knives hard to detect, experts say
Eric Malnic and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Special to the Tribune
Published October 19, 2001
Airport security in the United States, strengthened
to repel terrorists since last month, may still be no match
for the Busse Stealth Hawk knife, marketed in a weapons
catalog as "invisible
to metal detectors."
The knife is among a class of composite and ceramic blades
difficult or impossible to detect with current airport security
equipment, according to security experts and knife manufacturers.
Such knives, sold openly and legally through
retail stores, mail-order catalogs and on the Internet,
expose a major loophole in the efforts to prevent a recurrence
of the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings, which apparently were
executed with small box cutters and knives previously thought
Since the attacks,
the Federal Aviation Administration has rescinded a rule
allowing knives with blades shorter than 4 inches aboard
flights. Now, "cutting instruments of any kind
and composition," either carried by passengers or in
their carry-on luggage, are prohibited.
But enforcing that new rule relies on equipment that is
largely ineffective against non-metallic knives that are
as sharp and as hard as steel. FAA officials acknowledge
the system's vulnerability to plastic weapons but also insist
security nevertheless is adequate.
Congressional and Bush administration officials have suggested
that terrorists may have carried plastic weapons when they
took over the four jetliners by attacking the flight crews,
though whether they were using anything like the brawny
Stealth Hawk is unknown.
The Stealth Hawk is made of a high-tech, non-metallic laminate
known as MP45. Its
41/2-inch, serrated blade is so strong it can be "pounded
through steel drums, car doors, wood planks etc. without
damage," according to a catalog issued by Shomer-Tec,
a mail-order company in Bellingham, Wash.
The purchase and possession of the Stealth Hawk and other
similar "undetectable" knives are legal in most
No license, special permit or identification is needed to
purchase one. To get a Stealth Hawk, a customer need only
mail off a check for $137, plus a $7 handling fee, and Shomer-Tec
will ship it via United Parcel Service.
"There is no place in our society for a weapon like
this," said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National
Transportation Safety Board. "Shame on the person who
is marketing this. He puts all of us at risk."
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of a House subcommittee
on aviation, said last week that the hijackers "may
have been armed with hardened plastic knives in addition
to the box cutters reported by a passenger on one of the
"Unfortunately," Mica said, "screening
technology required by the FAA does not detect plastic
A spokesman for Mica said his remarks were "based on
information provided in a briefing by the administration."
Three weeks earlier, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta
said: "For the first time, we had a commercial airliner
turned into a lethal weapon. People boarded with plastic
knives that can be as sharp as metal knives." Mineta
subsequently has declined to comment further on the subject.
Plastic weapons represent a tough challenge to existing
security. Two electronic devices currently are used at airports
to screen passengers: a metal detector and an X-ray machine.
Rebecca Trexler acknowledged this week that existing metal
detectors are not effective against plastic weapons. However,
she said that such knives in carry-on baggage could be detected
by airport X-ray screeners, who "are trained to detect
all sorts of guns, knives and explosives. - but they'd not
be detected if carried personally by individuals".
Trexler said that FAA Administrator Jane Garvey "believes
we have adequate security in place right now, given the
heightened threats, but we will be looking at systems constantly
to see how they might be improved."
Trexler said one of these is a "back-scatter"
probe that uses harmless, low-level radiation to paint a
detailed picture of what a passenger might be carrying beneath
Eric Malnic and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
are staff reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune