Ask the pilot

The federal government is warning us about possible new attacks on airliners. Is it safe to fly? The pilot also shares his own opinion on the question of flight simulators and terrorism.

By Patrick Smith

Published August 1, 2003 10:01PM (EDT)

Over the last 22 months, the ramifications of terrorism and war laid waste to the airlines' balance sheets. It has been nothing less than the worst financial scorching the business has seen since pilots wore leather helmets and delivered the mail in biplanes. Among pilots alone, the industry demographic I happen to have been towed out and sunk with, more than ten thousand of us remain unemployed.

One war and a pseudo recession later, it's August, 2003. Flights are full, fares are down, confidence is up. Relatively, of course. And practically on cue from the bunkers of our reticent, occasionally incomprehensible administration, comes yet another travel warning. Al-Qaida, the intercepted messages and payrolled tipsters inform us, is once again targeting U.S. airliners either domestically or overseas.

We can argue whether the government's wolf cries are tactical ass covering or merely a convenient way to keep the populace pliable and its civil liberties ripe for plucking, but one of these days they're going to get lucky, as it were. And when it happens there's much to lose. The airlines obviously know this, but it's the frontline workers who fear it most. Shareholders in a paneled boardroom may end up setting their portfolios on the curbside with the trash, but it's the pilots and flight attendants, mechanics and agents, who'll be picking through it all, looking for scraps of food.

People would shun flying as never before. Airports would be virtual lockdowns and Amnesty International would declare the metal detectors and x-ray zones in violation of the Geneva Convention. To put it one way, the industry would implode. I don't know what the government is thinking, nor do I know what an al-Qaida operative in a cave near the Khyber Pass -- or a suburban basement in Missouri -- might have in mind. It's impossible to doubt our sworn enemies are busy scheming, but I can tell you I'm skeptical of one thing, which is the likelihood of another suicide hijacking. Terrorists wielding sharply hewn weapons disguised as cameras, one of the news stories explains, are a possible scenario. I say bull, and it's this kind of thing -- stubborn allegiance to the Sept. 11 template -- that make the repeated warnings sound annoyingly dubious. I can't imagine a potential hijacker, armed with anything less than 12 sticks of dynamite, making it two steps up the aisle, never mind through the cockpit door.

And where would it happen? It remains my hunch that however focused we are domestically, any target will be a flight overseas. Since U.S. carriers no longer visit any cities in the Middle East or Africa (with the exception of Continental to Tel Aviv), I look toward South America and the Caribbean as easier-access targets than Europe or Asia. The enemy's most powerful weapon is surprise, and who thinks about Lima, Sao Paolo, Santo Domingo or Montego Bay?

Of course, the citizenship of the airline needn't be America to invoke another paralyzing round of fear and panic. Consider British Airways, whose jets call in places all through the Middle East, India, and deep into Africa. Several weeks ago BA suspended its routes to Kenya when it received word of threats there.

Should you, the passenger whose vested interest isn't a paycheck, but his or her life, be worried? Even under worst-case conditions, which is basically where we're at, I'll tell you no. It depends if you're the type who takes the lottery seriously or worries about being struck by lightning. Bill James, the baseball academic, likes to say, "Never use a number when you can avoid it." Normally I think he's right, and if you're a regular to these pages you'll know I don't enjoy dishing out numerical platitudes. But these aren't normal times, and people, even me, are a little nervous. Not about dying, but about the plague of fear that we're on the verge of propagating. I'll choose something like this, which you can almost visualize:

At major airports across America, airplanes come and go at a rate approaching 100 per hour. Every day in this country, the major airlines and their affiliates alone operate more than fifteen thousand flight segments. This happens every day, every week, every month. Just in the United States. Of these, almost none fail in their attempt to successfully defy gravity. During calendar year 2002, not a single fatality was recorded among the country's commercial airlines -- five million takeoffs and landings by the biggest carriers alone. It's not always so impressive, but it's always close.

Analyzing the threat of hostilities, it's relatively easy to warp the probabilities: a New York to London flight, maybe, is a higher profile target than Tucson to Denver. Then again, you never know. Dulles to Los Angeles and Newark to San Francisco didn't have much cachet either, and look what happened to them. That's not saying all flights are dangerous. On the contrary, in sifting the numbers, it proves most are safe.

Statistics show us that even if we suffered a 747 crash every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday promptly at noon, the chance of dying aloft is still remarkably remote. While I sense that I'm naïve for asking you to behave in deference to the odds, I'm afraid that's all I can do.

Earlier this year, Michael Flannagan and Michael Sivak of American Scientist magazine conducted a study to reevaluate the old flying-v-driving contention. In the end, their data showed that if a passenger chooses to drive, rather than fly, the length of a typical nonstop flight segment (just over 1,100 kilometers), he is now 65 times more likely to be killed.

In light of this week's news, I'll leave you with the last words of Flannagan's and Sivak's report:

"For flying to become as risky as driving, disastrous airline incidents on the scale of those of September 11th would have [to occur] about once a month. "The relative safety of domestic flying on the major airlines over driving is so strong that the direction of the advantage would be unchanged unless the toll of terrorism in the air became, almost unthinkably, many times worse than it has been."

So splash some cold water on that television. Your enemy is the scaremonger and his seed of fear, as much as any lurking terrorist.

Last week, Salon's splashy "Air Osama" feature raised some eyebrows. (In fact some of us who missed the byline assumed it was you who penned the article.) How do you respond to the suggestion of advanced desktop flight simulators making a terrorist's job easier?

Joshua Tompkins' overblown tract on the idea of simulator games abetting the cause of terrorism was factually accurate and entertaining. I read the article with a grin, ultimately concluding, just as any terrorist would, that Tompkins has too much time on his hands and an easily excitable imagination.

The credibility of the proposition is not the issue. Equipped with a Gateway and a credit card somebody can learn the basics -- and more -- of a jetliner's operations. Big deal. The Sept. 11 cabal, not to mention past hijackers and bombers, proved there are other ways of getting it done. When, where and how an individual with nefarious designs figures out how to steer a jet toward a skyscraper is not particularly relevant. Why he chooses to destroy a plane, and to what lengths he's willing to go, are what's crucial -- the missing link, in this case, from desktop simulation to actual violence.

What's next, background checks when buying computer games? I almost feel, in agreement with a recent satire at The Onion, as if people sit around nowadays drumming up new ways to frighten the crap out of us.

Tompkins writes of Hani Hanjour, alleged pilot of the 757 that struck the Pentagon:

"Hanjour had been deemed inept even in a small aircraft by flight school instructors in Arizona and Maryland and just weeks before the attacks. When the time came, however, he handled the doomed 757 like a fighter jet, swooping down and clipping light poles before T-boning the Pentagon at high speed."

I had to chuckle because Hanjour's show-quality aerobatics have been a topic of some conversation among the conspiracy set. In his essay "The Enemy Within," Gore Vidal quotes retired U.S. Army veteran and West Point professor Stan Goff, whose similar-sounding skepticism includes this:

"Now the real kicker: a pilot they want us to believe was trained at a Florida puddlejumper school for Piper Cubs and Cessnas ... brings the plane in so low and flat that it clips the electrical wires across the street from the Pentagon, and flies it with pinpoint accuracy into the side of the building at 460 knots."

"When the theory about learning to fly this well at the puddlejumper school began to lose ground, it was added that [Hanjour] received further training on a flight simulator. This is like saying you prepared your teenager for her first drive on the freeway at rush hour by buying her a video driving game."

No, it isn't. What it's saying is he needed some luck, and got it. As I wrote in a column several weeks ago, hitting a stationary target from above at high speed -- even a large one with five beckoning sides -- is very difficult. To make it easier, the hijacker did not come directly in at a steep angle, but "landed" into the building as obliquely as possible. If he had flown the same profile 10 times, half of them he'd probably have ended up a tumble of wreckage short of the target, or else would have overflown it entirely. You may or may not care to learn that I'm not exactly buying the party analysis of the 2001 attacks (where are those flight recorders, by the way, and what was on them?). But Vidal's and Tompkins' provocations are little more than caricature.

Earlier in "Air Osama," pilot Nigel Warnick states:

"Are we still at risk of getting a terrorist into the flight deck? You bet. We are still allowed visits by cabin crew. [Flight attendants] get lazy and come in with two cups of coffee and leave the door open behind them. If you were sitting on the front row, then you could leap up, slamming the door behind you, while pushing a ballpoint pen into the eyes of the captain and first officer."


If Warnick, who uses a pseudonym, wants to feel better, maybe he can get himself deputized, start packing heat, and spare us the scaremongering. (He can't actually, because he's flying for a British airline). The more people speak of turning the flight deck into an impenetrable fortress of steel, rivets, and firearms, the less I miss sitting in one. Warnick should applaud the efforts of Pakistan International Airlines, one of the more security-obsessed of the world's carriers. PIA is outfitting flight decks with cameras and bulletproof doors with security codes.

To digress a minute, if Warnick needed to vent, he should've taken Tompkins up for this little vocational sketch:

"The FMC [flight management computer] is the brain of the flight deck ... Pilots program most of the FMC before pushing back from the gate and usually activate the autopilot shortly after takeoff; the FMC then flies the aircraft to the destination city while the pilots baby-sit the instruments and chat about mortgage rates."

Right. Just the way your oven and stove take care of Thanksgiving dinner while you sit on the couch watching football games.

It wasn't until hitting on the words of retired TWA captain Barry Schiff that I was able to breathe easy. Schiff says, "If you wanted to point an airplane at something on the ground and crash into it, you don't have to know a hell of a lot... After all, using an airplane as a cruise missile ultimately requires more fanaticism than finesse," Tompkins acknowledges.


The article shows great mettle as a piece about technology, if not on games, and inspires serious thought and debate about the increased computerization of commercial flight. In attempting the ligature to terrorism it becomes 3,500 words of tumescent sensationalism.

Can a desktop simulator arm a terrorist with the know-how to fly an Airbus A320 into the Statue of Liberty? Maybe. A trip down the software aisle, or a discerning wade through the inventory at Google, can also provide you with the ability to build bombs, mix poisons, spread diseases, perform veterinary surgery or speak Urdu. How loath we are at times to harvest the strange fruits of postmodern technological evolution. On one hand we extol the world-saving glory of our gadgets and gizmos, while at the same time we're chasing down the genie and looking for witches like Spanish Inquisitors.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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