Pelican’s Perch #48:
Safe … or Free?

We all remember where we were on September 11 as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York. AVweb's John Deakin was in an FBO in Amsterdam when he saw the second impact on a TV set tuned to CNN. In this month's column, Deak offers his unique perspective on that awful day as both a pilot and an American.


Pelican's PerchThey that can give up essential liberty
to obtain a little temporary safety
deserve neither liberty nor safety.

– Ben Franklin

Old Ben had it right, but only half-right. He pointed out that such people don’t “deserve” either, but failed to point out they won’t GET security, either. There is no such thing, for we all die. The trick is to make the dying part “later,” rather than “sooner.” And to make our time here “better,” rather than “worse.”

The squeamish and the PC may wish to skip this column; it isn’t “nice,” it probably isn’t very PC. It wasn’t easy to write, and some won’t find it easy to read.

Even more than the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of JFK, we will remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. I was in Amsterdam when the man from the FBO came running out to the airplane and said to us, “You’d better come in and watch CNN, right now!” We got to the TV just in time to see the second impact. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was a terrorist atrocity, of course, and within seconds we realized it had to be a hijacking, the crew had to have been disabled, and that fanatical terrorists with some flight training had flown the airplanes. Nothing else was reasonable, even then.

Kinetic Energy

My first thought was of the B-25 that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945. That accident (they were lost, in weather) caused a small handful of deaths (about a dozen), and about a million dollars in damage, which was serious enough, and big news at the time. The structure of the Empire State Building was not seriously damaged, and since the WTC buildings were still standing after the airliners struck them, I figured the big twin towers would probably be okay, too.

The B-25 grosses at 28,000 pounds, and the 767s at roughly 250,000, depending on the model. Roughly ten times the weight, so ten times the kinetic energy. Taking a wild guess at the speed at impact, assuming the B-25 hit at 150 knots and the 767s at 600 knots, that’s four times the speed. Yes, redline indicated airspeed for a 767 is under 400, but I doubt they were paying much attention to the manual, or limitations, and they were MOVING. Energy varies with the square of the speed, so that’s 16 times the energy from speed, or a total of 160 times the energy of the B-25 that slammed into the Empire State Building. With those numbers in mind, I wondered how the buildings were still standing after the impact.

For some perspective, take a look at this chart:

Kinetic energy at various speeds and weights
Click for larger image.

I have assumed a weight of 20,000 pounds for the B-25, and an impact speed of 150 knots for that actual incident. I do not know what the real figures were, but that’s close enough to establish an approximate data point, and by the time we look at the higher speeds and weight, any small errors will be lost in the noise.

Kinetic Energy
Boeing 747409,684,764,222800,000600
Boeing 767128,186,722,222250,000600

This compares an actual accident (the B-25), with three other airplanes used as weapons. Note the relatively small energy of a Bonanza, even at 300 knots. It’s about half that of the B-25, which is six times heavier. Both absolutely pale in comparison with the big jets. I cannot help but wonder, if we’re so worried about future terrorist incidents, why were the big airplanes flying, and the small ones grounded?

But what difference does all that make? Those who hate airplanes, or who don’t understand how important general aviation is, will take the attitude they don’t even want RC models flying around, for fear they may be used as weapons. Few outside our small community see small airplanes as anything but toys for the rich, and I’m not sure we’ll ever convince anyone otherwise. Pity.

The Horror

The fire, that awful fire, clearly visible even from a great distance, kept burning on multiple floors, and I began to wonder what was burning. Then I thought of the thermal energy contained in 10,000 gallons of jet fuel, guessing at the amount, not really knowing how much they were carrying. That could vary greatly with the flight plan distance, which I didn’t know.

I began to realize with mounting horror that those buildings were doomed, and were coming down. It was just a matter of time until the steel structure heated up enough to weaken just enough to begin bending, and once that happened, it would be all over. Watching them come down numbed me to the soul. I believed at first that there might have been 100,000 deaths. Without knowing anything about the buildings, I guessed at 200 people per floor, or 40,000 within the towers, plus probably an equal number in the surrounding very large buildings.

I am so glad I was wrong on that. It could have been that bad, but for several fortunate circumstances (if we can call anything about this event “fortunate”). The first one hit high, killing “only” those on and above those floors. That gave precious time for those lower in the building and most in the second tower to get out, saving tens of thousands. The second impact was lower than the first, but by then, most people on and above those floors were already below that point.

We’ll never know for sure how many died that day. Authorities began talking of “hundreds,” and reluctantly raised it in steps to the current number approaching 7,000. For a little perspective, we kill about seven times that number every year on the highway. No, I know, that doesn’t help me, either.

Pilots and Politicians

Much has been made of the skill level of the pilots, and whether the turns and banks and points of impact were deliberate, or last-second corrections. It was obviously “good enough,” there’s no arguing with that.

I’m just guessing here, for I have no real data, but I’ll bet they were trained roughly to the private pilot level in real airplanes, and practiced that final run extensively on the various PC games and “simulators.” It’s also easy enough to rent a real simulator, but they would have been careful about that, because it would be “abnormal,” and would attract attention. They may or may not have been taught to be in a bank at the impact to maximize the damage, but I’ll bet their instructions were to just hit the buildings dead center, and not try to get fancy. It’s not easy to do that at very high speed, and I’m sure the pilot in the second airplane nearly missed the south tower, hitting it only with a last second correction, with that steep bank and a hard pull (it’s a tribute to Boeing that the wings didn’t come off). Yes, pilots usually manage to hit the ends of runways on normal landings, but that’s a very different thing, for we have that view of the length of the runway to give us perspective and an early awareness of relative motion. We also have a slower speed (not to mention electronic aids). The hijack pilots would have needed to watch very carefully the relative motion between the target tower and something in the background a mile or two away, keeping the same relative motion on each side of the tower as he closed on it with terrifying speed.

I don’t think the planners had any idea of how successful their efforts were going to be. I think they wanted the huge publicity of multiple simultaneous hijackings and destruction of the magnificent flying machines built by the western world, and spectacular crashes into the monuments of all that the best of mankind has built.

I think the collapse of both buildings was a surprise to the terrorists, and an unexpected “bonus.” Had they timed them a little closer (adding another layer of complexity and communication and a need for much greater skill), and had the impacts been lower, the toll would have been much worse. Had they hit the outer edges of the buildings and hit them much lower, the towers might have toppled away from each other, rather than collapsing. That could have taken out another 20 square blocks of lives and buildings. Hard to imagine, but it could have been worse.

The decision to shut down the nation’s airspace was brilliant. I am very impressed that someone had the balls to take that very decisive and immediate action. I’d love to know who it was, and I hope someday that story will be told. I am also very impressed at the speed with which that happened, for within two hours there wasn’t an airplane in the sky.

I’ll give our leaders the benefit of the doubt for several days after 9/11, it must have been a very busy time, with a lot of confusing data, not much of which meant anything. Those who selflessly rushed into the burning buildings showed a courage that is beyond belief. Where do we find people like that, and where can we find more for the days ahead!

But now, politicians are returning to being politicians, more worried about the next election than anything else. I think many of the actions taken in regard to aviation were simply wrong, nonsensical. I hope they know something I don’t.


I suspect my emotions over this atrocity are similar to those of many others. Since that awful morning, I have switched back and forth from total numbness on the one hand, to absolute rage on the other.

First, anger at the animals that have done this. By my standards, they are absolutely insane. Smart, tough, dedicated, committed, but loony. Survival is the strongest human instinct, and they drive themselves into a state that overrides that. That’s insanity. Of course, they probably think we’re nuts, and they are the only sane people in the world, itself a mark of insanity. But they are not alone, we have such insanity in our world, too. Remember Jim Jones, and the mass suicide of his cult in British Guiana? The latter-day KKK? Some of the radical fringe groups we have?

A contradiction? Perhaps, but anyone who will inflict the damage they did upon helpless, unsuspecting civilians who have never harmed them is a coward in my book. They kill because they can, and because human lives mean nothing to them. Their only purpose is hatred and destruction, and the condition of Afghanistan today is a tribute to the fact they can build nothing, grow nothing, except that hatred. That isn’t bravery, it’s insanity, inhuman, contemptible.

Are we at war with the Muslims, or the Arabs? No, of course not. But I believe there are a very large number of both (and others) who are celebrating the atrocity, and they ARE our enemies. We ARE at war with anyone who helps them in any way. I’ll fight for their right to shout, to speak, to convince people to follow them, but when they begin physical violence, they cross the line, and it becomes criminal in every civilized nation on earth.

Partly Our Own Fault

We must lay some of the blame for 9/11 at the doorstep of our own leaders in government, the FAA, airline executives, and manufacturers, who have all failed us. For more than 30 years, I’ve been advocating (as have a few others) secure (armored) cockpit doors and bulkheads, and a rigid policy of not letting the bad guys in under any circumstances whatsoever. All these years, that particular suggestion falls like a stone into a bottomless well. It gets no response, at all, and I don’t understand why, I know of no downside, except a modest cost. An armored bulkhead/door is EASY, and its existence alone will deter almost all attempts at hijacking.

This simple inexpensive step alone would have prevented almost all the hijackings and crimes committed on airliners, and absolutely would have prevented what happened on September 11. This isn’t rocket science, and it’s been done before. Taiwan had this policy as early as the sixties to prevent defections and hijackings to Red China, and El Al does it today, with total success. The politicians, the FAA, and the industry not only cannot think of things like this, we don’t seem able to learn from the examples of others!

Next, make it public knowledge that we will comply with hijackers’ demands (short of crashing), and will take them anywhere, but no matter how many passengers they kill, or what they do, they will NOT enter the cockpit. Some seem to think that’s a selfish attitude for a pilot, as it would give us protection, while the passengers and flight attendants are exposed to violence. But this is not a time for “equal opportunity,” we’ve just had it demonstrated that if the pilots are harmed, the whole airplane may be doomed, not to mention many people on the ground.

This is the hardest part of the whole thing, because the pilots are going to be bombarded with stresses they have not and cannot be trained for. They will be overwrought with emotions, thinking that maybe, just maybe, if only they open the door, the hijackers will only require a diversion, not conversion into a large cruise missile. To my knowledge, no pilot has ever been able to withstand that kind of pressure, and even after 9/11, there are some that could not hold out.

Future hijackers will, of course, be full of assurances that they’re really nice guys, and if only the crew opens the door, everything would be all right – even if they have just disemboweled several people. It’s a very ugly situation, and pilots would need to be thoroughly indoctrinated to expect the ugliness. It’ll be a lot easier to do that, after 9/11.

Where has the FAA been? Why, they’ve been really busy, enacting FARs that absolutely, positively forbid passengers from standing up during pushback! Or, insisting that airlines report on-time departures and arrivals, which mean NOTHING for safety. They have thousands of inspectors, micromanaging everything down to the smallest detail, while completely losing sight of the big issues. FAA inspectors are no longer allowed to use judgment, and the overall attitude passed down from DC is, “We don’t care about actual safety, just make sure the paperwork is done right.” And the paperwork that tracks the paperwork. Most of an inspector’s work is filling out forms that account for what he (and others) have done, which is mostly filling out forms that account for what he (and others) have done. Even FAA inspectors admit that the FAA is a hopeless bureaucracy, and can no longer do much that is useful.

Screening Is a Sham

Our fearless leaders, in DC? In concert with the FAA, always with only their next election in mind, aware only of “public perception,” they set up the fantastically expensive “security screening” at the airports. It should now be obvious to even the most oblivious, THAT SCREENING IS A TOTAL, 100% SHAM! IT IS USELESS! It is WORSE than useless, for it consumes billions of TAXPAYER’S dollars, and inconveniences every single passenger, crew member, and airport worker who must suffer through it, often many times a day.

Yes, it does employ the otherwise unemployable, at the minimum wage, but if we really want welfare, let’s do it in a way that doesn’t hinder productive people. I daresay that screening has NEVER prevented a single harmful act. Those who really want to do harm can do so in spite of “security,” but now innocent people cannot even carry normal tools, shaving materials, or a small pocketknife! Our opposition must be laughing themselves sick.

The security folks point with misplaced pride at the number of knives, weapons, and even guns that have been detected and confiscated at security checkpoints over the years. By definition, those were harmless, because those with truly evil intent wouldn’t have been caught, as demonstrated by the FAA’s own failure rate of up to 80% in their own tests!

In prisons, with elaborate security, strip searches and bodily orifice checks, inmates still succeed in carrying and using weapons. Terrorists will do the same. Banks install the very latest security systems to guard a very small area, and still, bank robberies take place, but they’re very few in number. See the difference? One, like airport security, depends on screening masses of people; the other depends on guarding a very small area (like a cockpit). There is NO way to prevent bad people from boarding airliners, and any attempts to do so just harm or hinder innocent passengers – and the terrorists win again, without doing a thing. The armored cockpit bulkhead and door will allow time, precious time, for the crew to get the airplane on the ground, most of the time. Explosives would be the only way for terrorists to enter the cockpit, and I believe we now have the technology to sniff for the vapors given off by explosives. Run all the passengers through such sniffers, give them a cursory pat-down, and let ’em go.

What these “public servants” will never admit, cannot admit, is that just because a person is carrying a weapon, that doesn’t mean he has evil intent, and the chances are excellent that anyone walking on with a gun or knife will quietly walk off at the other end, and go about his business. The secure cockpit door would have blocked the very rare exceptions. For that matter, virtually all the past incidents would have been blocked by the simple knowledge that no attacker will get into the cockpit in the first place.

The incredible irony is that if Americans were permitted to carry weapons, no one would be insane enough to even attempt a hijacking! But public servants cannot stand the idea of an armed citizenry (which works so well in Switzerland), and they will always choose the options that give them CONTROL. They want the control, and they want us to be sheep.

Arm the Pilots?

Much is being made of the idea of pilots actually being allowed to carry firearms. Of course they should! It is my personal belief that every adult American without a criminal record should have the absolute RIGHT to carry any weapon of his/her choosing, with proper training, but that is another subject.

But arming the pilots is not quite the panacea that many think. There are significant issues with pilots using guns in and from the cockpit. For one thing, there are very few Americans left with the guts to use them, there are significant difficulties in using them in today’s cramped cockpits with no wiggle room, and it’s also very significant that hijackers will be very close by the time a gun could be brought into play. Guns are best used for defense at a distance, not up close and personal. Even if some way is found to arm pilots, the politicians will inevitably screw this up too, probably insisting on low-caliber, ineffective weapons, with harmless bullets that won’t do the job, and paperwork so daunting that few will be able to comply. Can you imagine the FAA approval process to carry weapons into the cockpit? As I type this, I note that even ALPA has now backed down on guns, and are now talking about “non-lethal” weapons. We certainly wouldn’t want to actually hurt someone, now, would we? The hell I wouldn’t! It should be open season on anyone trying to batter the door down, and if one is only wounded, shoot him again.

The PR factor is significant, too. No one wants the general public to think that air travel is so dangerous that pilots need weapons. It’s hard enough just getting people past a natural fear of flying without adding that.

Stun guns? Give me a break! Given my choice, I’d carry a good modified .45 auto, with 230 grain full-metal-jacket bullets, and accept the possibility it might go through the adversary, and just might hurt someone else, or hit something in the airplane. Let’s get the primary job done first. I would also accept the penalties for misuse, as all should.

I see we’re probably going to bring back “Sky Marshals.” The idea is appealing, but in reality, I think it’s just going to be another federal make-work program employing thousands of people who will probably end up “armed” with “non-lethal” weapons. Personally, I’d rather have half the passengers really armed, either openly or concealed.

While I’m at it, let’s cover the decompression issue. The James Bond movie “Goldfinger” was very effective at teaching that even a small hole in the airplane will suck a person through, making jelly in the process, and countless stories exist of a single bullet destroying an aircraft. Only in the movies, folks, only in the movies. You could fire a full magazine from any machine gun inside any modern jetliner under full pressurization, and it would not affect the pressurization at all. It would certainly NOT cause “explosive decompression,” and probably wouldn’t even do much damage, unless one or more bullets hit a system, for some wiring or plumbing. Even then, there is so much redundancy built into all these airplanes, it’s VERY unlikely it would do any harm at all, except the holes themselves, which are easily patched, and whatever humans were hit.

The holes would whistle a bit, as air escapes. In the older 747s, we have a port in the overhead of the cockpit for a sextant (octant, actually). By pulling a cord, we open that port to the outside, creating a hole nearly two inches in diameter, where the person pulling the cord can look right straight up and out of the aircraft at the sky, and install the device. Really noisy, but harmless, and the cabin pressure doesn’t even fluctuate if you pop that open and closed. Creates a lot of suction near it, and some smokers have been known to stand under that port and indulge their drug habit there, so the smoke doesn’t poison the others in the cockpit. One I knew years ago would pop it open, stick a pencil up there, and let the little guillotine type door close on the pencil, leaving a crack to suck his smoke out. I’ve fiddled with it, and with that port fully open, have stuck my finger up there, testing the pull. I can get my fingertip flush with the outside, but at that point, the high-speed rushing air going out the hole is deforming the skin of my finger, and becoming uncomfortable. Might give me a helluva hickey if I blocked the flow, but it’s obviously not going to suck me out. A bullet from a .45 is, of course, 0.45 inches in diameter, and I could plug that hole with my thumb (again, probably getting a hickey for my trouble).

Concorde is actually designed to maintain cabin pressure with a window blown out. No, I wouldn’t want to be seated anywhere nearby, but so much for “explosive decompression” from a bullet hole. Yes, with a large hole, passengers could be sucked out, as they were when UAL blew a huge hole in the side of the 747 out of Honolulu, years ago. But bullets won’t do that.

Striking Back

But again, the real anger must be reserved for those who committed these acts, and who threaten to commit more. It’s not easy to solve that problem, and cockpit doors and bulkheads are a tiny, tiny part of prevention. We may never see another hijacking with any similarity to the events of 9/11. There are lots and lots of ways evil men can harm us, and I think we’re going to see some of them.

Like many Americans, I find it very easy to think, “Why not push a couple of buttons, launch a dozen ICBMs with the biggest H-bombs we’ve got, and lay ’em on Kabul, Teheran, Baghdad and Damascus, and burn out this cancer that threatens civilization?” If the vast majority of these people so ardently believe that dying as a martyr will transport them instantly to paradise, then killing them all is a win-win situation.

If only it was that simple! For one thing, I’m not even sure we still have the capability of ANY significant military action, after Clinton and others have systematically gutted our military. Not only do we not have the people or hardware, the PC crowd and the do-gooders have made “military” a dirty word, forgetting that their freedom to speak, to demonstrate, came from the barrels of guns – lots of them. I’ll defend their right to speak, or even burn the flag, but I sure don’t have to pay much attention to them.

Many have pointed out that we might well need military force one day, and now that evil day is here. Once again, the actual attack came with no warning, but war is like that. There is ample evidence that both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were quite predictable, but our leaders ignored that evidence, in both cases, unwilling to face the unthinkable. We’d all better start thinking the unthinkable.

These are the same leaders so many want to trust to solve a problem they should have prevented in the first place.

We would, of course, take an enormous amount of heat for using nuclear weapons from “The World Community” (and the nutbaskets of Berkeley), but why not tell ’em all to take a hike, make a glass parking lot of Afghanistan, and say to the world, “Screw around with the USA, or U.S. citizens, or U.S. interests, and we’ll do it again.”

For all our faults, I think a world dominated by the USA would be a far better place for far more people, than a world dominated by the hateful fanatics of the world. We’ve screwed up a few times, but in most cases, it was because we were trying to do the right thing, and held back (Berlin, Korea, Vietnam).

Do we even have the nuclear capability? I don’t know. Could we bring ourselves to use nukes? Would I push the button? I don’t know, and that may be weakness on my part. Would (or will) the terrorists use nukes, if they have them? I absolutely believe they will. Do Americans have the courage, the heart, and the will to fight and win a war with such people? We clearly did not in Vietnam, but that was a world away, where we could not tell our few friends from our many enemies. Now our home soil is under attack by people who are really easy to hate (not Muslims in general, just a few Muslims in particular). What if they light one off in downtown Los Angeles?

But no, in the end, I cannot bring myself to support launching the nukes. It makes us too much like the terrorists we’re fighting. It’s that simple. On the other hand, if we could determine with reasonable certainty where the terrorists are, and we could nuke them without vaporizing even more innocent people, then show me the button.

Safe – or Free?

We Americans have two choices. We are going to have to decide individually if our way of life is worth preserving, or not. Either we are “good,” and the fanatic fundamentalists are “bad,” or not. Either we are going to fight these animals, or we are going to let them win, and win, and win again, until our way of life, and the grand American experiment is no more.

It is useless, and a waste of time and energy to try and decide which side is “right,” and which is “wrong.” There isn’t such a clear distinction. We Americans (and our allies) have committed some pretty horrible deeds ourselves, and if we had not won WWII, some Americans would have no doubt been tried as war criminals. The bombing of Dresden, or the dropping The Bomb on Japan would have been viewed as atrocities if Germany and/or Japan had won the war. To a very large extent, the winners write the history.

The Islamic fundamentalist terrorists are the not the only terrorists around, and terrorists are not the only people who can destroy everything this country was founded on. Some of our leaders can do just as much or more damage to our way of life as any fanatic. Some of them with the best of good intentions. Some of them scare the wits out of me almost every time they speak, and old Ben (Franklin) must be rolling in his grave at some of the proposals floating about that would convert the USA into a police state with none of the freedoms we’ve always taken for granted.

Congress enacted drug laws that made billionaires out of the dealers, and made the drug problem worse everywhere. All while taking major freedoms away from innocent Americans, freedoms that are still guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Not that they mean much, anymore.

The “quick fix” politicians enacted RICO laws to go after the Mafia, and have essentially never used them for that purpose, preferring to go after easier targets. They are using un-American activities, ruining innocent people by the thousands.

I think the “authorities” have all the LAWS they need right now to pursue the terrorists. They may need more resources and people to recover from the Clinton years and a quarter century of peacetime and peaceniks, but they don’t need new laws, and we don’t need to give up any more of our freedom. If we do, the terrorists win again.

We also need to watch the people in Congress, for every one has his or her own private agenda or pet project, and will try and tack it onto any passing piece of legislation. These little riders will be small potatoes compared to the larger issue. One example is a rider on the Defense Appropriations Bill, giving the Secretary of Defense absolute authority to declare any former government property a “risk” to the U.S., and insist on its repossession or thorough “demilitarization.” That means the only flying B-29, all the WW II fighters, and all other ex-military airplanes could be be chopped in half, and large holes bored in the engines, making them unflyable forever. This insanity was defeated as a House bill in the last year or two, but now it’s back, attached to S.1438, buried deep in the legal language (see Section 1062).

We in the aviation community look at and listen to a flying Mustang, and enjoy it. There are many who would ground all airplanes except airliners (some would ground those) oblivious of the consequences. To them, it’s obvious, “We can’t have civilians flying fighters around, can we?” Of course not! The average ignorant American will quickly agree, and there goes another small freedom.

It’s going to take wisdom, courage, blood, and money. Can we do that? I’d like to think so. I kinda like our way of life, and you should, too.

Be careful up there!