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.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Many years ago, in a land far far away and in an entirely different life, I suggested C4 in an rc plane because the gasoline barrels catapulted over the walls of the military base sometimes missed, needlessly harming civilians living nearby.

    (It was never tried, but at least they stopped using the damn catapults.)

  • DSchoen

    The plane in the picture/vid is made of foam, not wood.

    The plane in the picture/vid is called an EDF that means Electric Ducted Fan. EDF’s have very little power at slow speeds and most likely would not be able to attain flying speed let alone get off the ground by it’s self with much added weight. It would require a catapult launch and still not likely to remain airborne.

    Its like trying start your car moving in 5th gear instead of 1st gear.

    These planes take hundreds of hours to master flying them. There is FPV/FVP first person video that puts a camera in the cock pit and a TV transmitter on the plane, but all that adds weight and your back to not enough power to fly.

    You can add a more powerful motor but a more powerful motor requires a bigger battery and a bigger ESC (electronic speed control), but all that adds weight.

    If you put all the things needed to make that plane carry explosives it would be too heavy for the airframe, the foam wings will “fold up” literally.

    Are you sure this guy went to MIT?

  • Bob Collins

    Nah. He went to Northeastern.

  • John O.

    RC Cola is probably a greater threat than an RC airplane.

  • Mark

    Love it when the media talks about a topic they aren’t familiar with. I have flown that particular jet. If you are over weight by a few ounces it will be extremely difficult to get off the ground. 25LBs is impossible.

  • Bob Collins

    Hi , Mark. You know I’m a private pilot and fly a real plane and am pretty familiar with wing loading and weight-and-balance, right?

    That’s why i wrote this:

    ” 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.”

    …which pretty much sounds like what you wrote.

    Impossible? Of course, it would depend on the configuration as I think DSchoen wrote above. You pay a penalty for whatever part of lift-drag-thrust-weight you’re trying to solve.

    Any object that flies — whether it’s a full-sized plane or a model — has to solve the same aerodynamic challenges.

    I can’t say it’s “impossible,” until I know what changes in his model the guy intended to make and what the total relationship there was in the LWTD.

    I’ll give you that off the shelf it would be impossible to deliver 25 pounds of C4.