How worried should we be about shoulder-launched missiles being fired at civilian aircraft?

Q: How worried should we be about shoulder-launched missiles being fired at civilian aircraft? Is there any chance the airlines will install measures to defend against them? And some reports say that if one of these missiles hit a plane, it would not necessarily crash. Is this true?

This has been a hot topic in recent weeks, prompted in part by a Salon article detailing possible, even imminent, attacks using shoulder-fired missiles. A threat exists, sure, but a somewhat overstated one. All in all it deserves no more concern than other scenarios, such as the smuggling of bombs or explosives aboard flights.

Technical shortcomings of these missiles also reduces their appeal to terrorists. As one ex- military airline pilot puts it: “These things are very unlikely to bring down a commercial jet. They are difficult to use and leave a visible trail, and when fired at short range they are unlikely to achieve full performance in time to score anything other than a close miss. Seagulls flying off the end of the runway present a more likely and effective threat.” It’s worth noting that two such rockets were fired at the Arkia 757 taking off from Mombasa in November, and both missed. (And we already did the seagull thing, so don’t ask.)

This isn’t to say we should ignore the threat because it probably won’t cause a crash, but the above points are, at least, a deterrent. Meanwhile, equipping every plane for every conceivable means of attack would be impractical, expensive, and even then only partially effective, so I don’t advocate the installation of flares or the redesign of components. Whether or not a single hit would bring down an airplane depends on a great many things.

What I found most provocative about the Salon piece was the suggestion of these weapons being used domestically. It has been my hunch that any future airliner attack would involve an overseas target. Since US carriers no longer serve any destinations in the Middle East or Africa (with the exception of Tel Aviv), I began to look toward South America and the Caribbean as easier-access targets than Europe or Asia. A domestic shootdown would be a disturbing event indeed.

But I wouldn’t lose sleep over it, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend driving instead of flying.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.