A recent report in USA Today heightened awareness of the possible theft and use of commercial airliners to attack the United States or other targets. This was followed up with another incident of a general aviation aircraft owned by Larry Glazer, who is prominent in the real estate world that was chased by F-15 fighters when the Glazer became unresponsive to air traffic control requests. Suddenly everyone was worried about the possibility that this was one of those potentially stolen aircraft. The aircraft eventually crashed near Jamaica, most likely due to the pilot experiencing hypoxia*.
Photographs were taken showing armed individuals at the airport in Tripoli who were apparently seizing several commercial airliners. So the question is, what is the possibility these planes could be used to crash into targets in the United States?
There are several elements at play here. First, ironically enough the United States WAS prepared to intercept aircraft inbound to the United States on 9/11. The old Cold War plan called for an Air Defense Identification Zone around the continental United States. Any aircraft not being identified properly would be intercepted by US fighter jets. This was a plan to try to prevent an aerial attack by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The plan was still in place on 9/11/01, and in fact two F-16 fighter aircraft departed from Rome, New York and were directed out over the eastern seaboard to prevent this type of attack (they quickly diverted to New York City).
The ADIZ remains in effect to this day as does the plan.
Let’s take a look at a couple threat vectors here:
An Attack from Overseas: if any of these airliners were flown from overseas they would be very low on fuel by the time they reached the United States. The 9/11 attacks relied on the airliners having very full fuel tanks to maximize the explosive force upon impact. Plus, commercial aircraft above 18,000 feet are required to be on a flight plan or else they are likely to be intercepted. If you try to fly the airliner lower, you will burn a lot of fuel and may not even be able to make the trip. Airplanes burn more fuel at lower altitudes which is why they travel above 30,000 feet when they are en route.
An Attack from Canada: Canada has similar airspace defense systems as the United States and we are all part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. So it would be very difficult to get a commercial airliner into Canada unnoticed, much less to take it off and fly to U.S. airspace unnoticed.
An Attack from Mexico, Central or South America: you first need to find someone to fly the plane, and that someone would have to be willing to crash the plane and die for your cause. The United States keeps a pretty comprehensive database on all of the people we have put through flight training (unlike before 9/11), and we are the top nation in the world when it comes to training pilots. So it is likely that the pilots would have been trained here and would be “on the grid.” Plus you would have to bypass numerous intelligence sources to stage the aircraft south of the border, and even then avoid radar surveillance along the southern border to the U.S. An airliner is an awfully large thing to side as opposed to a small general aviation making a drug run.
Probably the best protection here is our intelligence capabilities throughout the world, and the willingness on the U.S. government to send out Special Operations teams or use drones to spy on and if necessary, eliminate hostile operators. While the State Department has not confirmed that the airliners were stolen, you can be sure that our nation’s intelligence assets were alerted to the possibility. Moving around large aircraft is not as easy as it may seem either. Before most countries will let you fly through their airspace or into their airports, lots of preliminary paperwork must get filed unless you want to be intercepted by that nation’s fighter jets.
If there is a threat from this incident it is more likely a threat to our allies throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The way commercial airliners fly over states here in the U.S. is similar to the freedom commercial airlines have flying through and over various countries on the other side of the globe. As long as the paperwork is filled out, as I said before. The good news about paperwork and moving airplanes is that they require fuel, ground handling, maintenance and so forth – all of which leaves a footprint for investigators to follow.
Note: *Lesser known is that there was another incident a week earlier in which the pilot of a Cirrus SR22T became unresponsive and crashed about 50 miles southeast of Wallops Island, Virginia. In both of the latter cases, the pilots may have succumbed to hypoxia, which also killed golfer Payne Stewart and all others on board his Lear 35 in 1999.