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Arming Cockpit Crews

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Jan 11, 2002
By William B. Scott/Aviation Week & Space Technology

COLORADO SPRINGS -- An intense national debate over arming airline pilots to protect air transports from terrorists will be decided within the next few weeks amid furious behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. Pilots claim the decision is a potential life-and-death matter for flight crews and their passengers.
The FAA's six-week comment period on the arming-pilots issue ended Feb. 14 with more than 6,700 responses filed. Online comments submitted to an FAA Web site included solid support from major airline pilot unions for a voluntary, federally controlled armed-pilot program--although the unions advocated different procedures.
Several polls in the last few months indicated overwhelming support from active airline pilots, frequent fliers and the general public. The latest, conducted for the Air Line Pilots Assn. (ALPA) by the Wilson Center for Public Research Inc. in early February, found that 73% of airline crewmembers were in favor of having firearms on the flight deck. Of the 24% who were opposed, some are no longer flying regularly, according to other union officials

BUT WIDESPREAD PUBLIC and congressional support for arming pilots surged during the last two months, bolstered by new intelligence that terrorists still plan to hijack U.S. air transports and use them as weapons against high-value targets. On Jan. 31, a government alert said Al Qaeda's military chief had admitted plans are in place to hijack U.S. commercial aircraft and crash them into nuclear power plants.
Referring to the war in Afghanistan, an FAA official claimed that Bush Administration support for arming airline pilots "took off after [special forces troops] started clearing caves in Tora Bora" late last year. He suggested that "alarming evidence" left by Al Qaeda terrorists was recovered. "Someone all of a sudden said, 'Let's get this [arming pilots] thing done,'" he added.

Leaders of the Airline Pilots' Security Alliance (APSA), a grass-roots lobby for arming flight deck crews, confirmed that support for their position has "snowballed." The group's membership comprises about 5,000 pilots from all major airlines.

The detailed APSA program calls for careful screening and rigorous training of volunteer airline pilots; designating them as federal law enforcement agents; strict limitations on how pilots can operate in this role; selection of standard firearms and ammunition by experts, and government oversight of the program (AW&ST Nov. 12, 2001, p. 47).

But union and APSA leaders are far from assured their members will soon be guarding cockpits with firearms. "There are still powerful people in Washington who don't want this to happen," one told Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Many U.S. citizens believe the issue was settled last year, when Congress incorporated language into the Aviation and Transportation Security Act allowing pilots to be armed. However, the law signed by President Bush on Nov. 19 contained a qualifier--it first requires Transportation Dept. and airline approval. Section 128 authorizes pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit only when:

-- The airline approves.
-- The firearm is approved by the Transportation Security undersecretary.
-- The pilot has received approved training.

Despite broad general support for such approval, proponents believe strong, very specific government regulations implementing an armed-pilots program must be in place or "risk-averse airline executives will find a loophole to wiggle free," Giuda said. A few top airline officials already are dismissing the likelihood of future hijackings, claiming the Armed Pilots Program is "an overreaction."

The Air Transport Assn., which represents most U.S. carriers, "opposes arming flight deck crewmembers with lethal weapons, such as firearms," said Michael Wascom, an ATA spokesperson. "We believe the expanded presence of air marshals, combined with fortified cockpit doors, accomplishes the [objective] of protecting the flight deck."

Pressure on the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is mounting. A Dec. 12, 2001, bipartisan letter signed by 62 congressmen urged Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to "expeditiously" implement provisions of the new law's Section 128 "seamlessly and without delay." Initiated by Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.), the letter noted: "Both houses of Congress, as well as the Air Line Pilots Assn., have demonstrated overwhelming support for providing pilots the privilege of protecting their passengers and crew from dangerous threats by responsible means, including the use of firearms."

That view is hardly unanimous on Capitol Hill, though. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) is opposed to arming pilots. A Hollings staffer said the senator "is more concerned with securing the [cockpit] door. He thinks pilots should be more concerned with flying the plane than being distracted by goings-on in the cabin."

THREE LARGE U.S. AIRLINE pilot unions--ALPA, the Allied Pilots Assn. (APA) and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Assn. (Swapa)--also back screening, training and arming volunteer pilots. A draft of a joint letter to the FAA noted, "As professional airline captains, we live every day with the potential consequences of another failure in existing security measures. In the strongest possible terms, we respectfully advocate the establishment of an Armed Pilots Program."

Representing 67,000 pilots who fly for 47 carriers, ALPA's response to the FAA's comments solicitation recommended the U.S. government "enable qualified and trained pilot volunteers to be armed . . . [as] the last and most important line of defense against another terrorist attack. We know of no other measure that comes close to meeting it in terms of protection, deterrence and cost-effectiveness."

The ALPA filing also noted: "Less-than-lethal weapons are not suited for countering hijackers and terrorists." Three firearms-handling options were proffered in its comments:
-- Storing a handgun -- owned and maintained by the airline or government--in a locked box in the cockpit. It could be taken from the box and worn in a holster during flight, but would not leave the flight deck.

-- Storing firearms in airline flight operations. Certified "federal pilot officers" would carry the weapon on and off the aircraft.

-- Allowing certified pilot officers to own and carry their own firearms at all times while on duty, including layovers.

The APA, which represents 11,000 American Airlines flight deck crews, and Southwest's Swapa prefer allowing pilots to carry weapons. A survey of APA members showed 90% of the pilots favor carrying a gun on their person, according to Gregg Overman, the union's director of communications.

Jonathan L. Weaks, president of Swapa, confirmed that his union's submittal to the FAA "supports arming individual pilots." The cockpit gun safe or "lockbox" option suggested by ALPA "was not supported by the Swapa board," he said.

More than 70% of approximately 900 Southwest pilots who responded to a February survey were in favor of arming crews. The same percentage said they would apply for the right to carry a gun.
A senior flight instructor, who routinely deals with pilots throughout his airline's nationwide system, estimated that 80% of flight deck crewmembers "are in favor of firearms in the cockpit, and will say that publicly."
"The overwhelming majority don't know what the [Armed Pilot] Program is, though. They just want a better way to defend the cockpit," he added. When told that the APSA program is voluntary, and that pilots would not be required to pack a gun, "that puts a lot of the [15% ambivalent ones] at ease, and they're more in favor of it." Those opposed expressed concerns over a gun-related accident harming them or someone else.
"WE'VE SEEN AN INCREDIBLE response to this FAA request for public comment," said Tracy Price, acting chairman of APSA. "We've come across people of all political stripes, too. Some are very anti-gun, but they're in favor of arming pilots. I'm absolutely convinced that, if we can get this [approved], it would definitely benefit the airlines economically--as long as it's [done] in a way that limits their liability. And that's very doable."

While union and APSA leaders are cautiously optimistic about eventually getting approval for firearms in the cockpit, line pilots are losing patience with the overall U.S. commercial air security program.

Weaks, Swapa's president, reflected his members' growing resentment of illogical airport screening methods. "It defies common sense that a pilot can't carry a Leatherman [multipurpose pocket tool] or Swiss Army knife, but he has a crash ax in the cockpit. In all of [airline] history, there's never been a case of a crew hijacking its own aircraft," he said.

Another captain, who chose to remain anonymous, said current practices ignore a long-lived tenet of military defense. "You have to protect from the inside out. Right now, our system is the reverse of that. We're protecting the outside, but leaving the terrorists' prime target--the cockpit--unprotected. Armed pilots have to be the final line of defense."

Price agreed, but noted the ultimate reason for having firearms on the flight deck is to preclude an attack in the first place. "Arming pilots is at least a 95% deterrent, if not more," he said. "Terrorists won't attempt an attack that has a high probability of failure.

"People need to remember how scary it was back in mid-September," he added. "[If TSA regulations] will allow pilots to carry firearms, passengers will feel safer on an airliner. They'll know the likelihood of a repeat hijacking is very, very small. But if it did happen, the pilots up front are equipped to defend the airplane.

That view is hardly unanimous on Capitol Hill, though. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) is opposed to arming pilots. A Hollings staffer said the senator "is more concerned with securing the [cockpit] door. He thinks pilots should be more concerned with flying the plane than being distracted by goings-on in the cabin."

Well thanks for Sen. Ernest to point that out...pilot's should be concerned with flying the plane...know sh*t. Something I read a few months ago I'll share with all of you.

An Air National Guard pilot flying out of the 177th fighter wing in NJ on the weekends flys the F-16 ready to shoot down any aircraft including airlines coming and going in and out of JFK, Newark etc...

He said it best. When he is not flying the F-16 he is a Captian flying for American. If a passenger should try and take over the aircraft there is not much he could do. IF HE HAD A GUN, HE COULD SHOOT BACK...COULD HE HURT OR KILL SOME POOR OLD LADY...YES BUT LET'S LOOK AT WHAT THIS VERY SAME PILOT IS AND OR WOULD BE ORDERED TO DO IF HE WAS FLYING AN F-16 that day....SHOOT DOWN THE WHOLE F'ING PLANE.

His point was simple...the government will allow him to use deadly force flying the F-16, why not give me a gun...I mean the gun is $300, $400...the F-16 is $30 Million.

He also said that one day he might have to shoot down one of his fellow Captian's flying for American...but if they had a gun...maybe not. I think we all learned something from Sept. 11th. If the pilot's had a gun prior to Sept.11th I think the outcome still would have been the same...however since then anyone coming through the the door towards the pilots better get ready for a hell of a fight.

This story makes you think.

And that's my words...as they say on Fox news.
I think its great to have a sturdy bar over the cockpit door. It will give us more time to get our Colt .45's out of our flight kits or to reload.
Sure, we should concentrate on flying the plane, but how easy is that to do if you have relatively NO way to keep 5 zealots out of the cockpit if they breach the door??
Disarming pilots will only result in pilots with no arms. This, of course, will result in terrible burns about the feet and ankles as pilots will be unable to hold coffee cups when coffee is being poured, to say nothing of the inability to gesture with ones hands when attempting to relay a particularly tall hangar tale. The inability to gesture with one's hands will ultimately result in loss of sanity (based on the assumption that those in question ever had it; the mere fact that we are pilots brings this into question), as everyone knows that pilots can't talk without moving their hands to illustrate their point.

Sad. Very sad.

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