Gunning for Terrorists

Quest:  Arming pilots with pistols raises a policy issue right off the bat: will they have a round in the chamber or not? Absent sturdy doors, pilots may have to be able to react quickly. Without a round in the chamber, they could be caught fumbling to pull back and release the slide. If a pistol, they'd have to draw and pull back the hammer to rotate the cylinder to one with a bullet in it.
    I think the idea of pilots with pistols is a fundamentally horrible idea.  As a minimum, we'll have more accidental discharges in the cockpit than foiled hijackings.
 Answer:  I agree. It displays a siege mentality. For the expenditure of a squad of mainly untrained men the terrorists have achieved more than any other other General in history has; by any other lengthy or costly campaign that I can think of. The very nature of a terror campaign is that it is meant to foster greater terror by seeding uncertainty and demonstrating how powerless governments are in defeating their ability to strike where and when they will. But if the Administration isn't waiting for the other shoe to drop, then they should be. History tells us that any effective terror campaign will always have that clincher follow-through that is intended to embed terror that much more deeply within the present generations. By doing so the terrorists will convince nations all over the world that even an outraged government on the defensive (or ostensibly their offensive) cannot protect people from their predations. I would expect that the next one will have a real twist in the tale - and perhaps be even more self-sacrificial. (sarin or nerve gas attack for instance). Thus far we have seen a meltdown in global markets, a virtual dissolution of the airline industry. Aircraft manufacturers (and their subsidiaries) are facing a downturn beyond their wildest nightmares. The bunker mentality has hit even here, with companies taking a worst case outlook on everything, laying off their workforces in great numbers (particularly the tourism industry). The whole military industrial complex will now have to re-orientate to a war or siege footing and fight for government contracts.  
I am seeing some very emotive antithetical reactions to the RoboLander concept inasmuch as the failings of security have been overall blamed upon an over-reliance upon technology for intelligence, surveillance and inspection. The NSA is now pointing out how much their tech edge has been eroded by technology and the staunch defenders of "civil liberties at any cost". I doubt that there will now be much real opposition to any extension of the FBI's Carnivore capabilities. The very human reaction is now to make up for perceived helplessness by going for physical intervention based upon the very reasonable assumption that no security system can screen a non-weapon carrying "sleeper" who has "no priors" with Justice, the INS or FBI.  So it's now to be Guns, Sky Marshals and sturdier doors. These are all gut reactions but predictable. I had one of the sub-editors of the Chicago Tribune onto me very early this morning wanting to know why the Sky Marshal Program was originally run down. I had read a little on its origins - but its fate was necessarily much more obscure. So I told him that, like with all security measures, the demise of the program to a token presence was all "in camera" stuff - but that he couldn't really go wrong if he went with:
"Sky Marshals were abandoned as a cost-cutting measure and justified because of an abatement of the perceived threat. So it's all about perceptions and the competitive cost-cutting that accompanied deregulation of US airlines 22 years ago. Deregulation simply means that "Whatever you feel you need to do and can justify as being sound business practise, you may do it, but tread cautiously - because the penalties for getting it wrong are severe."
The inference is of course that as long as airlines remain responsible for their own security it is another area where they could cut costs, and always will when the threat is no longer evident - as long as the ATA endorses and the regulator abides (or turns a blind eye). And I would guess that the FBI weren't even consulted.  But I think that after the first shots are fired airborne, accidental or intentional, whatever the outcome, those "bums on seats" that constitute the difference between profit and loss will fade ever further into that "fear of flying" background. All the up-beat talk about "airline safety never being better" has gone into the trash-bin of history. Aviation safety and security are now indivisibly inseparable. >>>


<<< The hair-splitting that is emerging in any professional pilot's consideration of the RoboLander concept is the essential difference between automation and autonomy. They are two different birds, although of the same feather. One misunderstanding that I have been trying to correct is that of the irrevocability of ceding (or losing) autonomous control.

as in:

B:  Question: (in part)

For instance" Even so, the required comms links and control-transfer decision logic only hint at the potential failure modes."  

Answer:  The answer to this of course is simply that if the aircraft loses its link with the controlling ground-station there would be a reversionary mode (i.e. there will and must always be one entity in 100% valid control, be it ground or air - but never a case of nil control - call it a fail-safe link if you like). How does a fail-safe link work? Think of it as a latching relay that will only allow the Ground station to retain control whilst the sat-based ground control uplink is both valid and in "trapping" mode. These fail-safe aspects need to be spelt out in order to help dispel the bogey-man aspect of the concept being viewed as ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL (which it IS NOT).



C:  Question (in part) "This complicated system would ( by design) have the ability to wrest control of the aircraft from the pilot irretrievably, since the design goal would be to not allow anyone in the cockpit to be able to regain control. "   

Answer: Yes
irretrievably, but NOT irrevocably (there is a difference). 

In other words, if the ground station wished, for good reason, they could relinquish control back to the pilot. For what reason you ask? The pilot may state that the hijackers have been overpowered, that it was really an air-rage incident and that he will now be inserting his personal code (after earlier having hit the BRB (big red button), albeit prematurely). It is a most difficult concept to overall get your mind around - isn't it? Might be too complex a concept perhaps? I doubt very much that the technical challenges are anywhere as complex as you portray them. After all the Global Hawk is commanded to carry out very complex surveillance functions and whilst in its mission, thousands of miles away, it can be totally reprogrammed and, in future, even mid-air refuelled.

But you have to look to the future and ask yourself whether you would ever want to be in GW Bush or Dick Cheney's position and have to order the shoot-down of an enroute A380 that was deviating from course inexplicably - but carrying 550 people. Options to avoid ever facing that prospect must be explored. The War against Terrorism will never have an assured end, simply because as a form of warfare it is so very effective. After bin Laden and Al Quedda there will come others. I suppose we could point the finger at Richard Butler, after all he was the expert on weapons of Mass Destruction. But like so many experts he too was blinkered to the motivated innovativeness of the terrorist.
Quest- How far should we go down this path *and* is it worth it - or is it a snow job from the tech community with no real tangible benefit? :-)

Answer: It's no snow job. It is simple application of information technology from a network perspective. The other applications of information technology that the industry has benefited from are such things as:

A.  -The closed loop autopilot shows what you can do with information about vehicle position, rates, and accels. GPS provides the most accurate position information.

B.  - The FMS shows what you can do by integrating airframe, flight plan, and enroute information in a judicious way.

C.  - The GPWS/EGPWS added terrain information to the picture (pardon the pun).

D.  - The windshear systems (reactive and predictive) added severe weather info to enhance "airmass awareness".

E.  - Engine and Cargo Fire detection systems provide some pretty useful information that you've got a problem onboard that needs to be handled.

Global ATM and "Free Flight" (yes, I still use that term, because I think it does express a good goal) is simply the next evolution (and level of integration) of real-time information into the "picture of choices" available to the captain. The benefits of integrating the airplane and its systems with the entire ATC network in real-time will turn out to be every bit as great as many of those listed above.


Quest:   I need to ask Airbus about stun guns and their potential impact in their Fly-by-Wire (FBW) aircraft..
Answer: Need to refer this to the electrical engineer who first raised the question of the use of the fuselage as an earth return medium. In my view it's likely a given that the low amp / high voltage TASER stun gun would be quite disruptive to sensitive electronics if they were to come in contact with the fuselage skin or any other (which means all) bonded component. Given that 100% bonding is always required in airframe metallic structures, it's hard to predict any definite effect - but I would guess that a post-TASER FBW Airbus would be a markedly different proposition to a pre-TASER one - and the variations wouldn't be along the lines that any of the Airbus systems designers had in mind. Elizabeth Scarry could have a field day postulating with that proposition. The first thing that comes to mind is that you would trip flight control computers and fry CPU's. LED's (light emitting diodes), LCD's (Liquid Crystal Displays) would be lost permanently so that the actual status of systems would be indeterminate. Pilot's VDU's would probably be lost and basically the "glass" of a glass cockpit would become a dark and empty vessel. Solenoids and relays, not being as sensitive to voltage, would likely continue to do their duty. 

So you may well end up with a perfectly running vehicle, status unknown, but with no flight control.

Note: Many weeks after this question was asked (by many people in a position to ask), no answer has yet been forthcomin from Airbus)


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