Fourth, the TSA’s team assumed that the terrorists would shoot their missile at a plane as it took off, rather than as it began to land, since a plane taking off is burdened with tens of thousands of gallons of highly flammable jet fuel. This limits how quickly the plane can ascend, and also constrains its maneuverability, which would make it difficult for a pilot to turn around and land the plane at the same airport from which it took off if it were struck. And though it’s unlikely a strike would be accurate enough to hit the full fuel tank, flames could reach and ignite it. By contrast, if a plane was hit by a heat-seeking shoulder-fired missile as it was landing, the projectile would most likely strike near an engine, which the pilot could potentially adjust to and still land the plane with relative safety.
These four assumptions about how terrorists would likely think and behave limited the areas of focus, because the shooting zones were assumed to require a concealed location with an entrance and an exit that was within missile range of a plane taking off. It turned out that among the best and most likely shooting zones for JFK International Airport were the many cemeteries in Queens, which tend to occupy high ground and have few visual obstructions between them and the runways. For LaGuardia, a high-performance speedboat sitting in the open waters of Flushing Bay might be an attractive option, as would be the Trump golf course then under construction at Ferry Point in the Bronx.
The team’s work was used to inform and refine the crisis-response plan that would be activated if intelligence reporting indicated an active terrorist plot. The presumption was that the air-traffic controllers in the airport’s control tower would be able to roughly identify the origin of a missile launch from the smoke trail it left behind. The responding law-enforcement officers would then know, based upon the initial work of the assessment team, where exactly, given the missile’s estimated origin, a shooting team was likely to be located. Moreover, given that the team of attackers would likely be well-armed and trying to get the shooter out of the area, the responding officers would also expect to receive gunfire and would focus on the previously identified getaway routes.
These assessments were performed in the mid-2000s, but annual reviews have shown that the geography and physics of shooting a missile at a plane taking off have remained the same. The much greater concern today would be a MANPADS attack against a flight that originated overseas.
In the past 10 years, the TSA has led efforts to conduct similar assessments at the roughly 275 foreign airports representing the last point of departure for nonstop flights into the United States. Even so, the potential for such an attack on U.S. airports remains as real as it was in 2002, because thousands of portable missile systems remain in the hands of non-state actors. Moreover, shoot-downs of helicopters and transportation planes have increased in recent years, though, so far, only in overseas conflict zones such as Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Egypt. During one four-month period in 2014, separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine shot down 12 Ukrainian military aircraft with surface-to-air missiles even before the July 17 downing of Malaysia Airlines 17, which killed 298 passengers and crew. Those lethal missiles were fired mostly from sophisticated, radar-guided, self-propelled missile systems that probably could not be smuggled into the United States undetected.