[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
In the past ten years a great deal of analysis has been performed regarding the attacks on 9/11. By any metric the method used by Al Qaeda to hijack and weaponize commercial aircraft was both effective and horrifying. There is general agreement that such attacks must never be allowed to happen again, and a number of different proposals have been made towards this end. Proposals regarding the operation of airplanes and security prior to boarding have abounded, but when it comes to solutions via engineered redesign, aircraft has remained largely untouched. Engineering professionals have largely only been called on to provide assistance for design efforts related to hardening buildings against attack.

Oh, sure – blame the victim. Putting the onus for preventing aircraft attacks on the targets is an insult to the dignity of architecture. Next you're going to tell me that a building's façade was overly provocative, and that if designers were really sensible they'd know not to tempt fate by putting a skyscraper in a downtown district. For shame!

In this white paper we shall redirect the focus of redesign efforts squarely where they belong: on the aircraft themselves. By redesigning airplanes with the current times in mind, we can not only improve civilian safety, but we can empower high-rise structures to fearlessly reclaim the business district.


One of the most important aspects of an airplane is that it is hard. The planes that struck the towers of the World Trade Center were able to deliver their payload of explosive fuel to the core of the buildings because the structure of the plane was capable of punching through the skin of the skyscraper. The early designers of planes made them rigid for a reason – not only did they need to preserve a fixed shape during flight to maintain good aerodynamics, but there was also a safety concern. Nobody wanted a plane to hit a duck mid-flight and disintegrate.

Nobody until now, that is – and that's not just because a duck smashing a large commercial jet would be hilarious. With the attacks of 9/11 in mind, we need to stop prioritizing the lives of passengers above other concerns, such as the ability of a plane to damage important structures and take the lives of those on the ground. A plane made out of Styrofoam wouldn't crash through a building; it would vaporize on the outside of it. It might also vaporize if it were caught in a hailstorm, or stabbed with a pencil, but these are manageable risks. Frankly, human flight *should* be dangerous. It's not *right* that people should be able to get on a plane and get off four hours later on the far side of the country, and never once believe that they might die.

Building fragile aircraft carries numerous advantages. Not only would it thwart attacks on buildings, but other forms of hijackings or bombings would also lose their efficacy. Nobody would be impressed if a bomber blew up a plane made out of balsa wood, because on a typical trans-Atlantic flight there would be about a 1 in 10 chance that you'd die anyway. There's also the fact that dangerous air travel will disincentivize terrorists using planes to travel around the world to do evil; their lives as suicide bombers would be too precious to throw away on risky ventures such as taking a plane. And there's always the risk that a well-executed terrorist plot to destroy a plane will simply be blamed on bad luck, negating any press their efforts might generate.

Another thing that made the 9/11 planes dangerous was that they were carrying a large amount of fuel, and this payload was able to remain more or less intact until it was inside the building. Strategies must be considered for preventing the fuel from getting in where it can do its damage. One way to do this would be to provide a bump trigger on the plane's nose that will either dump or detonate its fuel. If a plane's nose displaces three feet inwards, that plane is crashing hard, and everybody onboard is likely going to die anyway. So why not squirt the fuel out the back end of the engines and tanks, instead of letting it blow up and hurt people outside the plane? Another method would be to make all airplane flights short hops, and require people who need to fly long distances to change planes early and often. Yes, it will take longer to cross America by plane than it does by train, but no one plane will have enough fuel to blow up a mailbox, let alone an office building. Finally, I'll just point out that a very simple solution to this part of the problem would exist if we would only research two little words: 'hybrid' 'plane'.

Now, let us not forget the human element. Planes are attractive targets for hijackers because they allow extremists to maximize their suicide-attack damage while minimizing their own discomfort. Ah, but what if we dehumanize conditions on planes? Even further than we already have? Imagine an aircraft's reclining seats covered entirely with the skins of pigs, an animal considered unclean by devout members of Islam. Next, at boarding we require all passengers to paint the backs of their hands with menstrual fluid. Personally, I believe would-be terrorists would find this too nauseating to be worth the trouble. Alternatively, we could simply transform air travel to follow the shipping container paradigm. Passengers and their luggage are simply dumped into darkened windowless cubes which are commoditized for shipment. You won't know if you're flying to Newark, taking the train to Newark, or being lugged to Newark by Bactrian camel; all you know is that you're going to Newark, eventually, and you might even reach it if you bring enough water and a container to hold your urine.

The most important single thing that could be done to make airplanes less dangerous, however, would be to slow them down. The energy of a plane is proportional to the square of its velocity, so even a small decrease in a plane's speed would yield a smaller threat to targets. Slowing planes down is hard, according to some experts, because a minimum speed is necessary to maintain lift. I say, these people are not doing their homework. Yes, lift is proportional to the square of velocity – but it's also proportional to air density. Clearly, we can slow down planes if we merely increase the average density of air. At sea level air's density is around 1.2 kilograms per cubic meter. Halon 1211, the fire extinguishing agent, has a density closer to 1.8 kilograms. New production of Halon 1211 has recently been outlawed – something about destroying the ozone layer or some similar weaksauce argument – but there are still large stockpiles of it all around the country. If we were to release all our Halon 1211 at the same time, and pour more into our atmosphere as soon as we could generate it, we could raise the average density of air and keep lift stable at lower speeds. We would also all start talking with really deep voices, which would be awesome all by itself.

I will conclude by stating that planes are dangerous and should be destroyed. Failing that, planes must be carefully redesigned to make them slower, weaker and more annoying. While this may aggravate aerophiles, the military or people who hate America, this is the only reliable mechanism for preserving building safety and thwarting violent extremists. Leonardo da Vinci famously said "For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return". With all due respect to the man responsible for many great inventions such as the helicopter, the tank and homosexuality, nowadays we're not looking up because we want to fly again. We're looking out for planes that might fall on us. We've been there – and we have no desire to return.

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hwrnmnbsol

September 2012

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