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Is Bombproofing Airliners Technically Feasible?

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As Egyptian investigators come closer to acknowledging the possibility that an on-board bomb took down the Metrojet Airbus A-321 that crashed on the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 31, killing all 224 persons on board, the question I’m being asked repeatedly is, “can an airline cargo hold be made bombproof?”

This is a question that has hung over aviation since the bombing of Pan Am 103 almost 27 years ago. That disaster bears many similarities to the crash in the Sinai. The crash of Pan Am 103 involved a Boeing 747 aircraft en route from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s JFK International Airport. It was in level cruise flight at 31,000 feet over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland when it disappeared from radar at 7:03 pm local time. Local townspeople later reported hearing a loud bang at about this time. Shortly thereafter, according to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (the UK equivalent of the NTSB), several primary radar returns were seen falling downwind of where the aircraft was last seen on radar. Those images were in fact radar returns of the aircraft breaking up in flight.

Pieces of the wreckage fell mostly on the town of Lockerbie and its surrounding countryside, killing 11 people on the ground.  All 243 passengers and 16 crewmembers on board Pan Am 103 died in the crash, including 189 Americans.  Of those passengers, 35 were Syracuse University students returning home after a semester’s study abroad in London. The UK accident investigators determined that the cause of the in-flight break-up of the Boeing 747 was an improvised explosive device loaded in a luggage container on the left side of the forward cargo hold.

According to the accident report, “the direct explosive forces produced a large hole in the fuselage structure and disrupted the main cabin floor.  Major cracks continued to propagate….The indirect explosive effects produced significant structural impacts in areas remote from the site of the explosion.”  The combined direct and indirect impacts resulted in destruction of the forward fuselage’s structural integrity.  The nose and flight deck detached from the aircraft in a matter of seconds and thereafter the aircraft disintegrated as it plunged nearly vertically from 19,000 to 9,000 feet.

The information available in the Metrojet crash indicates that the aircraft broke apart at a similar altitude (approximately 33,000 feet) and that the tail section broke off, with the aircraft plummeting to the ground. After the Pan Am 103 disaster, the UK accident board made 5 safety recommendations, four of them regarding flight and cockpit voice recorders.  The last was: “Airworthiness Authorities and aircraft manufacturers undertake a systematic study with a view to identifying measures that might mitigate the effects of explosive devices and improve the tolerance of aircraft structures and systems to explosive damage.”

Twenty-seven years later what has been done to prevent another Lockerbie? While quite a number of steps have been taken in terms of security measures to prevent explosives from getting on board an aircraft, the truth is not much has or can be done to harden aircraft against explosives once they do get on board. This is true despite the extensive research efforts of airline manufacturers and academia into how airplanes break up in flight and what could be done to mitigate or eliminate that risk.

Most of the research efforts by the FAA and others in the years following the Lockerbie crash involved hardening cargo containers so that explosive devices placed in luggage would not have the devastating impact that brought down Pan Am 103.  While several containers proved effective at stopping at least some explosive devices, the containers were not economically viable, both because of their weight and the cost of retrofitting ground baggage handling systems. They have only been used on a fairly limited basis by a small number of commercial airliners around the world.

Whether cargo holds can be made more bomb-resistant won’t help unless aircraft fuselage can be made similarly resistant.  Unfortunately, nothing can realistically be done to harden the fuselage because the weight of the materials would significantly restrict the number of passengers and cargo that could be carried, making airline operations prohibitively expensive.

As with Pan Am 103, and now likely Metrojet 9268, the best way to keep airliners safe from explosive devices is to keep those devices from getting on the aircraft in the first place.  And that is no small task given the security vulnerabilities that still exist throughout the world.

 

This article was written by John Goglia from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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