Ask the pilot

Are terrorist laser beams the next scourge of the airways? And holiday wishes to our favorite scribe on Syrian musicians.

Published December 17, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

Owing to our nation's everlasting fixation with terrorism -- real or perceived -- I'm forced to begin this column by talking about something that doesn't deserve half a minute of our time: laser beams. If you caught the news over the past week or so, you heard the bizarre warning: Terrorists may attempt to blind airline crews by aiming high-intensity lasers through the cockpit windows during approach and landing.

I almost can't believe I typed that sentence, but the paranoiacrats at the Department of Homeland Security, along with the FBI, passed along a memo claiming that terrorists -- though it never admitted which ones, where, or how the agencies knew -- have explored the viability of using laser devices as weapons. Lasers are able to cause temporary blindness and serious eye injury, the ramifications of which are obvious if involving an aircrew during a critical phase of flight.

Apparently a handful of laser incidents have taken place in the past few months. Most notably, a pilot was hurt by a beam shone into the cockpit of a Delta Air Lines jet on approach into Salt Lake City. After landing safely, the first officer was found to have suffered a burned retina. Two other events reportedly occurred near the airport in Portland, Ore.

But then, barely 48 hours after the laser story broke, officials began downplaying the report, admitting that it's unclear whether what happened at Salt Lake City and Portland was the work of would-be saboteurs, pranksters or errant beams from light shows like the type used at concerts. The DHS reminds us that the laser memo was one of at least 160 bulletins released over the past two years. Sheer novelty, if nothing else, brought this one its 15 minutes of fear. "We have no specific, credible information," said DHS spokeswoman Valerie Smith, in a report carried by the Associated Press, "suggesting that such plans are underway in the United States."

Too late. The alert was hungrily picked up and disseminated by everybody from the AP to Wolf Blitzer (who apparently never learned his lesson after mouthing off about the alleged -- and discredited -- TWA Flight 800 coverup).

For the record, even a well-aimed laser would be highly unlikely to cause a crash. Hitting both pilots cleanly in the face, through a refractive wraparound windshield, would require a great deal of luck, and even a temporarily blinded crew would still have the means to avoid disaster. Do not equate the results of a laser strike with, for example, having to drive sightless through a busy intersection. Maintaining a jet's stability would be challenging under the circumstances, but not impossible.

The idea of terrorists bothering with such a plan is tough to accept. Say there's a 10 percent chance of a laser causing an accident. With limited resources and personnel, it's doubtful terrorists are going to risk exposure on an operation with a 90 percent likelihood of failure. (From a technical standpoint, one thing I find interesting is the presumption that approach and landing are the implicitly apropos time for such an attack. In fact, takeoff would be the more dangerous moment.)

The DHS alert states that lasers are "relatively inexpensive, portable, easy to conceal, and readily available on the open market." Yes and no. Powerful military-grade devices are in fact quite expensive and difficult to obtain. Cheaper, commercial versions are more widely sold, but also substantially less effective.

Sounds like the shoulder-fired missiles commotion all over again. Or, for that matter, fill in the blank with boxcutters, grenades, machine guns, shoe bombs, and every other variant of alleged terrorist weaponry. When and where does it end? No danger should be ignored, whether the schemings of actual terrorists or the work of teenage vandals with nothing better to do. But to our detriment, we remain pinned in a full and furious default mode, whereby every potential threat becomes, simultaneously, a looming "terrorist weapon" ready to plunge the nation into chaos.

"It's really discouraging to hear the press is talking about this," says one active pilot of a major U.S. airline, asking that his identity not be revealed. "Here we have cleaners and caterers able to board and roam through aircraft with no security screening whatsoever, yet people are worried about laser beams? Our priorities are insane."

(I've said it before and will say it again: Every American owes it to himself to rent a copy of Terry Gilliam's 1985 film "Brazil," with its depiction of a cracked totalitarian state brought to hilarious madness in the name of security and control.)

Somewhat ironically, my one encounter with high-intensity lights as a crew member was in the early 1990s, during an approach into Newark, N.J. Skirting the lower edge of Manhattan along the Hudson River, the beam from a light show atop the World Trade Center caught our turboprop briefly, filling the cockpit (and cabin) with a fiery incandescence. For a second or two, it felt as though we were flying through the flare of a giant match head. Then, without so much as a wobble of the wings, it was over. We adjusted our eyes and landed safely.

A notion: If it hasn't happened already by the time you're reading this, I predict our old friend Annie Jacobsen will stoke the dying coals with an inflammatory article about laser beams. Just a hunch, and you heard it here first. It's just her style of controversy: ambiguously spooky, hard to totally disprove and an easy target for cheap speculation.

For those who weren't tuned in last summer, Jacobsen is the California woman whose relentless hyping of an in-flight encounter with a rambunctious gang of Syrian musicians became a national security crisis.

Back in November, NBC's "Law & Order" did its own roman-à-clef dramatization of the story. The show, in which a group of Middle Eastern band members are suspected of setting off a car bomb, borrows several details from the original "ordeal," including the expired visas and the infamous cut-across-the-neck gesture. Ends up the villain was a suicidal mother of four. Doubtless Jacobsen was distraught to see her cause turned into a politically correct TV plot.

I'll keep this brief, but over on, Jacobsen's multipart reactionary tract is up to installment No. 10, now described in less inflammatory, yet even more misleading terms, as the "Safety in the Skies Series." In one of her latest pieces she describes a group of Middle Easterners casing about the aisles of a London-to-Washington flight with mysterious hand-held "devices."

That Jacobsen's weird crusade has been styled as a greater manifesto on air safety is at best exasperating, and at worst offensive to those who really care about such things. Her newest byline on "Annie Jacobsen writes about business, finance and terrorism for a variety of national and international magazines and webzines." Which instances of "terrorism," exactly, she has covered are not distinguishable.

Time now for a contest. Below you will read an odious and strangely appropriate quotation. The first person to identify the speaker wins a copy of this year's most sought after stocking stuffer -- a crisp new copy of "Ask the Pilot."

"Only a Western wall of race and arms can hold back the infiltration of inferior blood and permit the white race to live at all in a pressing sea of yellow, black and brown ... We, the heirs of European culture, are on the verge of a disastrous war, a war within our own family of nations, a war which will reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race, a war which may even lead to the end of our civilization ... We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races."

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You wrote of the impossibility of survival in a scenario like that depicted on the ABC series "Lost," where the tail assembly falls off. Your explanation made sense, but what about the case of that Aloha Airlines 737 that lost a big chunk of its fuselage at 24,000 feet before landing safely? The survival of this aircraft always struck me as pretty amazing.

In April 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243, en route between Hilo and Honolulu, was cruising at 24,000 feet when a large portion of the upper fuselage suddenly ripped away. The captain and first officer turned around to discover a clear view of sky where the first-class ceiling had been. An 18-foot-long, nearly 180-degree section (from one side of the cabin floor clear around to the opposite windows) had disappeared.

Dire as the situation was, and ghastly as the damage appears in the photos and footage, the incident was not on the order of the "Lost" portrayal. Neither was it comparable to what happened aboard American Flight 587, discussed here a few weeks ago. All critical control surfaces -- stabilizers, rudder and wings -- remained sufficiently intact, allowing the crew to make an emergency landing on Maui. They were certainly lucky. Torn-away fragments could easily have struck and destroyed the fin or horizontal stabilizers.

The jet in question, an older-model 737, had spent its entire career island hopping in Hawaii, racking up thousands of short-haul flights. All those takeoffs, landings and pressurization cycles had fatigued the structure. The event helped galvanize a Federal Aviation Administration initiative ordering added inspections and better record keeping for aircraft in service over 14 years.

Remarkably, only one person -- a flight attendant -- was killed. Standing in the aisle near Row 5 at the moment of decompression, she was instantly swept overboard.

Some food for thought: For those who fear being "sucked out" of an explosively decompressing airplane, bear in mind that two other flight attendants, also standing at the time of the separation, survived. Meanwhile, nervous fliers sometimes ask me if it's a breach of good sense or etiquette to mention to the crew when something appears broken or out of order. While boarding in Hilo, a passenger noticed a longitudinal crack in the airplane's skin along a row of rivets near the forward door. She opted not to say anything.

How does this square with the notion that a puncture in the fuselage -- e.g., a bullet hole -- can bring a plane down?

Notice you say "can bring down a plane," and chances are high that a bullet puncture would not. The precise dynamics of every decompression will differ, varying mainly on the aircraft's altitude (i.e., the amount of pressurization), its speed and the specific location and size of any breach.

Aloha was fortunate that after losing its roof and side walls, the hull was not weakened to a point where it succumbed to a catastrophic destruction. Compare that with the bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, in which the explosion itself blew only a 15-foot, star-shaped hole in the lower fuselage, but resultant forces wrecked the entire plane within seconds. Two years earlier, a TWA 727 survived a similar bomb-induced cabin rupture, while a United 747 once landed successfully after losing a cargo door and a large chunk of its cabin skin. In other words, it depends.

The Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" series tested the premise that a bullet penetrating the skin of an airliner would result in disaster. It sealed and pressurized several mothballed commercial aircraft to re-create the conditions of high-altitude cruise, remotely firing a 9 mm pistol from inside. Though the series did not fully replicate the exact conditions of flight, the results were surprising. Even when a window was completely blown out, the punctures did not create larger tears in the structure, at worst inducing a fully manageable rate of decompression.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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