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SLUG: 7-35281 How Hard to Fly a Jetliner?


TYPE=English Programs Feature








INTRO: One of the most horrifying aspects of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D-C, was the use of hijacked commercial airliners, with scores of passengers and full loads of jet fuel aboard, as awesomely destructive bombs. The jets that crashed into their targets were Boeing 767's and a smaller 757. A fourth jetliner, a 757, crashed near Pittsburgh before it could reach its intended target, believed now to have been either the White House or the U-S President's own aircraft, Air Force One. U-S investigators have learned that some of the hijackers aboard each of the planes had been taking commercial flight training courses in the United States over the past year. And flight training videos for the Boeing aircraft, dubbed in Arabic, were found among items reportedly left behind by the suspected hijackers.

But William Wimsatt, a licensed pilot and aviation lawyer in Los Angeles, tells VOA's Rob Sivak (in a phone interview September 12th) that the terrorists would not have needed much training to successfully commandeer those Boeing jetliners:


WW: Well, surprisingly, not that much skill may have been required, although it certainly would require some prior planning and some training.

One of the first things you would have to do -- if you weren't familiar with the (Boeing) 757 or the 767 -- is to locate and review the manuals on the operation of the aircraft, which are basically how-to manuals. In other words, 'the button is located here and you push it for this purpose.'

RS: That information would be generally available? Boeing publishes these sorts of guides? These are not 'high-security' types of documents, would they be?

WW: No they are not. They are available on the commercial market for anyone who wants to learn how to operate a 757 or 767. They are easily obtainable, they don't cost a lot of money and you can even buy them on CD-ROMs and put them on your personal computer. If you wanted to practice what you had learned by reading the manuals, you could -- by way of a simulator -- practice it on your personal computer, using the 757 or 767 as the backdrop for your practice simulation in other words, using the instrumentation and the controls as they would appear in the cockpit of most of those aircraft.

Plus, you have to consider something else. These hijackings occurred on what I understand was a nice day you know, clear weather. Once the airplane has taken off and has been established en route or established in the climb it is normally being flown on an auto(matic) pilot. The flight management control system is basically a computer which keeps the airplane on course, on altitude, and schedules the fuel and the configuration of the wings, such as the plane would need to fly anywhere -- by itself. So it's a very sophisticated autopilot, and one that, if it's already on, you don't even have to learn how to turn it on. All you have to do is program it to take you where you want to go. So one of the easiest ways to get the aircraft or this human bomb -- to the target would be to use the steering control or knob on the automatic pilot and steer it in the direction you wanted it to head. You would not even have to put your feet on the rudders or your hands on the ailerons and the elevators, on the controls.

The other option is almost just as simple -- many people would consider it even easier -- and that is to just turn off the autopilot, and simply put your feet on the rubber pedals and put your hands on the control stick or wheel and steer it wherever you want. Whether you are in a very small airplane like a Cessna 150, or a very large airplane like the 757, it's surprisingly easy to point in the direction you want it to go.

RS: That is one of the questions a lot of people have been asking -- how much skill would it take, once you sat down at the pilot's seat or the co-pilot's seat and had the controls in your hands, how much pilot "savvy" would be necessary to get this thing to fly right into a building like the World Trade Center Towers or the Pentagon?

WW: Not as much as you would expect. In fact, very little. It's basically about like driving an automobile. You steer it. You know, if you had taken the time to practice on a personal computer, the simulation programs for operating an aircraft or that aircraft, you would be well prepared to do exactly what they did (September 11th).

RS: That's a frightening thought.

WW: Well, it's frightening, and what immediately comes to mind is how are we going to prevent this from occurring in the future. What do we do from here?

RS: Does anything suggest itself to you as a way of "locking out" the kind of criminal commandeering that we've just seen? Is there any way to prevent that, do you think, through cockpit controls or some kind of intelligence within the plane itself?

WW: There aren't any airliners flying today that can be remotely controlled or that could be set up to be remotely controlled. And that may not be the answer.

I think the most immediate answer might be the placement of air marshals on board the airplane to secure or protect the flight crew from terrorists who want to use the airplane as a bomb. Of course, they are not going to be able to protect all the passengers or to prevent all hostage situations, but they can certainly protect the flight crew enough in the cockpit to prevent the airplanes from duplicating the horror of yesterday (September 11th).

RS: William Wimsatt, an aviation expert. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.

WW: You're welcome.


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