Is an RC airplane a threat?

A Massachusetts man has been indicted today for conspiring to blow up the Capitol and Pentagon with a radio-controlled (RC) airplane.

This should spawn a series of TV reports on the dangers of the suspiciously innocuous toy.

Someone should ask, “is this even possible?” In its indictment, the Justice Department said, “Remote controlled aircraft are capable of carrying a variety of payloads (including a lethal payload of explosives), can use a wide range of takeoff and landing environments, and fly different flight patterns than commercial airlines, thus reducing detection.”

It’s not a new concern, perhaps. Check out this 2004 thread on an RC forum in which a person asks what RC model of airplane could hoist the most amount of weight. By the middle of the thread, at least one participant was starting to get suspicious of why someone was asking about the payload capacity of RCs.

Prosecutors said the suspect “ordered a remote controlled aircraft. He also received from undercover agents on Tuesday C-4 explosives (or at least he thought) , six fully-automatic AK-47 assault rifles (machine guns) and grenades.”

According to the indictment, the man ordered a miniature F-4 Phantom jet, and an F-86 Sabre jet, capable of carrying 25 pounds of explosives. Anyone could order one, although this particular company reports the $179 model is sold out:

But the manufacturer says the flying weight of the model is 13 pounds, thanks primarily to its very large motor.

Stuffing it full of 25 pounds of explosives? It’s unlikely an aircraft whose flying weight is 13 pounds could perform well in the air at 38 pounds, if it could get off the ground at all, but maybe.

The amount of fuel it would require — unless it was going to be launched from the front steps of the Capitol — would need to be considerable.

Certainly, 25 pounds of C4 is a considerable blast. This is what 20 pounds would look like:

That’s if the explosive were inside blowing out. Ferdaus, who majored in physics, must also have been aware that if you fly something as light as a balsa-wood RC airplane into a granite dome, it’s (a) going to be bounce off and (b) if it does explode, the impact of the blast would be away from the structure in question. On 9/11, the jetliners had the mass and speed to penetrate inside the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and then explode.

In his planned attack on the Pentagon, the man allegedly intended to use only 5 pounds of C4 per plane.

In any event, there’s no indication from the indictment, which is quite detailed, that Ferdaus ever did a flight test with his toy to see whether it could carry the payload he wanted to deliver. That would be a great story for an enterprising reporter who wouldn’t mind getting a visit fro the FBI.

Far more serious, perhaps, than the threat posed by the RC, is what Ferdaus allegedly intended to do after the Capitol dome collapsed: storm the Capitol and shoot everyone still alive.