Mar 31

Underwood Typewriter, Cryptography and Air Safety

I was watching House of Cards season 3. In one episode, despicable president Frank (Francis) Underwood decides to send a condolence letter to the family of a deceased SEAL team member; one who died on an aborted, ill-fated mission, ordered there by Underwood.

He types the letter out on an old (Underwood-brand) typewriter. He probably does so because he is an affected, faux Southern “gentleman”. But it got me thinking.

Nuclear launch codes were once typed out and may still be for all I know. It prevents hacking. I suspect we may see something of a comeback of typing machines–not computer-based and obviously not hooked up to a sieve-like Internet.

So it presents a possible solution to the locked cockpit door issue; the problem that brought down Germanwings flight 9525. What if there were two different, typed-out master codes sitting in envelopes at two different air traffic control towers?

A captain locked out of the cockpit would call down and ask for those master codes. Both would be required to be inputed to override the door code. 

Like in World War II, these would be randomly-generated, one-time codes that could never be used again. Tough to crack.

Just saying…


ps I’ll bet Hilary Clinton wished she’d had a typing machine now instead of a questionable personal email server.

pps I’ll ask a cryptographer I know to comment on this post; he’ll know whether this proposed solution will work or just push the problem further up or downstream. 

ppps This is a reminder: if you really want to keep something secret, never write it down, and never tell anyone anything ever.


The Germanwings situation presents an interesting problem.

Like many, I’ve talked it out with friends (some now pilots) and I’ve come to
the following conclusions:

– No amount of security can withstand a baseball bat to the knees.
– When you fly a plane–you put your life in the pilots’ hands. 
When you take a taxi–you put your life in the driver’s hands.

The first is best explained as “torture”.  If Pilot-A (locked
out of the cockpit) is being tortured or threatened, they are compromised and
cannot be assumed to thinking in the best interests of all aboard.  A
system that removes their ability to interact with Pilot-B (locked in the
cockpit) is best for all passengers and even Pilot-A themselves.

Pilot-A: “Hey man.  I can’t help you even if I could.  The
lock-out protocol prevents me from doing anything!”

Hijacker: “Oh, darn.  You’re not a very valuable hostage!”

This is the reason why cockpit lockouts happen.

The second is most disturbing because there is no way around it.  If a
co-pilot wants to crash the plane, there is very little that can be done to
stop them.  A fountain pen to the temple of an unsuspecting pilot would
make any off-site unlock code useless.

Physical security is grim science.  Ever wonder why airport security areas
are so long?  It’s because they’ve measured human reaction times and
running speeds to determine how many feet are needed to notice, draw and shoot
someone down.  It’s not to make lines efficient.  This is how
Zihaf-Bibeau got into Centre Block in Ottawa–the gating area was too short so guards didn’t have time to stop him.

Sorry to disappoint,


Note: there are still situations where paper codes are used in
computers (eg, setting up bank branches).

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.