8
$\begingroup$

Most airplanes, when taking off or landing, are in range of small arms fire, i.e. your every day handgun.

Is it possible to take down a commercial airliner by shooting at it with a handgun? Would one shot be enough, or would several be needed?

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This may be a bit broad. The weakest link is probably the pilots, and it doesn't even require a gun. $\endgroup$ – fooot Mar 28 '15 at 3:06
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ My question isn't, "what's the easiest way to take down an airliner". It's quite specific. $\endgroup$ – Sandy Mar 28 '15 at 3:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Interesting read, however not a modern commercial airline. $\endgroup$ – Sandy Mar 28 '15 at 3:21
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @SteveV.: Interesting link, but poorly researched. When the Italians attacked the Turks in Lybia in 1913, the Turkish side hired French pilots with their planes to fight the Italians. It was then when the first shots between planes were fired, and aerial victories scored. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 28 '15 at 4:48
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I vote to reopen the question, while the answers may vary, it is quite possible to provide an academic answer. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Mar 29 '15 at 0:51
14
$\begingroup$

shooting at it with a handgun

That's really going to depend on the handgun.

James Bond carries a Walther PPK - this is a .32 calibre popgun with rather limited use outside of a small office. Direct hits on people are usually survivable unless you take a round in the heart or brain. Chances of even hitting an airliner during takeoff or approach are zero - it simply doesn't have the range, and that tiny subsonic projectile will get deflected by the aircraft's wake.

Skipping the middle range and going straight for the hand-cannons, we might get somewhere with a Desert Eagle or a Smith & Wesson 500. Remember the posters for the first Terminator movie? The one where The Ah-nuld is wearing sunglasses and holding up some light artillery? These are bigger. At close range, both guns can crack an aluminum engine block1 and are one-shot kills on most things smaller than a rhino. Hitting an approaching widebody isn't all that difficult - it's coming toward you, the angle isn't changing, and it's a rather big target.

But aircraft are large, complex systems with a lot of redundancy, so in order to actually take it down we have to hit something critical. Hitting a 767 right in the nose will destroy the weather radar and (maybe, if it has enough energy left) poke a 1/2 inch hole in the forward bulkhead. No one will notice. The flight-deck windows are rather strong, apparently a police sniper tried to take out a hijacker on the flight deck way back in the 1970s and the rifle round (far more powerful) just pock-marked the window. Several hostages were promptly shot as a result.

The best shot (ha!) is the engines. They don't like ingesting bits of metal but just hitting the fan won't do much. You would have to get very lucky to get the round into the engine itself, where it will promptly do a lot of very expensive damage.

But even if one engine literally goes boom it still won't crash the plane. Pilots practice for an engine failure on takeoff all the time, and an engine failure on landing is almost a non-event.

Hydraulic lines for control surfaces are certainly sensitive, but they are well buried in the structure and there are several independent systems. You won't get them all.

So, in conclusion, handguns are sufficiently ineffective at bringing down large aircraft that we really don't need to be concerned about them. There's a reason air forces around the world prefer missiles or 20mm cannon2 for this sort of thing. Geese, however, are quite effective if released in sufficient numbers along the takeoff path. Rather noisy though - you won't hide 500 of them anywhere near an airport without someone noticing.


  1. Internet legends of a .50 cal being able to kill a truck refer to the MUCH larger .50 BMG round, available in explosive and armour-piercing and rightfully categorized as a first-class military weapon.

  2. The projectile's the size of your thumb, and the gun fires 6,000 rounds per minute. It'll do your plane like a chainsaw.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The Walther PPK projectile gets deflected by the aircraft's wake? Come on! Check your facts! $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 28 '15 at 9:39
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ It's tiny - 5 grams. And it's subsonic leaving the barrel. I don't mean it's going to bounce off like the Enterprise's deflector shield but it will drift off target a lot more than heavier rounds. A decent crosswind can move a rifle round meters off target and they have a lot more energy. You need mass and energy here, and a .32ACP lacks both. $\endgroup$ – paul Mar 28 '15 at 12:30
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The wake is behind the aircraft. If the wake had any effect, the shooters aim would be far off target. Besides, it would only affect a small portion of the projectile's path. Crosswind works for the full length, that is why it makes such a difference. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 28 '15 at 13:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Alright, lets forget the widebody-class wake for a minute. If you are shooting at me from ~200 meters away with a .32ACP I am going to stay right where I am: the aiming point is the least likely place you will hit. I will laugh and make disparaging comments about your marksmanship. Take out one of the other two and I will be leaving at Usain Bolt speeds. $\endgroup$ – paul Mar 29 '15 at 13:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I imagine if you shot a blade and it spit the blade into the compressor that the results would be pretty devastating. If sparrows can take out engines... You'd still, of course, be left with an operable engine and be fully capable of landing the airplane. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Mar 31 '15 at 1:00
9
$\begingroup$

It depends where the shot is fired and what counts as "taking down".

If you fire a handgun inside the cabin during a regular flight, the pilot will likely divert to the next airport and land. The aircraft is "down", but probably not in the way you were thinking of.

If you fire at the plane from the outside, in most cases the result will only be detected at the next bigger inspection. If you are "lucky" and hit something important, a system might fail and the airplane is marked for repair after landing. But it will not go down in flames.

For the way the question was probably intended to be asked, my answer is No.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There's one way it will bring the plane down: shoot one, or especially both, of the pilots. $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Mar 28 '15 at 5:02
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @raptortech97: To kill both pilots with a single handgun shot from the outside during takeoff or landing (as the question implies) is in the range of will-I-be-struck-by-a-comet likely. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 28 '15 at 5:08
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ As I remember, at the first 747 carrier I worked for, a few bullet holes were found in the vertical stabilizer of one of the aircraft, a freighter, when it was undergoing routine maintenance. The aircraft had been through Mogadishu some weeks earlier, and that was felt to be the best candidate as to when it had happened. $\endgroup$ – Terry Mar 28 '15 at 7:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How about a shot at the fuel tank area? Would that just cause a leak? $\endgroup$ – Sandy Mar 28 '15 at 20:22
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Sandy: Yes. Nothing more. The tanks are filled with kerosene, which is hard to ignite, and what is not filled with fuel is taken up by an oxygen-reduced inert gas which prevents combustion. The tank would just pee a thin stream of fuel. In an extreme scenario, the aircraft has just braked hard, then taken off, and the fuel pees on the red-glowing wheel brakes. Now the plane would trail a small flame, but this would still not be enough to ignite the fuel in the tanks. Real life ≠ Hollywood. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 28 '15 at 20:48
2
$\begingroup$

Small arms fire absolutely can take down aircraft: http://www.lonesentry.com/articles/defga/ (WW2)

In one instance in Africa, an eye-witness reported the destruction of three Italian planes in 5 minutes by small-arms fire. In another case, the Germans claim to have brought down a Soviet plane with an automatic pistol.

United States Army Air Defense Artillery School "Small Arms Defense" describes tactical doctrine: saturate the region in front of the plane aircraft with lead and hope that enough hits are made to critically damage it.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Your first example is from WWII, not exactly comparable to modern commercial airliners. $\endgroup$ – Notts90 Jul 24 '18 at 10:35
1
$\begingroup$

It depends on who shoot the plane.

With the spirit of Juche idea, Kim Il Sung (Supreme leader of North Korea) can shoot planes with handgun easily. There is a selection from North Korea textbook:)

General Kim Il Sung left the cave and saw several of the bombers from US imperialists bombarding the base continuously. The heroic People's Army soldiers kept shooting the American aircrafts but useless.

Frowning angrily , the General saw an American aircraft tried to bomb again, he raised his handgun and aimed at the enemy aircraft. When the enemy is aligned the people army again and came down, the General shot. Shortly, a mass of huge fireball erupted in the sky with falling wreckage. The remaining US pilots were scared and escaped. Soldiers cheered toward the General Kim Il Sung:

Long live the Great Leader Kim Il Sung!

Long live the Great General Kim Il Sung!

But for other people, it seems impossible. Major damage of shooting comes from explosive within warhead. In WWII, most of the fighters installed 20mm machine gun or even larger, however, there is many case which the heavily shooted fighters have successfully landed on runways and aircraft carriers. Handgun even cannot kill a man for some times, how can it shot down a plane by most people?

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Good example to put into perspective, thanks. $\endgroup$ – Sandy Apr 5 '15 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ can even imagine that working, sorta. If you get lucky when shooting at a B-29 carrying a load of incendiary bombs (which are very thin walled containers filled with white phosphorous in those days) you may well set off a chain reaction resulting in said fireball. Unlikely to do with a pistol at the range they'd be, but turn a high power scoped rifle into a pistol for artistic license... $\endgroup$ – jwenting Apr 8 '15 at 3:58
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Omg someone trusts that is true $\endgroup$ – Him Apr 12 '15 at 8:26
0
$\begingroup$

If the bullet is able to damage a tire, such that chunks of the tire fly off, those chunks could cause even more damage than just the bullet alone. That was enough to bring down a Concorde (Flight 4590).

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ A handgun is very unlikely to shred an aircraft tyre, some may not even be able to cause a puncture. Even then, the Air France Concorde wasn't brought down directly by the damage but by a chain of unlikely events: the fuel leak was ignited by the afterburners (which most airliners don't have). The fire cause an engine alarm, and the (still functioning) engine was shut down, and the (overloaded) plane was unable to maintain flying speed on three engines. (Source: Aircrew Interview video) $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett May 24 at 14:16
-2
$\begingroup$

If it pokes a hole, the pressure in the cabin will be lost (which involve possible injury to the ear drums or death of the people inside, as at cruise altitude there is not enough oxygen in the air for the human body, which is why it is pressurized inside and maintained at near sea level pressure).

The aircraft can be damaged to the point of losing a structural panel, but not necessarily crashing. Unless the pilot falls unconscious due to the lack of oxygen. (Oxygen mask only have about 15 minute of oxygen by the way).

If the bullet hits an engine, or poke the wing (i.e. fuel tank), then there is high risk of explosion, with dramatic consequences.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ you are near ground already, no depressurization will happen. also, explosions happen in films, hardly in real life. $\endgroup$ – Federico Apr 8 '15 at 9:12
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Even if you are at altitude and suffer depressurization, 15 minutes is plenty enough to get down to a reasonably safe altitude even from jetliner cruise height. Even a normal landing descent is on the order of 2000-2500 feet per minute and that gets you from jetliner cruising altitude (30,000 feet) to ground level well within those 15 minutes. Also, even assuming the bullet penetrates the plane (see other answers), a handgun would punch a relatively tiny hole; it's not like that is going to cause instantaneous decompression. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 8 '15 at 11:32
  • $\begingroup$ It probably wouldn't cause significant decompression at all. The hole would be so small that you could just stick one of the in-flight magazines or something up against it and stop the leak completely (and this is assuming the plane is pressurized, which it probably wouldn't be.) Even if the plane were pressurized and no one bothered to plug the hole, the hole would be so small than the outflow would most likely be less than is already happening intentionally through the aircraft's outflow valve. And explosion will absolutely not happen. Jet fuel isn't explosive at normal pressure/temperature. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 24 '15 at 16:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The cabin outflow valve would close a little in response to the cabin altitude change and they probably not find the hole for quite some time. A few flights at least. $\endgroup$ – acpilot Oct 16 '15 at 5:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.