Pilots, Guns and Airplanes

By Robert Mark on April 6th, 2008

Not long after 9/11 the call went out from thousands of pilots … never again would they allow the cockpit of an airplane to be commandeered and used as a missile against ground or other airborne targets.

Of course, one of the reasons the 9/11 hijackers were successful is that pilots and passengers were reacting to those takeovers the way they’d been taught … agree to the hijackers demands in order to protect other innocent lives. No one ever thought the hijackers would sacrifice their own lives AND those of the passengers and crew to promote their agenda. We were all wrong and we now know it when we fly.

A New Strategy

Shortly after September 11th, a call rang out from airline pilots that they should be allowed to carry firearms as a final airborne barricade against another 9/11. By late 2002, an Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) supported bill was signed into law creating the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program. Just as the numbers of actual TSA Sky Marshals flying aboard airliners is today unknown, so too are the numbers of airline pilots that actually carry weapons. All in all, things have worked smoothly, at least in the sense that a pilot has never needed to use their weapon aloft to defend their airplane since 2002. But the lack of an attack is not conclusive evidence that a weapon on board an aFFDOirplane is the solution to airborne security. And yes, I know that in the early days of aviation, plenty of airline pilots carried guns.

Personally I am uncomfortable with weapons. Maybe a better phrase is that I “respect the power of weapons,” simply because I watched the results during my Viet Nam Era military stint. I guess I’d say this is all my hang up and the NRA folks would probably agree. If I were in the cockpit, I simply would not allow a weapon on board my airplane. But there is more at stake here than simply my opinion on airborne security. The weapon of a US Airways captain discharged right through the cockpit wall a few weeks ago while the aircraft was in flight again shining a light on whether a gun aboard an airplane is more of a threat than the threat the weapon is designed to protect against. The reason the incident is also so important is the cavalier response of the airline and the TSA. Right after the aircraft landed, a TSA spokesman attempted to downplay the incident by claiming that, “We know that there was never any danger to the aircraft or the occupants on board.”

In a word, “Bull!”

What the TSA spokesman meant was there was no danger because no passenger or crew member took the bullet … this time.Every time a FFDO enters an airport or an airplane, there is an increased risk of an incident simply because the weapon is present.

I realize that this was an isolated incident, but why did it need to happen at all? If the gun in this case had discharged toward the cabin rather than toward the outside of the airplane, we would be having a much different discussion today. Haven’t we invented a large enough security bureaucracy in the TSA to put some of this cowboy stuff behind us after nearly seven years?

If the people on board those 9/11 airplanes knew what we do now, do you honestly believe they would all just sit there and watch it all happen? I don’t. And I don’t think passengers today would sit back uninvolved either.The US Airways incident shows again that the risks inherent in carrying loaded weapons on board an airplane outweigh the benefits, especially when the aircraft may already have an armed TSA Sky Marshall on board. In a worse case scenario, we simply don’t need a gunfight at the OK Corral scenario at 39,000 feet anyway.

Someone also needs to explain why there was a round sitting in the chamber ready to shoot. My guess is that even under siege there would have been time for that kind of action.And since security is always high at FAA ATC facilities because of the terrorist threat, why not allow ATC managers and air traffic controllers to carry weapons for protection.

The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That’s the law everyone uses to justify their own case for carrying a weapon. I’m no attorney, but from where I sit, the right to carry a weapon is directly related to a state’s right to organize a well-regulated militia. Taken out of context, anyone can make the Constitution support almost any cause. But that’s a discussion for another day. But what do you think?

On a side note, you might also want to watch this short video produced by a law enforcement officer about how he believes the weapon being carried by the US Airways pilot might have discharged. It’s eye opening.

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17 Responses to “Pilots, Guns and Airplanes”

  1. Name Withheld by Request Says:

    You said: “Haven’t we invented a large enough security bureaucracy in the TSA to put some of this cowboy stuff behind us after nearly seven years?I”

    First, the reason why TSA and other governmental agencies charged with air security can concentrate on bombs and other dangers is because many cockpits are protected with armed pilots.

    Second, “cowboy stuff”? Gimme a break. 3/4 of the first FFDO class were former law enforcement and all but a few of the rest were former military with weapons experience. They, and the thousands of volunteers that followed – training at their own expense did it for one reason: Never Again!

    Third, how better to protect an airliner’s central nervous system than to bar the door with a lethal weapon ensuring no one will EVER get to those controls again?

    Despite the personal cost to participating pilots, they protect tens of thousands of flights at virtually no cost to the passengers, airlines or for all intents and purposes – the government. They give 10 times the coverage at 1/5th of the cost of a FAM. Where would you get better coverage for that cost?

    Despite all the hoopla over the accidental discharge there have been hundreds of thousands of flights covered in the past 5 years without a single incident that was not borne of pig-headed, poorly-implemented, flawed TSA weapons carriage policy that FFDOs warned them would be a problem before the program trained its first pilot.

    You cannot use my name with this post.

  2. Rob Mark Says:

    I fly too.

    And as soon as those airplanes hit the towers and the Pentagon and in PA, I knew the original pilots were dead.

    Adding a weapon to the mix of an airplane in flight increases the risk if something goes wrong, like we saw on the US Airways flight. There is no argument I think.

    What you’re saying is that risk is worth it. And what I’m saying is that the folks in back really have no clue of the risks involved with weapons on board an airplane.

    If they really understood, maybe they might agree with you, maybe not.

    I also said though, that the people sitting in the back have been retrained since 9/11 too and won’t simply sit there and watch a bunch of thugs rush the cockpit.

    In the meantime, if one of those folks get hurt or killed in another gun incident, there’s going to be some serious outcry from a lot of people.

    I think if there were, folks would not support the gun concept.

  3. Jerry Hargis Says:

    I am a 20 year airline Captain. I am not an FFDO at this time, although I am considereing getting the training. And BTW, this is done at our expense. Travel, meals are not paid for, and you have to give up 8-9 days of your time. And you cannot call in sick (they check). So it is on your time, period.

    I feel much safer when I have an FFDO sharing the flight deck with me. The training they go through is very thorough and intensive. And it is very specific to defending the cockpit. I don’t think we can rely on untrained passengers to overcome future hijacking attempts. That is just wishful thinking. And it is also the reason United 93 ended up in a smoking hole in Pennsylvania.

    It is true that the holster and lock need to be re-engineered. An FFDO friend of mine showed me essentially the same thing the officer did in the youtube video. But none of the FFDOs I know or have flown with since this incident believe the pilot in question should have been handling his weapon at that point in the flight. That was the problem. Not the gun.

    One other note. I am not a member of the NRA and I do not own a gun. I also believe that ALL non-Law Enforcement guns should have to be registered and a thorough background check be completed to re-register your gun(s) annually. But I also believe the FFDO program is a very good program and should continue in the future.

  4. DisgruntledFlyer Says:

    I’m no lawyer. I don’t own a gun. I’ve never even touched a real gun. But what I remember of the latest Supreme Court case on gun laws (DC handgun ban) was that the 2nd Amendment applies to individuals. The term “People” referenced in the constitution is not the collective singular grandioso idea. It is the individual, you, me, the pilot, each and every unique person recognized as a citizen of a United State [United States being a plural up until the Civil War, but that's another story?].

    For further proof, see Amendment X:
    “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    The States are mentioned separately from the people. If the people were merely a synonym then, now, or in the future, would not the tenth amendment read simply “are reserved to the States” or “are reserved to the people.”

    Me personally, I’m willing to take the risk of a pilot or marshal shooting an innocent mistakenly or by accidental discharge. Criminals are not entirely dumb. They will rob a bank with no guard before the rob one with a guard. They will rob a house without an ADT sign in the yard before they rob my house. The same logic applies to a person who is motivated by whatever other factor it is that you want to call it. He/she will take the past of least resistance and highest probability of success. Dying from a gunshot wound at 39,000′ is far less glorious/romantic/effective/etc than anything a hijacker might otherwise be planning.

  5. Paul Says:

    I totally disagree with the Hoplofobic rant in the April 06 Jetwine. Any UD is unfortunate but better training and just staying out of condition White would have avoided this incident.

    BTW,to be Hoplofobic is to have an inordinate fear of firearms, a word coined by the late Col. Jeff Cooper of Gunsite academy.

    I am a firearms instructor and have friends in the airlines who carry. In my humble opinion the weapon should not have the trigger lock, and should be carried at all times.

    What set me off was your comment regarding the meaning of the second amendment.

    Paul

  6. Michael McKendry Says:

    I guess I can’t debate a program that is unlikely to disappear due to this event. Too much $$ has been spent, and the hue and cry from ALPA and others would be significant. The fact that FFDOs (or other armed law enforcement individuals) may be on board might be a deterrent. I know that one such officer in the cabin on 9-11 would have changed things.

    EL AL has counter terrorist/special ops type folks on EVERY Flight, and the Bad Guys know it – they like Softer Targets, and we were it at the time.

    I also think it would be sad if this is a career ending event for the individual.

    The video is a good guess at what may have happened.

    Administrative handling of firearms has RISK associated with the very activity.

    Administrative handling of firearms should be held to an ABSOLUTE MINIMUM. FFDOs don’t got through “normal” TSA security – i have observed them going to a Law Enforcement Office in the terminal. Perhaps a special room in the area would be the best place for them to arm, and secure their weapons…

    The 4 rules of gun safety …

    The 1st Law of Gun Safety – The Gun Is Always Loaded!

    The 2nd Law of Gun Safety – Never Point A Gun At Something You’re Not Prepared To Destroy!

    The 3rd Law of Gun Safety – Always Be Sure Of Your Target And What Is Behind It!

    The 4th Law of Gun Safety – Keep Your Finger Off The Trigger Until Your Sights Are On The Target!

    These folks (FFDOs) are screened when they volunteer. I know one American Eagle FFDO who was an active duty police officer at the time of his appointment. FFDOs go through a Federally managed, Federally designed course of instruction. It is Pass – Fail.

    Then, after the screening (including psych), the training, and the blessing to fly armed, the DHS, TSA or someone says “we don’t trust you to carry concealed Except when you’re in a locked cockpit.” (pretty dumb). Perhaps the training should be expanded until this was an unnecessary concept.

    I have discussed this event with a retired State Trooper (who was on the SWAT Team), a former FFDO, and a firearms instructor who is a multiple State Champion in two different pistol competition venues.

    It appears to me that, given the “human condition”, and the holster design, this was an event waiting to happen.
    See: http://www.usgalco.com/FactsAds.asp

    Until this Holster, Every device I’ve seen that is made to secure a firearm states: “DO NOT Place a LOADED Firearm in this…” or “DO NOT place this trigger lock on a Loaded Firearm…” etc. etc. Someone decided the design was so good? they could suspend the Rule. DUMB

    I know a 777 F/O who is more than qualified to enter the FFDO program (20 year USAF Master Sergeant-Special Ops) who will not apply since he sees The Rules as Dangerous. That said, I haven’t seen all the rules the FFDOs operate under.

    I am not crystal clear on what contribution the rules may have made to the event…

    I wonder if the weapon must be secured prior to Landing… a really dumb rule if that is the case and how does it apply to the Sterile Cockpit rule – activity in this case reportedly at 8000′?

    A Secured weapon prior to unlocking the cockpit door might be OK – IF the Airplane is shutdown, at the gate, in the chocks (so the FFDO can devote Full Attention to the TASK of safe weapon handling). The RISK is then transferred to the Ground Crew… at least the FFDO can’t shoot his plane down.

    There is a device that would “capture” the projectile of an unintentional discharge (properly utilized).

    See: http://www.safedirection.com/

    One of my Range Bags has this, and I use it.

    Most Unintended law enforcement firearms discharges appear to fall into two groups: the folks who seldom handle the firearm (annual qualification and no off duty shooting) OR the SWAT teams who are so accustomed to handling weapons that an element of complacency creeps in.

    It has been noted that: A Human Factors error, in concert with a poor policy, and a bad design has been the Root Cause of many an aviation mishap.

  7. Debbie Says:

    I the cabin doors are unable to be breached, there is no need for a gun in the cockpit.
    If the TSA is doing their job, there shouldn’t be any weapons on passengers therefore, no need for a gun in the cockpit.

  8. Mark McQueen Says:

    Thanks for forwarding this. What has surprised me is just how little media attention this incident has received. I’m not sure what your take is, but I personally don’t think firearms of any kind belong on an airplane, whether they are the pilot or an air marshals.

    Take care,

    Mark

  9. Eric Says:

    I personally think a handgun is not the best choice in a pressurized airplane. However I think every pilot and copilot should have a taser.

    Also air marshalls should be on EVERY flight.

    Eric

  10. Bo Henriksson Says:

    Like Rob I am surprised by the surprisingly cavalier attitude the media took to this serious event. When a firearm is discharged in the cockpit and punches a hole through the fuselage and USAirways and TSA claims there “is no danger”?! Every modern airliner is crammed with computers in every corner, if that slug had happened to go through one of them in that Fly Fy Wire Airbus they’d be singing a different tune today….
    “No danger”!
    And by the way, what is the largest and most vulnerable “piece of equipment” in the cockpit? It’s your fellow pilot! If he or she had been the one taking the bullet, I bet there’d be a different tune sung today!
    “No danger”!!!

    I don’t have a problem with my colleagues who have chosen to become FFDO:s. They’ve gone through a rigorous training and invested a lot of their own time and money to make it happen. For myself, no. I just don’t see the point.

    1. The very few times we open the cockpit door in flight it is according to a strict procedure. Its been proven safe and effective.
    2. The reinforced cockpit door, once locked, cannot be breached. It is as simple as that.
    3. And if someone miraculously WOULD breach it,
    a. I don’t see what use a firearm would be in the very confined space of most cockpits.
    b. All cockpits have a crash ax. Its a large, very high quality, razor sharp utensil. I can GUARANTEE you that if anyone were trying to mess with me or my crew I would have no qualms in using that axe to swiftly cut that person in two.
    Simple as that.

    So tell my again why I would need a gun?

    I’m with Rob on this one. I don’t think the advantages outweighs the risks.

    Bo

    http://www.bohenriksson.com

  11. Marty Says:

    Some things to consider. One, if properly handled, the gun cannot be fired. It shouldn’t have been out of the holster except to fire on a threat. It is loaded at home and carried that way, as the highest danger of accidental discharge happens when loading/unloading the gun. I firmly believe that the FFDO is the last line of defense if all else fails. A FAM could be overpowered in the cabin by multiple threats, and now the suicide hijacker has a weapon. Yes, it may be a shootout at 39000, but most souls on board may survive, whereas without that last line of defense, all are doomed to perish along with untold numbers on the ground if the hijacker succeeds in flying into a ground target. Lastly, as far as the impenetrable cockpit door, a master explosives expert/FFDO trainer/former special ops told me that with some explosives training, that door could be breached in 5 seconds in flight. You can’t take a knife to a gun fight and expect to be successful.

  12. Eric Joiner Says:

    I personally think a handgun is not the best choice in a pressurized airplane. However I think every pilot and copilot should have a taser.

    Also air marshalls should be on EVERY flight.

    Eric

  13. Marty Says:

    Tasers were originally proposed as the weapon for pilots to carry. But these hijackers will most likely be on performance-enhancing drugs, and sometimes that taser (which has to be in contact with the skin, not body armor which they may also be wearing) doesn’t work on the first shot. How many times have you seen cops need a second application to subdue an assailant? You don’t have the room or that luxury in a cockpit. They plan on using deadly force, that is what’s required in return.
    Safe cockpit door opening procedures? That’s when you’re most vulnerable.
    FAM’s on every flight? Sure, but they can’t hire and train fast enough to do that, so what to do in the meantime? Then, if the FAM is overpowered, you have a gun in the cabin in the hands of the perp, where’s your last line of defense? The bad guys win, you and the rest of us lose.

  14. Robert Mark Says:

    Marty:

    Seems like you’re saying cockpit door opening is the most vulnerable point, correct? That’s why they put the cart across the aisle when someone comes out to use the john.

    Why not just tell the pilots to stay in their seats for flights under two hours? Wouldn’t that reduce the hazard some?

    And while this may sound crazy, I find it hard to believe that someone could be ready to take over the cockpit and we airplane drivers will all just be tooling along in straight and level flight so we can safely draw or Glocks out of the holster.

    What happen to evasive maneuvers?

  15. Marty Says:

    Rob, even with the cart out (which is what 99.9% do) the bad guys are highly trained and motivated and you are vulnerable. They don’t operate solo, so two attackers or more would easily overpower a flight attendant and jump a cart if they timed it right. In the cockpit, the drill is one guy flies, one guy fights when under attack. Evasive maneuvers are not recommended officially (but I think most pilots if not all would use them, 0-2.0 pos. G limit be damned). Layers of defense are needed in the event one or more are compromised. The gun in the cockpit is simply the last resort, not the only solution. But if all else has failed, which way would you rather have it?

  16. Scott Says:

    This real fix is simple – yet expensive. There should be no cockpit to cabin door just a bullet proof bulkhead. Cockpit access from external door with pilots having own lav. in cockpit area.

    24 years airline. FFDO. 90% of above comments are way off..

    There is no cockpit door that cannot be breached.
    You could shoot the airplane full of bullet holes and you wouldn’t hardly notice a pressure change.
    Of course you have to fiddle with that stupid trigger lock every time you leave the cockpit – don’t want that non FFDO pilot “playing” with a loaded weapon that you leave behind.
    If the weapon was just worn like ALL other law enforcement that ride our airplanes the accidental discharge would never happen (it WILL happen again).
    If bad guys breach the door in a surprise rush you will crap your pants and never get to that crash axe.

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