Up, locked, and loaded

Should guns be allowed in the cockpit? Possibly, says Salon's aviation expert, but not at the expense of other solutions to air terror.


Patrick Smith
July 12, 2002 11:30PM (UTC)

Are you for or against the plan to allow guns in the cockpit?

The seminal question is: Would an armed flight crew have thwarted last fall's skyjackers? Many pilots, including the world's largest pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association, believe it would have.

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"Unable to defend our cockpits, thousands of Americans died on 9/11 in spite of our warnings," reads an ALPA statement. "The terrorists took control of our aircraft because they knew American pilots were unarmed and helpless in their own cockpits." In the words of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, "9/11 would not have happened if that pilot had had a gun."

ALPA and other unions embarked on a full-throttle campaign to legislate the arming of pilots, and were rewarded on July 10 when the U.S. House of Representatives ruled overwhelmingly in their favor.

But is the underlying presumption that guns in the cockpit would have prevented the air terror attacks of Sept. 11 actually correct? Certainly, unfortified flight decks made it easier for skyjackers armed only with box-cutters and knives, but the men could just as well have resorted to more lethal, more carefully choreographed means of overtaking the pilots and flight attendants. Intent on commandeering or destroying airliners, a gang of clever enough terrorists probably would have found a way.

There are plenty of reasons why arming pilots makes sense, but there are also plenty of reasons why it doesn't. For every act of violence deterred by a pilot with a loaded gun, there may be another that is actually created by the presence of firearms in the cockpit. Ultimately, debate over the issue is as much ideological as it is practical -- if you're pro gun, you're pro guns in the cockpit. But the real question should be: Is arming pilots the best way to stop hijackers? And that's not clear at all.

ALPA, backed by most of its 59,000 members, initially endorsed something called House Resolution 4635, the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act. This came after a May 21 conclusion by John Magaw, director of the newly formed Transportation Security Administration, that refused to authorize the arming of pilots, an opinion more or less in keeping with the Bush administration's position. Bush, meanwhile, has not stated an intent to veto any congressional approval of the idea, should the Senate follow the House's lead.

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The House resolution backed by ALPA, aggressive and provocative as it may have appeared at first glance, was in fact a cautious one. Rather than immediately handing out side arms to each of the nation's 70,000 airline pilots, the union's "Qualified to Fly -- Qualified to Defend" campaign (watch for stickers on those black leather flight cases soon) asked for a two-year test period during which a maximum of 2 percent of pilots, about 1,400 in all, would be voluntarily trained and deputized. Rules and protocols would be laid out by the Transportation Security Administration, while pilots with military and/or law enforcement backgrounds would get preferential selection.

Lawmakers from both sides, however, found the measure inadequate, removing both the trial period and the 2 percent cap. "What sense does it make to arm a tiny, tiny fraction of them?" asked Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. This paves the way for the widespread distribution of weapons to pilots, albeit on a voluntary basis. Airlines would offer pilots the option of carrying either a handgun or nonlethal stun gun, pilots reserving the right to refuse either.

Many people are uneasy at the prospect of flight crews packing heat beneath their blue polyester jackets. The idea of an airline employee -- even one with a combat background entrusted to operate jet aircraft -- appropriating the role of law enforcement officer does not sit well with everybody.

But it is not by definition a bad idea. Importantly, the role of onboard guns will not be to break up squabbles or scare unruly passengers into submission. While episodes of air rage are indeed potentially dangerous, brandishing a weapon is to be an absolute last resort tactic used only after a cockpit has been trespassed. The point is to save the airplane. "Once deputized," explains a pilot for a major U.S. airline, "our jurisdiction will be only in the cockpit."

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In the confines of a pressurized cabin aloft, far removed from the nearest police station or call for help, there does exist a precarious vulnerability. Is it truly anathema to the concept of safety that the crew be given an effective means to protect the aircraft from destruction?

Some argue that a fortified cockpit, perhaps augmented with a security camera giving a view of the cabin, is the key. But the flight deck is not, and never should be, a sealed capsule. Pilots emerge for designated rest breaks or to use the toilets, and flight attendants too require access. The potential will always exist for somebody to gain unwelcome admission. This past October, hardly a month after the events in New York and Washington, a deranged man rushed the cockpit of an American Airlines 767, forcing the widebody into a dive before he was subdued.

In many ways, the entire issue thrusts itself back to the matter of concourse security screening. In a report made public at the end of June, screeners at major airports failed to detect smuggled weapons nearly a quarter of the time in recent tests. On the face of it, the ease with which guns can be sneaked onto airplanes seems to highlight the need for a matched response. Sky marshals are useful here, sure. But with 30,000 flights taking off and landing each day across America, it's foolish to expect -- or even want -- a marshal on each and every departure. Deputized pilots would offer an added margin of protection.

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Meanwhile, the fallout of September's diabolically creative use of legally carried items has turned our airports into scrap metal depositories, where everything from a corkscrew to a nail file is now considered a dangerous weapon. The presence of armed crewmembers might allow passenger screening to concentrate on more sensible and effective procedures, reducing hassle and embarrassment for everybody. Can the airlines once again offer their customers the dignity of usable silverware?

Crews, too, would take advantage of a renovated screening process. As it stands today, pilots are among the very few groups of airline employees still subjected to the comical rigors and needless indignities of the x-ray belt and metal detectors. Captains entrusted with hundreds of lives and aircraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars are asked to hand over their umbrellas and Leatherman tools while their roll-aboard bags and flight cases are inspected. "Stripped defenseless," as ALPA puts it; "forcing us to cooperate with terrorists." Histrionic for sure, but the idea of uniformed, on-duty pilots undergoing pat-downs and underwear inspection is ludicrous and wasteful. And bypassing this nonsense would, in turn, speed up the process for the public.

Concerns have been raised over the danger to the integrity of an aircraft should gunfire erupt en route. "I am against having guns in the cockpit," says a 767 captain. "At cruise altitudes, the pressure vessel [fuselage] is a bomb waiting for a detonator. A bullet is that detonator." The decompression he is alluding to conjures up Hollywood-style scenes of screaming passengers being sucked through openings in the fuselage. But such possibilities have been overemphasized. A bullet hole in an airplane will not, in all likelihood, cause it to crash. Certainly a round piercing some important equipment, or shattering a window, could result in a hazardous situation. But any circumstance grave enough to bring about use of a weapon in the first place, it must be assumed, offers an even worse conclusion.

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In light of the above, some have suggested the use of nonlethal ammunition or stun guns, which would be effective against a person but not result in that nasty scene where passengers are being sucked into the sky. "In my view," says a second officer with a major airline, "we need to have a pistol with nonlethal ammunition onboard each aircraft."

Other pilots advocate the use of "smart guns," nonlethal arms operated via pre-coded wristbands, which would allay fears of missing handguns finding their way into the terminals or being turned against crewmembers. To some of us, though, any high-tech idea prefixed by "smart" intimates a lot of money, research and dubiously successful trial-and-error exactly when it's least welcome.

Meanwhile, general knowledge of a loaded gun up front, whether or not it's discharging lead, rubber bullets or electric current, doubtless would have an impact on the collective psyche of a cabin full of anxious or angry passengers. Perhaps the more violent incidents of air rage would decrease, and that effect could be measured as an unintended benefit.

But here is where we start running into trouble.

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The downside could arise when, for instance, an excitable captain decides to exercise his absolute -- and quite deserved -- control over the ship by breaking out a gun when survival is not, in fact, in the balance. It would be tough to resist the lure of using a pistol to help subdue an enraged and/or intoxicated passenger who had assaulted fellow travelers or crewmembers. Later, at whatever hearings or investigations are in order, it would be equally tough to doubt a captain's insistence that the flight was in grave danger. Thus, it's not inconceivable that the use, if not necessarily the firing, of a gun can become less of a last-ditch gesture of desperation than was intended.

And what, exactly, defines last-ditch? Without access to a locked and secure cockpit, a likely scenario involves a hostage-taking in the cabin. Is the crew to engage in a gun battle at 35,000 feet to save hostages? No, according to the underlying rules. But at what point might a pilot open fire, perhaps engaging a lone attacker in an unnecessary and dangerous firefight? To save the life of a flight attendant? An off-duty pilot or family member in the cabin? A child? Attempts at such gallantry, even when an airplane is not imminently pointed for the ground or a skyscraper, could be hard to resist. Skyjackings, in one form or another, have been taking place for decades. Nobody is recommending a captain or copilot set his sights on a gang toting grenades and AK-47s, but the potential exists for a deadly exchange that could otherwise be averted.

Ironically, many flight attendants also feel jeopardized by the idea of a cockpit-only restriction. What's to stop the murder of passengers or cabin personnel if it's assumed that pilots will not respond?

And while persistent security breaches at the nation's terminals are cause for alarm, do we hand a critical new responsibility to pilots, sky marshals, or both? How many guns are too many? Would cockpit firearms supplant, or supplement, the weaponry of sky marshals? Is the prospect of three or more armed individuals aboard an airliner a bit of literal and figurative overkill?

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The more theoretical scenarios are offered up, the more the stun gun idea, rather than a traditional live-round handgun, seems a more appropriate solution. It would be ideal for the close-at-hand defense a cockpit intruder would necessitate, and would eliminate a host of collateral implications. But in its July 10 vote, the House rejected this very idea, considering it too weak a defense against potential attackers.

Finally there exists the possibility, however remote, of purloined weapons being turned against their owners, or rogue crewmembers turning guns on one another or themselves. At least two air disasters were allegedly the result of pilot suicides -- the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, and Silk Air 737 that crashed in Malaysia.

Pilots' unions seem to have widespread support from their memberships. At ALPA, 73 percent of pilots approve of their organization's enthusiasm. Interestingly, this roughly three-quarter split can be traced cynically, if not scientifically, to opinions and ideals that exist outside the workplace. It's not uncommon to spot red and gold emblems of the National Rifle Association on the luggage and paraphernalia of pilots. Are these fellows the marrow of that 73 percent? This author's own casual queries among fellow pilots show an almost uncanny break along political/cultural lines. Those most eager to carry pistols aloft seem to be right-leaning types with military backgrounds. Those more hesitant tend to be less aligned with the more fiery and rhetorical aspects of post-9/11 patriotism.

Not all Democrats are squeamish about weapons, of course, and not all former military fliers and Republicans are pro-gun. This was demonstrated by the bipartisan congressional support of the recent legislation, and it would be foolish to overemphasize a left/right division when labor unions are leading the push. As one pilot at an ALPA-represented cargo carrier noted, "A few of the pilots opposed to the idea are retired military guys."

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But to remove culture from the context is to do a disservice to the entire debate. And do we press forward with an idea when a quarter of the participants think it's a bad one? As a group, airline pilots aren't generally known for subtlety or abstraction. The business has its closet intellectuals and bookish types, but your typical pilot is more likely a NASCAR fan with a suburban ranch house and a Jeep, than the kind of guy who relaxes in a turtleneck next to the fire reading St. Exupery. How this plays into the gun debate is hard to gauge, but there is a curious ideological undercurrent that betrays the matter as one less of safety, and more of emotion, than some pilots would admit.

In the ALPA call-to-arms, its typically articulate and well-reasoned opinion occasionally dips into cowboy blather. One of the points on its Web site proclaims that the mix of pilots and pistols is "a deterrent to terrorists and crackpots that believe breaching the cockpit is a freebie in America."

Stick that in your pipe, Osama.

But in the end, the kernel of the argument isn't one of patriotic posturing, shattering windows or the sovereignty of a flight deck. Rather, how useful and important is the idea in the first place? Are we giving valuable time and money to a red herring no different than the corkscrew confiscation already sucking up so much of our security resources? Are we distracting ourselves by pandering to a hunger for perceived safety?

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Pilots, their unions, the FAA and the airlines should be worrying more about bombs than about terrorists or crackpots invading the cockpit. It wasn't a gun that kept Richard Reid and his explosive sneakers from bringing down a fifth airplane last December. One post-September inspection revealed that during tests, explosives were making it past security screeners 60 percent of the time, much more frequently than either guns or knives. One would assume that other proposed safeguards, such as explosive-resistant luggage containers, would have received equal time with the haggling over guns.

In any case, the likelihood of another kamikaze-style attack has already been greatly reduced. An armed individual attempting to seize an airliner would likely not make it three steps up the aisle before succumbing to the panicked tackle of passengers or crew assuming nothing less than an outcome à la Sept. 11. In the words of one pilot, "God help the next son-of-a-bitch who tries something."

Granted we can't quantifiably gauge the deterrent factor, but some would argue that an accident is more likely to be caused by a cockpit firearm -- whether by accidental discharge, suicide, or any of the aforementioned -- than prevented by one.

Arming pilots is not a bad idea as much as it is a less crucial one than all the talk would imply. The small scale of the originally sought trial period, with its 2 percent cap, seemed to run up against much of pilots' own rhetoric, in a way underscoring a degree of irrelevance. How much of a deterrent would be in place when a crew was most likely not armed?

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Either way, the cost of implementing and regulating an armed pilot force is something the airlines and government balk at footing. Pilots would have to be trained and retrained. Procedures would need to be written and approved. Federal regulations would require overhaul. Company manuals would have to be amended and updated. All of this, to some extent, detracting from the pilots' -- and the airlines' -- foremost mission, which is not law enforcement or the oversight of firearms inventories, but the flying of airplanes.

The best result, in line both with common sense and a "Qualified to Defend" appeasement, is to keep the matter as voluntary as possible, and away from becoming an airline- and/or government-mandated requisite like seat belts and fire extinguishers. By deputizing pilots individually, at their choosing, albeit under some exacting rules and supervision, it would be possible to limit the scope and cost of what is, in the end, a somewhat relevant safeguard.

Pilots and their passengers face many potential, albeit unlikely dangers, and skyjackings are one of them. But at the risk of tempting another bug-eyed, fist-clenching testimonial on the dastardly deeds of last September, I ask what about the others? What about pressing for more comprehensive detection of explosives and bombs? What about the many weighty issues not related to security at all? Crew (and passenger) exposure to in-flight radiation, for instance?

We should take no offense at any pilot group's push to protect both itself and the flying public. But I wince, ever so slightly, at the push of this issue and its seeming importance in the public eye. No pilot should be armed, and not a minute should be wasted, at the expense of a more deserving cause.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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