Here’s the short answer: It’s really, really, really, really hard to do. You’ll be glad to know that the aviation industry has long recognized that a terrorist might pop off a few rounds at a Jet A1 fuel tank. Evidently Stephen Paddock shot a couple rounds at a tank at McCarran Airport. CNN is reporting these were “incendiary” rounds but we’ll take that with a grain of fake news.
While I actually know a bit about refueling aircraft, I’m certainly not an expert on tank farms but let me give you a few things I do know or was able to find out.
McCarran Airport began a process of totally updating its fuel tank farm in 2007. The entire project was completed in mid-2017.
From the start, fire protection was a key element in part because of the tourism industry in Las Vegas. The tank farm may have the most advanced fire protection system at any airport in the United States.
The new fire protection system stores Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) concentrate onsite and also connects to each of the fuel tanks. There’s also a connected onsite reserve that provides 100% redundancy and added safety. AFFF creates a film beneath the foam, which cools the liquid fuel, stopping the formation of flammable vapors. The tank farm also has remote monitoring capabilities allowing them to track its functions and receive emergency alarms.
One of the bullets evidently did penetrate the tank. If so, the system should have immediately detected the leak. If temperature sensors detected a rise in temperature, the fire suppression system would have activated which it did not. The amount of fuel that would have leaked would have been easily contained by the dikes around the tanks.
Would an incendiary bullet ignite the jet fuel? Maybe. I wouldn’t suggest trying it. In any instance, the AFFF is specifically designed to reduce the presence of vapors that might cause an explosion.
Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant based here in Colorado said:
“A machine gun is not going to blow up a tank of fuel. Jet fuel itself sitting there in a big wet pile is very hard to ignite. You have to be a very amateur terrorist to think anything like that.”
OK, OK. He wasn’t using a “machine gun.” Firing what he had into a fuel tank was just a really dumb thing to do with the weaponry he had given the odds of success were virtually zero. You can actually throw a match into a puddle of Jet A1 and it won’t ignite. YMMV.
One thing I also read today was that Paddock might have knocked out one of the windows specifically to shoot at the tanks. If so, what was he thinking? Didn’t it occur to him that every terrorist on the planet thought at one time or another “I wonder if I can blow up one of those tanks with a few bullets?” A few minutes on the Internet will tell you it’s not going to work.
Interestingly, what the people who worry about these sort of events are most concerned about is someone who could manage to create a massive leak. Even then the dikes would contain the fuel but the secondary result would be shutting down the airport which could do significantly more economic damage.
Of course, there’s now the inevitable call for a security review with Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo suggesting these tanks “need another layer of protection.” Maybe a Kevlar dome over the airport. That would work!