Guns in the Cockpit

Aviation International News » January 2004
January 30, 2007, 5:37 AM

The idea of mixing legal weapons with pilots is not new. Aviators of yore often carried firearms–and with good reason. There are more recent incidents that support the practice. In the mid-1960s, an airliner was taken over by a man wielding a gun who shot both pilots. In another incident a disgruntled PSA employee broke into the cockpit of a BAe 146 in 1987 and shot and killed both pilots. The airplane crashed near San Louis Obispo, Calif., killing all 43 people aboard. Then there was the crazed FedEx employee, riding as a deadheading crewmember, who in 1994 tried to commandeer a DC-10 with the intent of crashing it into FedEx’s Memphis package sorting facility. And the King Air that was almost commandeered in New Mexico in 2001. The list of incidents is compelling.

After 9/11, a cry went out once again to allow handguns in the cockpits of airliners as a final ring of security against another armed takeover. Spurred on by the Air Line Pilots Association, a lobby group–over the objections of President Bush, DOT Secretary Norman Mineta and even Homeland Security’s Tom Ridge–succeeded in passing the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act of 2002. Last year follow-on legislation also passed Congress, allowing cockpit crewmembers of all-cargo flights to carry firearms.

Before 9/11, weapons were carried by federal air marshals, whose numbers have been substantially increased since 2001. Federal air marshals, like the guns they tote, are deterrents, but are not aboard every airliner. History could very well have recorded 9/11 much differently if a sky marshal had been in the back of any of the hijacked aircraft.

The current Arming Pilots Act requires the Transportation Security Administration to establish a program to select, train, deputize, equip and supervise volunteer pilots of air carriers for the purpose of defending the flight decks of commercial aircraft against acts of criminal violence and air piracy. The law evolved into the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program.

Upon graduation from a federal training school, pilots are deputized as federal law-enforcement officers and issued federal credentials, a firearm and other equipment. The first group of airline pilots graduated last April. According to TSA spokesperson Suzanne Luber, “Fifty pilots per week are completing the training program. Thousands will have qualified by the end of [last year]. We will be starting a second class each week very soon and expect all pilots who have volunteered to be through the program before the end of [this year].”

Clearly there was a systemic breakdown on 9/11, but whether that was a security or an intelligence issue, or both, is still open to debate. The question of whether carrying a firearm was designed to provide protection or merely the semblance of security is also at issue.

Although properly trained airline pilots are now authorized to carry guns, the motivation to do so on a corporate aircraft has never really emerged, according to Doug Schwartz, chairman of the NBAA security council. “The topic of arming business aviation pilots barely even comes up at our meetings. I’m not convinced our pilots believe it is an issue. ALPA believes it is, however, and it is clear that the pilots feel very vulnerable in an airliner.”

ALPA polled its membership in 2001 and found fully 73 percent supported some form of responsible firearm usage aboard an aircraft. “Is carrying a gun on board an aircraft the solution or the problem itself?” Schwartz wondered. “Or is it merely the perception that someone might be carrying a gun that orchestrated the FFDO program from the beginning?” Except for the individual laws on concealed weapons that exist in each state, corporate pilots have never been restricted from carrying firearms. Most apparently just don’t deem it necessary from a security perspective.
Cockpit weapons on airliners are intended to be used within the cockpit environment only. But what happens aboard an airliner if someone within the cabin is threatened? Quite simply, the rule today is that the cockpit door does not open for any reason during flight, even if the lives of other crewmembers or passengers are being threatened on the other side. The pilot’s weapon is the last line of defense against a hijacker.

Bizav and Guns Don’t Mix
Many business aviation pilots believe that adding a weapon to the cockpit arena does little more than add a level of uncertainty to an already volatile situation. The real issue that divides business aviation from the airlines is intent. “We know who our passengers are, and we know why they’ve climbed aboard our aircraft,” said Schwartz. By contrast, the airlines simply know that someone purchased a ticket. Their intent once they climb aboard is simply a roll of the dice, an issue that makes protection of passengers and aircraft of paramount importance to the airlines.

One major airline pilot admitted, however, that while his company granted him the time off to pursue the FFDO program, it offered no guidance whatsoever in the operations manual about how the program was to be handled by the carrier’s pilots. The manual, in fact, made no mention of the FFDO program at all. Entry into the FFDO program begins when a volunteer visits the TSA Web site and enters his ATP certificate number. TSA rules for the FFDO program require complete confidentiality, so little is known about the process.

AIN interviewed an airline pilot who was recently selected to participate in FFDO. He said, “The pilot group is conflicted about the concept of weapons in the cockpit. I personally applied for the program because I believe it is a last resort to keep my passengers and other crewmembers safe. But the TSA has provided little information to us about what is expected for certification. When submitting an FFDO application, there is no advance notification of what the screening process actually entails.”

But we do know that the initial FFDO application asks for enough personal information for the TSA to begin a background check. Next it begins assigning online tasks to be accomplished by the applicant. “We are not allowed to talk about these things specifically to anyone, however, to ensure the integrity of the program,” this pilot acknowledged. “There have been computer-graded aptitude tests, telephone interviews, an interview with a psychologist and a 15-year background check by the FBI.” He also believed fewer than 10 pilots had been FFDO certified at his carrier.

Typically, applicants are offered 10 days to complete each task and are notified by e-mail of their success and the ability to move on to the next one. If an applicant fails to complete any task along the way within the allotted time, he is removed from further consideration and is eligible to reapply only after 12 months. Individual costs for the FFDO program are borne by the pilot, although the TSA covers the cost of the weapon. The rules for how and when the weapon is carried are also classified.

Once the screening portion has been successfully completed, the pilot applicant is invited to attend the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M., for the actual hands-on weapons training, which consumes “56 hours over the course of six days,” according to Luber. Some hand-to-hand combat training is also included in the program. Under the FFDO, pilots must requalify every six months.

John Sullivan, a former Secret Service agent who now works in business aviation, said, “I think a weapon in the cockpit is eyewash to make people feel good. I don’t think there is a threat to corporate aviation that guns would solve. I think guns just create a false sense of security. In a recent survey of all the Fortune 200 flight departments on the topic of weapons, none of the 75 people who responded wanted firearms on board their aircraft. Increasing security on the ground seems to be a far better and more practical idea.”

Sullivan added, “The amount of regular training it actually takes to ensure that the pilots carrying these weapons are safe and effective is no small task,” despite the fact that preference to the FFDO program is given to former military or former law-enforcement personnel. One corporate pilot who also spent time as a federal law-enforcement officer pointed out a major flaw with the concept of pilots carrying firearms. “It is something new for the most part and not something pilots have spent their lives training on as they have in flying an airplane. Would you give your multimillion-dollar aircraft to a relatively inexperienced pilot? I doubt it.”

He believes a pilot who is not a highly and regularly trained arms specialist could be more of a liability than a help. “To be effective in stressful, life-and-death situations, you need to have frequent and consistent training, because as in flying, that training is what you’ll default to when the adrenaline starts pumping.” How even a qualified pilot will react to a lethal cockpit intrusion is something no one can predict.

Training should also include how to maintain control of the weapon in all situations, as well as who will maintain control of the aircraft while the other person uses that weapon. A number of ASRS reports indicate that even law-enforcement officials–people regularly trained to handle firearms–have mistakenly let guns slip from their possession. Fortunately, none has been used to commandeer an aircraft.

A fair yet controversial concern again is the real motivation behind the FFDO program. After 9/11 airliner ridership fell dramatically, while business aircraft usage ticked upward. Since ALPA is focused on job retention, the concept of the union’s FFDO push might well have been to make airline passengers feel warm and fuzzy enough to want to ride again. An ALPA spokesman told AIN, “Before 9/11 we were opposed to guns in the cockpit. But the terrorist [atrocities] make it clear we would not be able to negotiate with hijackers from here on out. We convinced a lot of people on the Hill that pilots should be offered one last line of defense of their aircraft, especially since the White House made it clear they might well shoot down a hijacked airliner.

“Overall, we are happy with the TSA’s FFDO program and training. However, one issue that ALPA is still negotiating with the TSA is how the weapon is transported to and from the cockpit. Currently, that weapon must be stored in a locked box until the cockpit has been reached and the door locked. This defies logic,” ALPA said. “Any law-enforcement officer will tell you that you should never be physically separated from your weapon.

“Another issue is scheduling. Airline pilots are attending training on their own time, but must request the time off far in advance. The TSA has a habit of calling just a few weeks before a class begins. We’re talking to them about that.

 “The goal of the FFDO program, like that of the air marshals, is to make an airplane a place that bad guys want to avoid.”

Business aviation continues to play to its strengths versus the airlines’ weaknesses. Traditional business aviation, which excludes charter and fractionals, not only knows the identity of each person on board the aircraft but also clearly understands the reason that person is traveling aboard the aircraft, something no airline can claim. The business aviation PIC is also responsible for more than just the security of the cockpit, but also for the security of the aircraft itself, as well as knowing who services the aircraft, from caterers to fuelers to aircraft cleaners–people airline pilots seldom see.

Business aviation pilots have the ability to create security, something most feel a gun will never do. As one corporate pilot said, “When it comes right down to my own security, I would trust only me and you to carry a gun, and I’m not so sure about you.”

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