May 13, 2006

Sheetrock the Cockpit

Making Aircraft Security Screening A Thing of the Past
by Tom Parker *

THERE'S SOME GALLOWS humor often quoted by airline pilots as cockpits become more sophisticated and navigation procedures become increasing automated. It goes something like this: The newest airliners won't need copilots or navigators at all. Instead, the cockpit will have room for just one pilot and a dog. The pilot will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to bite the pilot if he touches anything.

The days of entirely automated take-offs and landings are almost upon us. But this only works at airports where the latest 3-axis precision approach equipment is in place. Even so, extended flight and navigation by instruments alone remains a skill that requires much training and years of constant practice.

The fact remains: during weather conditions requiring flight by instruments alone, the view outside the cockpit window is nil. It is very much like staring at sheetrock while traveling forward at 400 miles an hour. This situation is routine for airline pilots. And because a view of the horizon is required to maintain straight-and-level flight without instruments, it is virtually impossible to tell by sensory feedback alone whether an airplane is right-side-up or upside down. Left to his or her own devices in instrument-only weather conditions, a novice pilot will have a difficult time keeping an aircraft upright for more than a few minutes before it spirals out of control. One of the more frightening lessons for beginner pilots is learning this truth and the FAA encourages flight instructors to impress it upon new students lest they stray into clouds without the benefit of instrument training.

This has implications for would-be hijackers and terrorists. Since precision three-axis guidance for arriving aircraft is only available at a small number of runways worldwide, it would be nearly impossible for even the best pilot to guide a hijacked airplane to an off-airport target, say, the White House, during instrument weather conditions, especially at night.

With that knowledge, and based on my experience as an instrument-rated pilot and flight instructor, I find that I am no longer a fair-weather-loving airline passenger. Since Sept 2001, I have found myself noticeably more comfortable while riding on night flights and in nasty weather because I'm confident that the number of terrorists with sufficient training to fly an airliner to a target in anything but the clearest of conditions is vanishingly small.

That leads me to the following idea: Why not take the money spent on screening passengers and baggage and use it to upgrade all significant US airports to precision three-axis take-off and landing systems?

Next, we could sheetrock over the cockpit windows in airliners or remove the cockpit windows entirely. That's right, make our airline pilots fly blind. They have the skills to do this, while a black-hooded newby with a box-cutter and a few hours' flight time would be screaming to Allah for help after 30 seconds at the controls. In my system, you'd only need one pilot, and a seeing-eye dog. The passengers, then, could take care of feeding the dog. They could feed him the carcass of the frightened and disoriented terrorist once he runs from the cockpit shouting, "Allahu Akbar min kulli shay! Can anybody fly this thing?"

* Mr. Parker is a Fully-Certified American Digest Idea Hamster

Posted by Vanderleun at May 13, 2006 12:19 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Good ideas, but my guess is the pilot still going to need to see to taxi out to the runway.

Posted by: mark nelson at May 13, 2006 8:32 AM

On the right track, but much too extreme.

The door. There's no need for a door between the cockpit and the passenger compartment. Give the cockpit it's own bathroom, its own exterior access hatch, and I guess maybe it's own little food locker. Flight crew and passenger service crew could still communicate via intercom, and maybe even an old-fashioned voice tube as backup.

Someone might still attempt to hijack a plane by taking and threatening hostages, but they could never control the plane themselves.

This wouldn't completely obviate the need for passenger and baggage searches, of course. Bombs would still be a threat, and you'd still want to screen for firearms. Lesser weapons would no longer be much of a problem, though -- One could no longer do any more damage with a knife on a plane than one could on a bus.

Posted by: Umbriel at May 15, 2006 6:45 AM