Shoulder-Fired Missiles Pose Serious Threat to Passenger Jets

ByABC News
March 27, 2006, 12:04 PM

March 27, 2006 — -- The potential target: an American commercial jet.

The potential weapon: a shoulder-to-air missile that terrorists fire at the jet on takeoff.

Worldwide, at least 24 civilian aircraft have been brought down by shoulder-fired missiles, and more than 500 people have been killed. And experts say that shoulder-to-air missiles can be bought for only a few thousand dollars on the black market. But U.S. commercial aircraft still have no defense system against these portable missiles.

Last November, just minutes after takeoff from Los Angeles International Airport, an American Airlines pilot reported that something resembling a rocket might have been fired at his aircraft.

"American 612, can you verify whether you saw a flare or a rocket?" radioed an air-traffic controller.

"It looked more like a rocket to me," the pilot responded. "I'm pretty sure it was a rocket of some kind, because it had a definite plume coming out behind it."

The immediate concern was that the plume was in fact the trail of a shoulder-fired missile. The Coast Guard dispatched a cutter and a helicopter, and the FBI opened an investigation.

"We searched the area," said U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Clay Clary. "Nothing was found."

Although officials concluded it was most likely a hobby rocket, the investigation remains officially open.

"We had a scare in Los Angeles," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who serves on the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation. "We've been told that they cannot rule out the fact that it was a shoulder-fired missile."

Although all the attacks to date have been on foreign soil, a potential attack on an American commercial jet remains a very serious concern. They say that an estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles, most of them made in Russia, are for sale on worldwide black markets.

"It's a disaster waiting to happen," Boxer said.

The most recent attack was on a DHL cargo plane hit while taking off from Baghdad in November 2003. The plane managed to land safely with its left wing on fire.

In November 2002, an Israeli charter plane carrying tourists was fired at on takeoff from Mombasa, Kenya. The attack intensified Israeli efforts to equip its civilian aircraft against shoulder-to-air missiles.