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War on terror
Landing by remote control doesn't quite fly with pilots

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By Jeff Long
Tribune staff reporter
Published September 28, 2001

The military has been flying planes and landing them safely by remote control for years, but airline pilots say questions about security must be answered before that technology is used aboard commercial jetliners to thwart hijackers the way President Bush suggested Thursday during a speech in Chicago.

"We will look at all kinds of technologies to make sure that our airlines are safe," Bush said at O'Hare International Airport. "... including technology to enable controllers to take over distressed aircraft and land it by remote control."

Pilots said after the speech that though they support other proposals for airplane security that Bush outlined, the idea of aircraft being remotely controlled concerns them.

"If the good guys can take control of the plane" from the ground, said John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, "maybe the bad guys can take control of it too."

Taking control of a hijacked aircraft from the ground appears to be less feasible than other measures, he said.

"We would view that as a very--very--long-term type of undertaking," Mazor said. "There are enormous technical difficulties in trying to rig up an aircraft for that."

But companies that have designed such systems for the military say it wouldn't be difficult to adapt the technology for commercial aircraft.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. developed a remote-controlled reconnaissance plane for the Air Force called Predator, which flew in Bosnia during the conflict there. Used by the military since 1994, it can be landed by pilots linked by satellite using controls on the ground or ordering an onboard computer to do the job.

Tom Cassidy, president and CEO of the San Diego company, said he sent Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta a letter shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Such a system would not prevent a hijacker from causing mayhem on the aircraft or exploding a device and destroying the aircraft in flight," the letter said, "but it would prevent him from flying the aircraft into a building or populated areas."

Cassidy said Thursday that a pilot aboard a commercial airliner could turn the plane's guidance over to ground controllers at the press of a button, preventing a hijacker--or anyone else aboard--from flying the plane.

That system also would keep people on the ground from taking control of a plane away from the pilot, Cassidy said, because the pilot would first have to give up control.

Aircraft anywhere in the nation could be remotely controlled from just one or two locations using satellite links, Cassidy said. Those locations could be heavily fortified against terrorists.

"The technology is available," Cassidy said. "We use it every day."

Copyright 2001, Chicago Tribune


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