Sunday, September 14, 2014

Another villain's thoughts on skyjacking

Another villain wrote in to comment on the skyjacking caper from yesterday. Here's the remarks, with some editing.

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The midair heist described earlier has several flaws. I will analyze the objectives of the heist, the problems the heist attempts to solve, the flaws in the heist, and solutions to those flaws which satisfy  the original objectives.

The objectives:
  1. Secure the contents of an airliner with minimal risk of interception by law enforcement.
  2. Minimize the ability of law enforcement to pursue you.
The problems it tries to solve:
  1. The villain doesn't have to make it through the security checkpoint at the airport.
  2. Minimize risk to the civilians and crew on the airliner.
  3. Mitigate risks to one's henchmen.
  4. Minimize property damage for the airline.
While admirable, points 2 and 3 aren't necessary if you don't take the approach detailed in the original caper. Point 4 is entirely unstated, but implicit in the caper - you safely land the airliner in an airport, allowing it to be recovered for reuse.

The flaws in the caper:
  1. Catching up with the airliner in flight is entirely unnecessary and risky.
  2. You spend a tremendous amount of time on the ground. Your henchmen are loading cargo onto trucks. You can increase speed and risk at a linear rate: add more henchmen. You are more vulnerable to leaks and logistical difficulties with more men. Either way, you are exposed at your weakest moment.
  3. The airliner itself is expendable for your purposes, but your caper ignores that fact.
The solutions to these flaws:

The biggest obstacle to any sort of caper is the disposition of the crew and passengers. This obstacle has two obvious solutions:
  1. Kill the passengers. This is generally not acceptable supervillain protocol.
  2. Hijack planes that aren't carrying passengers.
I hate to be the one to point this out, but many planes carry valuable cargo and no passengers. UPS, FedEx, and Emirates SkyCargo are the biggest shippers today. You should be able to obtain their schedules with a minimum of effort. Remember also that passengers are dead weight for your purposes. Passenger aircraft are unlikely to carry property significantly more profitable than cargo aircraft, unless you know of a particularly rich passenger on board. In that case, your caper is a theft or kidnapping from an airplane, and not the one described.

Sneaking onto an airplane isn't tremendously difficult while it's on the ground. If you lack any sort of stealth, but you can survive flight at high altitudes, stow yourself in a container and just ship yourself aboard the flight you want to hit. In these cases you avoid depressurizing the cabin in flight.

The heist faces another challenge: fend off law enforcement while unloading the plane. This is a problem because air traffic control is capable of tracking your plane on radar while it's in flight. Most supervillains are not pilot enough to avoid this, but you can crash the plane in a desert or underwater or any number of other places where law enforcement can't effectively reach you in time. Remember, you don't care about the state of the plane if you're after its cargo. You need only provide a way to get the cargo away from your crash site, which I concede will be more difficult in less accessible crash sites. That said, law enforcement will face the same difficulty of access that you do, and you have the advantage of foreknowledge.

Pick a crash site within range of the plane. A Boeing 757F's range is about 1900 miles, and other cargo planes have a similar range.

You must evacuate the crew before crashing the plane, either by giving them parachutes (they will have some on board anyway) or by using your own flying powers (remember that having these powers was a prerequisite for the original caper).

The economics of the caper:

An airliner is not a cheap thing. A Boeing 757F's unit cost ranges from $65 million to $80 million according to public records. That same plane is rated for 60,000 pounds of cargo. The value of that cargo is highly variable, but in general it must be fully loaded and carry cargo worth $1000 per pound on average to be worth the airplane. You are unlikely to get the full value of the plane because shipping companies amortize the value of the plane over time. That said, simply holding the jet itself hostage would be a very viable caper, assuming you can safely receive the ransom payment.