Flimsy airliner cockpit doors soon will be a thing of the past

 - May 23, 2008, 5:39 AM

Following September 11, the FAA issued a requirement that all U.S. commercial aircraft and all foreign commercial aircraft flying to the U.S. be equipped with new fortified cockpit doors by April 2003. But it left the specifics of what constitutes a “fortified cockpit door” pretty much up to the industry. “The burden is on the manufacturers to come up with an adequate solution [for] a door that meets all current airworthiness requirements and is fortified,” said an FAA representative.

In short, the airlines must have the new doors and independent vendors will provide them, both to the airlines as a retrofit kit item and to the OEMs for installation on new airplanes.

With the deadline only 16 months away, the industry is already offering products that it expects will meet with the FAA’s approval, while not straining the $50,000-per-aircraft government funding retrofit allowance limit.

B/E Aerospace, a major manufacturer of aircraft cabin interior products, introduced its new AeroGuard door in New York City last month, noting that “the worldwide passenger fleet potentially requiring retrofit totals about 12,500 aircraft.”

Also last month, USDR Aerospace of Mansfield, Texas, entered into an agreement with Raytheon Aircraft Integration Systems for certification of USDR’s new Guardian fortified door.

TTF Aerospace of Tillamook, Ore., is offering an improved version of a door it began designing a year ago as a security measure against air rage.

Raisbeck Engineering, which began development of a fortified cockpit door a year ago, is already installing its Raisbeck Armored Cockpit Security System on Alaska Airlines’ fleet of 70 Boeing 737s.

All four products currently in development are somewhat similar in that they are designed to meet current FAA airworthiness requirements on which STCs will be based. And in terms of increased security, all four limit access to the cockpit from the cabin; allow the cockpit crew to safely observe any actions in the passenger cabin; and make use of composite ballistic armor to limit forced entry by means of brute force or small arms fire.

Anti-ballistic Composites at the Core

The impact-resistant quality of the B/E Aerospace door is the result of three anti-ballistic composite panels covered by titanium louvers to halt ricochets resulting from small arms fire. The door was successfully tested at close range using a .44 Magnum firing 250-grain, full-metal jacket, hollow-point ammunition, and a 30-round clip of 9-mm, 124-grain, full-metal jacket ammunition fired from an MP5. The door also stood up to an assault with a standard Boeing 737 crash ax, a fully loaded, 252-lb beverage container and sledge hammer simulating 300 joules of energy.

A small, bullet-resistant glass viewing port and a peephole allow a view from the cockpit into the cabin, and further visual access is provided by a remote cabin camera and monitor mounted in the cockpit bulkhead. Physical access to the cockpit is through an electronic keyless entry system, to which only the cockpit crew has the code. Anyone else seeking entry from the cabin must first gain the approval of the cockpit crew. From the time the request-for-access buzzer is sounded, the cockpit crew has 30 sec in which to determine if the request is legitimate and either allow entry or freeze the lock. If the crew does not respond to a request for entry within 30 sec, the door-lock mechanism is automatically released–a safety measure in the event of crew incapacitation.

The lower panel of the door can be used as an escape hatch by pulling four locking pins. The multiple open-vented design on the main cabin side and the acoustic/ballistic hinged panels on the cockpit side permit pressure equalization in the case of rapid cabin decompression. The hinged “blow-out” decompression panels have a cockpit-side reset feature. The door also features a flexible vapor seal to protect against chemical gases, and the door handle, if forced beyond a certain point, is designed to break off.

B/E Aerospace group v-p and general manager of flight structures Scott Smith said FAA approval of the door, based on current airworthiness requirements, is expected by the middle of this month. Smith said B/E is working with JAA for European approval of the door, but noted that European airlines are not getting the financial help that the U.S. government is giving its airlines and are therefore moving more slowly toward compliance.

The 90-lb door systems are being built at the B/E Aerospace plant in Arlington, Wash., and will be provided as retrofit kits to the airlines beginning next month. Installation time is expected to be less than eight hours.

Biometrics Keyless Entry Optional

A spokesman for USDR said it has already installed its first Guardian door on a Boeing Business Jet completed by certification partner Raytheon Aircraft Integration Systems of Waco, Texas. Under terms of the agreement, Raytheon is providing engineering support to develop installation procedures, and, as a designated alteration station authorized to act on behalf of the FAA, will issue supplemental type certificates for the fortified door.

The spokesman, while declining to discuss the specifics of the door’s anti-ballistic
properties, emphasized that the design not only stopped bullets from a .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum but also “caught” them in its “Kevlar-based ballistic blanket,” completely eliminating ricochets. The door also successfully resisted blunt force impact of up to 5,000 lb and survived a 10,000-lb total load.

A remote camera system allowing pilots a view of the cabin is an option, as are “some very interesting options” in terms of biometrics keyless entry–including voice, face or fingerprint recognition–in addition to keypad or keyless card access.

USDR said the BBJ installation at RAIS was a convenient starting point for obtaining an initial Boeing 737 STC. The launch customer will decide what fleet types will be next in line for FAA approval, and USDR said it is in talks with one major airline and a regional airline. The company was anticipating FAA approval of the 737 door system at press time.

The 60-lb Guardian door kits will be built at USDR’s 170,000-sq-ft manufacturing plant near Dallas, and the company is in the process of selecting distributors in Europe and Asia, as well as in the U.S.

‘Smart Window’ in Armored Door

The door from TTF Aerospace is an upgrade of the hardened cockpit door it began designing a year ago when airlines began taking air-rage incidents seriously. The door now being developed would be a Boeing 767 STC retrofit item, but company president Tim Morgan said he is already fielding queries from a variety of operators of other aircraft types, including some regional carriers. He envisions providing the door in two kit forms. One would fit into an existing door frame and might sell in the $9,000 to $12,000 range, uninstalled. A more extensive kit would include a hardened door frame and anti-ballistic lining for the cockpit bulkhead on either side of the door.

One unique aspect to the TTF door is in an optional bullet-proof window that would employ “smart windows”–suspended particle device technology–from InspecTech Aero Service of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The smart window would allow the cockpit crew to easily observe passengers and cabin crew when desired, or by simply turning a knob, change the window from clear to opaque. Morgan said TTF expects to license the construction to “one foreign and one domestic” manufacturer.

Alaska Airlines Chooses Raisbeck

Raisbeck Engineering installed its first Raisbeck Armored Cockpit Security System in an Alaska Airlines 737 on October 17. The company has a contract to install its fortified door systems in the airline’s fleet of 70 Boeing 737s. Company president Jim Raisbeck said work began last month on installing the doors in Alaska Airlines’ fleet of 32 MD-80s. He further added that a contract has been signed to provide the Raisbeck door systems to American Trans Air. Work had already begun on installations on the airline’s 30 Boeing 737s. Additional kits will go into American Trans Air’s 25 Boeing 757s.

The Raisbeck door differs considerably from the other two designs in that it incorporates two 1.25-in.-thick bullet-proof glass windows in the hardened Kevlar-coated cockpit door. Successful anti-ballistic tests employed a .44 Magnum and a 9-mm machine gun. The door also successfully resisted an impact force of 1,500 lb. Raisbeck is already producing the 48-lb door kits at a rate of 100 per month and reports that installation is “easily completed overnight.”

Manufacturers of the fortified doors anticipate their current products will meet with FAA approval, though they admit that at this point no one is quite sure what those standards might be. Even the FAA is reluctant to talk in specifics. A Wall Street Journal article on November 5 quoted an administration spokeswoman as saying, “We don’t dictate design. The FAA dictates performance.”

At the same time, manufacturers of the fortified doors say they are consulting closely with everyone involved in the process, including the FAA, the OEMs and the airlines, to ensure a product that meets or exceeds any anticipated federal requirements or guidelines. Probably the single factor most responsible for the fact that fortified door projects are moving so quickly is the $50,000-per-aircraft allowance provided by the government. Only TTF Aerospace would discuss specifics of pricing. The remaining manufacturers said only that the cost of their door systems is well within that $50,000 budget.

While the focus for the time being is on larger fleets and larger aircraft that are perceived as targets of choice for hijackers, aircraft being flown by regional airlines will quickly follow. Dodenhoff said his company is already developing a door for the Embraer and Canadair regional jets, as well as the Dash 8.

All four companies also said they had been contacted by business aircraft manufacturers interested in offering a fortified cockpit door in their business jet products, but no contracts have yet been signed.