Plane ballistics tests turn up heat on gun-toting bodyguards
It was one of the most spectacular accidents in aviation history - a Boeing 737-200 flying at an altitude of more than 23,000 feet peeled open like a tin of sardines, sucking a flight attendant out to her death, after a section of the roof ruptured.
The drama of Aloha Airlines Flight 243, which managed to land without further fatalities, despite having its roof torn off from behind the cockpit to the wings, still holds important lessons 19 years on.
According to experts studying the effects of firearms on board planes, what happened during the Honolulu-bound flight accurately reflects what might happen to an aircraft fuselage if a bullet from an unrestricted, powerful handgun was fired inside the passenger cabin.
And while Hong Kong aviation officials refuse to discuss their reasons, it's a scenario they may have considered before a subtle but significant change in their decision to allow armed VIP bodyguards on board Dragonair planes leased to Air China on routes within the mainland.
When Dragonair pilots protested six weeks ago at being instructed to allow armed bodyguards on so-called wet-leased flights, the Civil Aviation Department (CAD) stood firmly by its decision to make an exemption to normal rules banning all weapons from Hong Kong-registered planes.
The exemption, granted last year, was necessary so that Dragonair could 'meet the requirements of the mainland's authorities', the CAD said in a terse statement, refusing to talk to pilots or their representatives about fears that guns were a threat to aircraft safety.
In the weeks since, however, the CAD has decided to review the situation and has gone as far as to indicate that it may withdraw its permission for armed bodyguards unless Dragonair's management and pilots can agree a protocol.
In a letter to the Hong Kong Airlines Pilots' Association (ALPA), a senior CAD official, writing on behalf of director-general Norman Lo Shung-man, said: 'This department will once again approach the management of Dragonair urging them to reconsult their staff in respect of procedures relating to the carriage of armed bodyguards on board of aircraft that are wet-leased to Air China.
'The matter will then be reviewed and evidence of consensus between Dragonair and their employees on the issue will be one of the most important factors to be considered in allowing a continuation of the practice.'
The CAD's change of heart has caused quite a stir within both the ALPA and the Dragonair Pilots Association, one of whose members remarked: 'How can they hope to reach a consensus when the view of pilots is that there should be categorically no guns on board?'
Mr Lo refused to discuss the change in the CAD's position or to say what had influenced it.
Some of the most detailed research into the effects of guns on board planes has been conducted in government-appointed laboratories in Britain. Ballistics and aviation experts have looked at the effects of firing a restricted, lower firepower gun, such as the ones carried by US air marshals on board a plane, compared with the effect of firing an unrestricted pistol, such as the military-issue QSSZ-92 revolvers carried by VIP bodyguards on the mainland.
According to a source familiar with the test results: 'The handgun and ammunition used by US air marshals can potentially kill an adversary, but the bullet lacks the penetrating power to exit from the body. A properly aimed shot will therefore lodge in the victim's body and not cause any damage to the aircraft.
'The weapons used by the Chinese bodyguards are considerably more powerful than these weapons and will certainly go through a body and still have sufficient penetration power to punch a hole in the aircraft.
'What's more, the exit wound from a bullet such as used in these guns is considerably bigger than the entry wound because the nose of the bullet flattens out - so the hole punched in the side of an aircraft by a bullet which has already passed through a body would be bigger than the calibre of the round would suggest.'
When a bullet penetrates a pressurised aircraft cabin the effect would be severe, similar to what happened to the 1988 Aloha Airlines flight, where, rather than a bullet, a combination of metal fatigue and salt-water damage caused a tiny crack to open in the fuselage with catastrophic consequences.
'After a hole is punched in the fuselage, the pressurisation will tend to bend outwards the sides of the hole, which will then be caught by the airflow,' the source said of the British findings, which have not been made public but which have been shared with some aviation authorities in other countries.
'The damaged panel will then peel back. So, from a small hole, you end up with a large hole ripped in the fuselage, which will be at least big enough to allow nearby passengers not strapped in to be blown out through it.'
To the considerable relief of Dragonair pilots, the possibility of one of their flights ever being in such a scenario because of a shootout on board appears to be receding - even before the CAD's change of heart.
Dragonair said in a statement yesterday: 'Under the terms of our agreement with Air China, two of the four aircraft wet-leased to them were returned to Dragonair last month and are back in service with us. A third aircraft is scheduled to be returned in July this year, and the remaining one in April next year.'
A spokeswoman for Dragonair confirmed that there were 'no further plans ... at this time' to wet-lease - providing an aircraft with at leas some crew - and any more planes to fly on the mainland.
The issue, in other words, may resolve itself. However, both the ALPA and the Dragonair Pilots' Association are keen to ensure that a protocol is established before bodyguards with a mission to protect a single VIP rather than passengers in general are allowed to carry guns on board Hong Kong-registered planes.
'We are disappointed that we haven't been able to get a meeting with the CAD to discuss this directly,' said Hong Kong ALPA president David Newbery.
'They are acting as if it isn't anything to do with them. In our view, they are abrogating their responsibility to control policy on these matters.'