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"Fox 1...Splash One Airliner"

A Technical Look at Shooting Down an Airliner

By Captain Robert "Munch" Lambert
Airline Pilots' Security Alliance

July 15, 2002

I will begin with a synopsis of my background. I am currently a Captain with a major airline. In the mid 1980's I was a military pilot for the United States Navy flying F-14 Tomcats off aircraft carriers. During that time I was involved in two cruises to the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. Additionally during that 3 year period I was involved in live fire training exercises using the AIM-9L Sidewinder IR guided, and the AIM-7F Sparrow radar guided missiles. The missiles of today that are mentioned later in this article are much more advanced and dependable.

There has been much said about whether people are comfortable with a trained airline pilot having the ability to defend the cockpit of their airliner with a lethal weapon. Some people say, "What if they shoot a passenger, or another crewmember" while trying to keep suicidal terrorists away from the controls of the airplane. My answer to that would be very simple: While it would be a tragedy if an innocent bystander were to be harmed while defending the airplane from terrorists intent on using the aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction, it would only happen as a last resort defense of the cockpit. Once terrorists have broken into the cockpit, it is paramount to maintain control of the aircraft or all on board and thousands on the ground will soon die. Also, no one seems too concerned about Federal Air Marshals on board and they too have firearms capable of killing a passenger or flight crewmember in a terrorist encounter. Additionally, firearms are inanimate objects and do not fire on their own accord; the only time a pilot's firearm would ever come out of the holster would be to defend the airplane.

Now, let us get back to the missile discussion. Those same people that expressed concern of a pilot shooting someone accidentally have obviously not considered the following. As we all know the President has a standing order for our military to be available, in the event of another 9/11 style hijacking, to shoot down a civilian airliner to safeguard innocent civilians and targets on the ground. We know further that the U.S. Air Force has actually created procedures for shooting down civilian airliners and practiced them in recent exercises. We need to think about the horrific consequences of this act because I do not believe many people have thought it through or even have the knowledge to grasp this tactic in lieu of arming pilots.

The two missiles that would most likely be employed in this effort would be the AIM-9X Sidewinder and the AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. While both of these missiles are capable of destroying an airliner, in my opinion the AIM-120 would be used. The AIM-9X, or the infamous heat seeker, is primarily a "dog fighting" missile and has a smaller warhead; I doubt the terrorist flown airliner will be "mixing it up" with the F-16. I equally doubt the terrorists have graduated from air-to-air combat school yet. The AIM-120 or advanced medium range air-to-air missile is a radar guided missile from the launch aircraft and has a larger warhead and thus a larger takedown capability. As I said, the missile uses signals from the launch aircraft radar to acquire and track the target. Additionally, it has an advanced mode called launch and leave, which means after missile launch it has the capability to track and kill the target with its own onboard radar and inertial guidance system without any help from the launch aircraft. This missile has a range of approximately 20-30 miles which makes it a beyond visual range (BVR) missile, but in this scenario it would be fired with a continuous visual on the airliner to assure proper target tracking. The launch aircraft would probably drop to a 4-5 mile in trail range to launch the missile. The warheads used in both missiles are blast fragmentation type. Basically, it is an expanding row of white-hot titanium rods that expand out in a circular fashion after the explosive charge detonates. The warhead is actually detonated by the proximity fuse. This means that the missile does not actually have to hit the target but is detonated in close proximity. This allows the exploding rods to rip through the skin and structure of the target and either blows away parts of the aircraft or hits a fuel tank with a resultant fireball style explosion. With this in mind we would have 2 scenarios of aircraft destruction. The first scenario is where the missile would detonate near a fuel tank which would cause the aircraft to explode and break apart as did TWA 800, in a fireball. The second scenario would involve the missile detonating near the tail area, for example, and the tail being blown off the aircraft rendering it uncontrollable. The passengers could survive the missile blast and ride the aircraft down to ground impact. The resultant aerodynamic forces from the free fall of the aircraft would tear the plane apart as it was falling.

Now that everyone is up to speed on what the order to shoot down an airliner means to you the passenger and us the crew, I now ask you, what is your choice? The threat of another September 11th style attack is out there and is real. It may not happen for a while but every expert says it will happen again. For the past 3 decades, hijackers have targeted aviation. They will continue to target aviation as long as we have airplanes. Don't you think giving our pilots the ability to defend that cockpit with finality is indeed preferable to the shoot down scenario? Think of how you would feel if you had a family member, friend or business associate on the next hijacked plane knowing it WILL be shot down and knowing YOU did NOTHING to give the pilots that crucial last line of defense. Forcing the United States to shoot down an unarmed civilian airliner would be considered a very successful attack by terrorists. Does it not make sense to allow all possible measures to be in place before we resort to this unthinkable scenario?

The clock is ticking. Arming Airline Pilots or a Shoot Down? Which would you be more comfortable with if you were on the next hijacked airplane?

Note 1: Fox 1 is a term used when firing a live AIM-120 style missile at a target...normally a hostile target but in this case a hostile with friendlies aboard.

Note 2: Splash one is a term used by Navy fighter pilots to indicate the kill of a target.

Related Links:

Airline Pilots' Security Alliance Airplanes & Guns Archives


Printer Version

Most reporters are very sympathetic to gun-control agendas and will skew or lie outright about facts to promote them. DENNIS CAUCHON, USA TODAY

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