized in 1
second; there are no false positives: see http://www.eyeticket.com)
everyone who wants to get on a plane so you
have positive ID. Anyone noted by the FBI as a significant risk (e.g.,
pilots and/or foreign nationals with questionable ties) would be denied
boarding. After all, air travel isn't a right, it's a privilege. I, and
other experts (such as the International Air Transport Association), like
the iris scanning. And let me assure you, the networking to access a
centralized database to do the lookups is available today (for example, my
own company, Propel, has easy to use computer networking software technology
do do this quickly (sub-second response time), securely, reliably, and
scalably over the Internet). Plus the cost of installing such a system is
rounding error compared to a single 9/11 incident.
- Train the pilots and crew on how to handle terrorists and provide them
with some sort of weaponry of their choice from an "FAA approved
list" (clubs, sticks, guns, tazer, pepper spray, mace, knives, etc.
might be put on the list). That way, the crew feels comfortable with their
"weapon" of choice, and a hijacker(s) would not know what he'll be
up against since the mixture of approved weaponry will change on every
flight depending on what crew is assigned to the flight. Just the thought of
being confronted with a completely unknown arsenal should be a very
effective deterrent. Above all, there must be a ZERO TOLERANCE policy for
terrorism to minimize loss of life (vs. the current "cooperate to
minimize loss of life").
- Pass out light-duty kevlar vests only to passengers who specifically
request them on boarding. In the event of an attack that isn't disabled by
the crew, these passengers would be more able to over-power hijackers with
less risk of bodily harm. The downside to this approach is that it may
create the impression that jets are so unsafe that you have to have a kevlar
- Here is my favorite super low tech solution:
- It would probably be equally effective to give every passenger a two
foot long piece of 3/4 inch wooden dowel to use as a club. Less
likelihood of an accidental injury, easier to avoid the reach of an
actual terrorist's knife, and every bit as capable of disabling a
terrorist when used in numbers, plus the public would probably have less
qualms giving everyone a club rather than a knife. Besides, some folks
might think being beaten to death is a more suitable end for a terrorist
than dying quickly from a well placed knife strike.
- The clubs could be stowed in an elastic loop on the back of every seat
for handy access when needed.
- Another reader suggested equipping passengers with a rubber hose:
A rubber hose, a bit heavier than a normal garden hose. When I was in
college, I just happened for awhile to have been carrying a left over
piece from working on a girlfriends car, one night after work it proved
to be a good thing I had it. It accomplished far more than a wooden
dowel would have, and I doubt those guys suffered any permanent injury.
If Nicole had one that night, I"ll bet OJ would have sworn off
See the Reader Comment section below for a slew of other ideas.
It doesn't have to be complicated. Airbus has proved that it is OK and safe
to have the plane always in a mode where the autopilot takes over if the pilot
attempts to do something stupid. Boeing chose the opposite philosophy
("pilots are smarter"). Both work, but the Airbus philosophy is better
suited for terrorist situations. It would have avoided the 9/11 disasters. At a
minimum, why don't we require Boeing and other jet manufacturers to adopt the
Airbus philosophy that the auto-pilot is allowed to assume control if the pilot
does something "stupid."
So at a minimum, we could make a regulation that all new aircraft have a SAFE
mode, since this can be done with modest additional cost and no new technology
(e.g., if landing at the closest airport is technically hard, we could just have
SAFE mode lock-in the original destination (subject to weather clearance))...it would just enable a feature we've had for many many years.
Our current "reaction" to this crisis (increasing security) will
not prevent a re-occurrence! In fact, the exact same plan would work again. All
we've done is put the airlines in deeper financial trouble and created a major
inconvenience for millions of passengers. We should either nullify the
attractiveness of the plane as described above, or change our procedures so
that, for example, we deny air travel to those in an "at risk" group
(e.g., pilots with a questionable history).
No one solution will work. We should be implementing solutions that have the
potential to have stopped the methods used by the 9/11 gang, not solutions that
wouldn't have made any difference.
The FAA should convene a small team of cross-functional experts (pilots,
aircraft manufacturers, terrorism experts, and so on) to evaluate these and
other ideas for making aircraft a less attractive target. My website (http://www.skirsch.com/)
has dozens innovative suggestions that the FAA could use as a starting point for
discussions. I have no intention of patenting or personally profiting from
any of the ideas on this page, I just want the ideas out in the public domain so
that the problem can be solved in a way that does not hinder our air travel (or
cause us to wait 2 hours in long lines, etc) or negatively effect our economy.
How to find out whether bin Laden really did it... a deal that bin Laden
article from Jane's Security reports the following: "Israel’s
military intelligence service, Aman, suspects that Iraq is the state that
sponsored the suicide attacks on the New York Trade Center and the Pentagon in
Washington. Directing the mission, Aman officers believe, were two of the world’s
foremost terrorist masterminds: the Lebanese Imad Mughniyeh, head of the special
overseas operations for Hizbullah, and the Egyptian Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri, senior
member of Al-Qaeda and possible successor of the ailing Osama Bin Laden."
So how do we find out who really did it? If we get the wrong guy, we'll
really look bad. We want to do as much as we can to keep the rest of the world
on our side since this will minimize the unintended consequences of our actions.
Of course, one could argue that the Jane's article doesn't matter since these
guys report to bin Laden. Another reason it doesn't matter is that bin Laden is
a known terrorist, even if he didn't do this bombing.
Larry Farwell who invented brain
fingerprinting. This technique has 100% accuracy. It has never been fooled.
Larry told me he can use brain fingerprinting to determine whether bin Laden was
responsible for the 9/11 attack. The FBI has verified that the technique cannot
The brain fingerprinting technique can be used on bin Laden as well as the suspects that we have in
custody to find out if they are connected to bin Laden and whether they knew
about the hijackings.
Some ideas on finding bin Laden
Why not try the low-cost, no-loss-of-life, no unintended consequences approaches
first. If they fail, then get more aggressive. Here's are some ideas:
- Kill them with kindness (see more on this innovative
- Send in the equivalent of 100 different "A-Teams" (like the TV
show featuring Hannibal, BA, Face, and Murdock) into Afghanistan...400 guys
total.... Maybe all Navy SEALs.
- Increase the reward for bin Laden's head from the current $5M to $500M. Include US
citizenship and change of identity in the offer.
- Advertise the reward in Afghanistan on radio, TV, direct mail, and the
- Infiltrate al Qaeda with secret agents. This is the cheapest, most
effective method since it's much easier to destroy the organization from
within if you have perfect intelligence as to what is going on.
- Try to bribe one of the leaders of al Qaeda into moving over to our side
Ideas for America's leaders: 3 simple ways to achieve our goals with minimal
1) offer to the Taliban that we'll give bin Laden a "brain
fingerprint" on the attacks to give them the proof they say they want.
They say they want proof, so call their bluff... this is proof, not just
circumstantial evidence. A mutually agreeable UN representative could administer
the test. The US could still offer this even with Bush's new zero tolerance
stance on terrorism because zero tolerance doesn't mean we can't try the most
straightforward approach first. And if he passes the test, it doesn't mean we
still won't pursue him since he's guilty of other things...it just means we'll
have to do it the harder way.
2) you now have all these people who want to join al Qaeda... take advantage
of it and enroll a ton of secret agents both to a) find out next moves b) find
out where bin Laden is c) kill bin Laden. You could argue we've tried that
before, but I'd argue, not with the same focus. You could recruit US citizens
from Afghanistan, sympathetic Pakistanis, etc... they don't need much training
and in fact, would be less suspicious if they had less training.
3) Put a $100M price tag on bin Laden's head paid out to you and/or your
family and/or your designees (includes American citizenship, identity change,
and protection). Advertise heavily in Afghantistan.
Reacting immediately with force will escalate this unnecessarily, causing
needless loss of life. There is no time clock that says we have to attack
with force tomorrow. We don't want to ignore what's happened, but let's make
sure that the "cure" isn't worse than the disease.
Why not try the simple things above first? They are inexpensive and not
likely to result in "unintended consequences."
I hope we are already doing #2. I don't know why we aren't doing #3. And I
don't think we have anything to lose by doing #1 (in fact, #1 may save us a lot
of time and lives).
Q: So let me get this straight: you want to equip everybody on
airlines with wooden dowels to club would-be terrorists?
I think that this is worth trying. But there are a bunch of other simple ideas
too (rubber hose instead of sticks, pillows and blankets instead of sticks and
hose, pepper spray in the Oxygen mask compartment,
arming the crew with FAA approved weapons of their choice, etc). The main point
is this: pick a few of these brain-dead simple solutions and try them out first
in a mock up of an airplane under controlled conditions (e.g., you get a martial
arts expert wearing heavy padding to play the terrorist and recruit people off
the street to play the passengers). Some of these scenarios may work. Some
won't. What do we have to lose? As an entrepreneur, I can tell you that seldom
does a business plan work out as planned. The best way to accomplish a goal is
to come up with some ideas, try them, and see which ones work. I think we may be
very surprised what we find out.
Q: Why not just bulletproof the door to the cockpit and lock the pilots
The doors were not compromised in these bombings! Having more secure doors would
not make a difference unless these doors physically cannot be opened during the
flight. Pilots need to go to the bathroom on occasion, although the bathroom
could be in the cockpit. The major problem is: what pilot could resist
when threatened with the lives of all his passengers unless he opens the door?
It's a bit like the difference between a time-lock safe and a regular safe. The
regular safe is bulletproof already, but still vulnerable. The time-lock eliminates the
possibility of a robbery because the robber knows that no matter what, the safe
cannot be opened by someone. Without the time-lock, robbers will still try.
This proposal is analogous to putting a time-lock on a safe. However, a
steel door (or double door system) that cannot be penetrated and cannot be
opened during the flight, would provide some amount of protection. It would
not protect against a renegade pilot (as with Egyptian Air), nor would it
protect against a plane being hijacked to Cuba, etc by threats communicated from
the cabin. But it might be an interim solution to reduce the attractiveness of
hijacking the plane and can be used in combination with the idea above. A
double-door system with a "pilots don't leave the cockpit" policy is
the best bet. El Al does this.
Q: What about older planes that are not 100% fly by wire?
Even though most planes are not fly-by-wire (only newer ones like the 777
are), virtually all can land on autopilot so there is still a great deal of
control available on existing planes. In fact, by just controlling a few
elements (such as altitude) with the computer, we can make it extremely
difficult (i.e., virtually impossible) for a hijacker to deviate from the
original destination and carry out his plan. That makes a plane a very
undesirable target because of the lack of control. The problem with a
"forced auto-pilot" is that auto-pilot on most planes is designed to
be easily over-ridden by physical force in the cockpit. The trick in
implementing SAFE mode in non-fly-by-wire planes would be to determine those key
elements that could not be overridden by the pilot that would make control of
the plane difficult for a hijacker, but easy for a pilot who is landing where
the autopilot has selected. However, even the most modest implementation of safe
mode (equivalent to a "stuck" auto-pilot switch) is useful because at
a minimum, it could save the plane if both pilots are disabled and at a minimum,
it would tie up one hijacker who would have to be an experienced pilot.
So with a few wireless controls and a small amount of additional software,
you've suddenly made it a lot harder to hijack an aircraft! A number of people
have written in saying very few planes are CAT III autopilot certified (capable
of landing without assistance). That's true, but it misses the point. In my
proposal, the autopilot only "kicks in" if there is a deviation from
the intended route and only for a time sufficient to put the plane back on
course. And in the most modest implementation, that autopilot is merely
advisory; so it requires the crew to be very experienced to keep fighting the
plane. You'd also have to override the autopilot circuit breaker once the system
Q: Good idea, too hard expensive to implement.
You can start with a modest implementation. In an emergency, the captain
hits a button to lock in the autopilot and then removes (breaks off) the
autopilot switch. No new technology need be developed.
Q: Good idea but still cannot really deter hijacking. The reason being
that once the plane lands on a randomly selected destination, hijackers with the
plane and innocent lives in their hands can still demand from the authorities
with refuel and fly to their eventual destination themselves or by the pilots
under their threats. They are still capable of meeting their objectives.
The plane would need to be seriously disabled somehow upon landing to discourage
this in a way that cannot be easily repaired. Once the plane has been damaged,
hijackers would be forced to exit the plane eventually. The plane might also be
gassed upon landing (or at some time during the flight) as well to disable the
Q: The terrorists could just disconnect the safe mode.
The safe mode autopilot would only be accessible from outside the plane (i.e.,
you can only access it when the plane is parked). If they
can do this in flight, they deserve to take over the plane!
Q: What about bad weather?
The pilot could choose one of the alternate destinations. In
addition, the pilot would have enough latitude to enable him to steer around
weather without the auto pilot engaging, especially if the altitude of the plane
is high enough that there is no ground threat, i.e., the pilot could still be
given some control over the plane, even after safe mode is enabled, especially
if the plane has plenty of fuel and is at a high altitude and there is cabin
Q: What if the system malfunctions?
If the system inadvertently triggers or cannot be deactivated, the worst
that can happen is a landing at the nearest airport. Other than that, it is no
different than any other system on the plane...e.g., what if the throttle fails?
the flaps? the brakes? the landing gear? the fuel pump? etc. The safest way to
do SAFE mode is just simulating a "stuck" auto-pilot button and then
move to forced over-ride if hijacking is still a problem. Let's not
over-engineer a solution.
Q: What if the pilot is immediately disabled/killed and the panic button
has not been pressed? The hijacker has control of the plane and can fly it. What
There are two panic buttons in the cockpit, two in the forward cabin and two
in the rear cabin. The chance of a panic button not being pushed are remote. In
the September 11 incident, for example, one of the pilots was able to enter in a
transponder code saying the plane was being hijacked. The panic button is much
easier to press than entering a transponder code, And if there still are incidents, we
just increase the number of panic button locations on the plane, or move to wireless panic buttons. So we can observe
if the first attempt works, and if not, we just add more refinements to lower
the chances of a successful terrorist attack to an arbitrarily low number. A
simple refinement is to automatically push the panic button if the cockpit door
Q: What if one or both pilots are terrorists?
Consider giving a wireless safe mode activator to the sky marshal.
Q: What do you do if two planes in the same airspace have passengers on
their flights who hit the panic buttons too many times. How does air
traffic control address two planes trying to land at the same airport at
the same time?
This is highly unlikely. The pilot could switch to a different airport. Or
just circle until he can land. Remember, even when safe mode is active, the autopilot will only kick in if
there are significant variations. Circling the airport for an hour would not be
considered a significant variation (unless the plane were very low on fuel).
Q: A terrorist could bring on board a device that jams the GPS signals or
issues false GPS signals.
Why bother jamming? If the GPS signals are jammed the plane just continues on it's
preprogrammed path to the best of its ability, i.e., it won't deviate. By jamming the GPS, the hijacker
can't control the plane. So if the plane crashes, the hijacker has just killed
himself and the people on board. Given that, why bother to attack a plane in the
first place...bringing a bomb into a building would be far simpler. As far as
phoney GPS signals, that would be a neat technological trick to try to do
accurately since the device would have to receive the very signal it is trying
to jam in order to accomplish its objective (get to its target). And the system
could be programmed not to believe a GPS that doesn't make sense (or that
doesn't agree with other instruments). Lastly, GPS's need clear line of sight to
the satellites. Where would the hijackers mount their GPS so that they knew
where they were (assuming that they could somehow overcome the "we're
jamming the signal we need ourselves"). Assuming the GPS spoofing is
possible, a messy but possible workaround is that, in this case, air traffic
control occasionally broadcasts a cryptographically signed announcement of your
current location. If it varies by more than [delta] from your GPS-computed
location, you know you're being spoofed.
Q: A terrorist could load explosive into a small plane and ram it into a
Yes, my idea is only for big commercial jets so that commercial airline
passengers feel safe. Small planes are much harder to defend against because
they could be modified much more easily. Remember, no one single idea is
foolproof on its own.
Q: A terrorist could just re-program the flight computer on a 777 to
automatically engage SAFE mode and "land" at the White House.
True. SAFE mode could be used against you but the scenario you described
could be programmed today...you don't have to link it to SAFE mode at all. So
the implementation of SAFE mode doesn't make the aircraft any less safe.
Overall, you're much more SAFE with SAFE mode than without it.
I've received hundreds of comments, including one from an air traffic
controller at the FAA who, while pointing out some issues, nevertheless
concluded, "I think you have a valid idea and it is do-able. Good luck
building support for what sounds like a good idea. Folks in IT are innovative
and I am proud to be a part of that group. Thanks for spending some time
thinking about this."
Here is a link to some of the reader comments I
received. I've tried to incorporate some of the best ideas I've received
in the text above. I
also have an email archive of hundreds of other messages not posted on my
website (available upon request).
The FAA should appoint a small cross-functional team of experts to take a
look at ideas such as the ones presented here and make recommendations on how to make planes a less
attractive target. The Airline Pilots Association has re-thought their
recommendations in light of this tragedy. It's time for the FAA to do the same.
Congress should ask the FAA for a report summarizing each promising idea that
is known by the FAA, the pros/cons (including costs, time, impact), and a
recommendation. Let's focus first on those measures which provide significant deterrence
with minimal customer impact. Hopefully, we won't have to go any further than
that. And hopefully we won't be afraid to arm people when necessary (when the
first line of defense methods have failed) and allow
them to exercise their judgment on how to minimize loss of life.
We should offer bin Laden the opportunity to use brain fingerprinting to exonerate or incriminate himself before we
declare war on Afghanistan.
Opinion piece: How to prevent air hijackings (San
Jose Merc News Op-Ed)