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New plane doors would withstand gunfire

Although reinforced doors were installed after 9/11, they didn't prevent a passenger from breaking through to the cockpit.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002


Although reinforced doors were installed after 9/11, they didn't prevent a passenger from breaking through to the cockpit.

As United Airlines Flight 855 soared high over western Brazil, a passenger walked up the aisle and started banging on the cockpit door.

"Would you like a glass of water?" a flight attendant asked in an effort to interrupt the man, but he kept pounding and kicking.

The cockpit door on the Boeing 777 was reinforced with a steel bar, but the man managed to break through the bottom.

One of the pilots tried to pin him to the floor, but the man kept fighting. The pilot grabbed a crash ax and struck the man several times on the head. Finally, flight attendants and the captain managed to pull him out and restrain him.

The Feb. 7 incident reveals the surprising vulnerability of current cockpit doors, even though they were reinforced with steel bars after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Dennis Condon, an airline pilot from Palm Harbor, says the interim doors are still so weak that "my 11-year-old kid could break through." He says the flimsy doors are a major reason why pilots should be allowed to carry guns.

By April 9, those interim doors are supposed to be replaced with stronger models that can withstand gunfire or being rammed by a hijacker. But designing the new doors has turned out to be quite difficult.

They not only must keep hijackers and bullets from getting in, but they must allow air and pilots to get out. They must comply with federal safety rules for a sudden decompression and allow pilots to escape after a crash.

"The challenge is that they are opposing forces," says Tom McFarland, marketing vice president for C&D Aerospace, which is supplying new doors for Boeing's single-aisle planes. "You're making this super-strong door, but (pilots and air) have to be able to get out."

Pilots and airline officials have acknowledged that the interim doors are not strong enough, even the ones that were beefed up after the February incident on Flight 855.

The interim fix is "good, but it wasn't everything that needed to be done," says Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines.

The new generation of doors will be much stronger. Federal rules say the door must withstand "small arms fire," shrapnel from a grenade and being rammed by a 250-pound man.

"It's a very robust solution," says Clay McConnell, a spokesman for Airbus.

For several months, prototypes of the new doors have been subjected to torture tests.

Engineers have rammed them with heavy weights and fired bullets at them. Firefighters have chopped around the doors to make sure pilots could be rescued after a crash.

The main panels for the doors are made of a bullet-resistant material that "kind of acts like a catcher's mitt," says McFarland. "It just sucks the energy out of the bullet."

After bullets penetrated some of the early designs, C&D added steel reinforcements to the hinges, the door's latch and the peephole that allows pilots to look into the cabin.

The steel reinforcements protect against gunfire, but they added tremendous weight. Doors and frames for the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 that weighed 30 pounds will now be 110 pounds.

Instead of the simple doorknobs on the old models, the new doors will have sophisticated locks with electronic keypads that give pilots more control over whether to open the door. The locks enable pilots to refuse entry if they believe the plane is being hijacked. But the doors also have a safety feature that allows flight attendants to get in if both pilots are incapacitated.

Getting government approval has taken several months longer than expected because the designs are complicated and there are at least 28 different configurations for the wide range of planes.

Now that the first five models have been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, the airlines are facing a logistical challenge to get the new doors installed on the nearly 9,000 foreign and domestic planes that must be retrofitted. In addition, all newly manufactured planes will have the tougher doors starting this fall.

Several foreign carriers asked the FAA to extend the deadline. U.S. airlines also complained about the delay but said this week that they now believe they can meet the April 9 deadline without serious schedule disruptions.

The airlines are still looking for money to pay for the doors.

In a press release last September, the White House initially promised $500-million. But without explanation two months later, President Bush said he had promised only $300-million. Congress has since trimmed the figure to $97-million, which the airlines say is well short of the $250-million to $300-million they need. The doors cost $17,000 to $36,000 each, according to the FAA.

There's wide agreement that the new doors will be a big improvement, but officials acknowledge the plan has some limitations.

The Air Line Pilots Association has complained that the smallest commuter planes -- generally those with fewer than 20 seats -- are allowed to fly without a sturdy cockpit door. And pilots and safety experts say cockpits in all planes are potentially vulnerable because the bulkhead panel around the door has not been reinforced.

"We know how to do it right," says Doug Laird, a consultant who formerly worked as chief of security for Northwest Airlines. "The question is whether we're going to do it right or do sleight-of-hand with the American public."

The FAA says it is still studying whether to require the doors on small commuter planes. As for the vast majority of the airline fleet that needs the new doors, the FAA has acknowledged they are not a perfect solution.

In an internal memo obtained by the St. Petersburg Times, an FAA official wrote, "It is important to understand that the intent of this regulation is not to make the flight deck door impenetrable; rather, to deter attempts at entry and delay any attempts until other actions can be taken."

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