Ask the pilot

When pilots carry guns. Plus: Airport security and yet more TSA brainteasers.

Published March 28, 2008 11:02AM (EDT)

On March 22, a pilot's .40-caliber handgun accidentally discharged in the cockpit of a US Airways flight bound for Charlotte, N.C. The crew member, who has not been identified, is one of an undisclosed number of airline pilots authorized to carry firearms as part of the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, created after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Investigators are looking into what caused the gun to fire. The jet, an Airbus A319, was removed from service pending a damage inspection.

A couple of days later our old friends the Associated Press dispatched a pair of wire stories on the incident -- both of which were in need of some, um, clarification.

The first article, in describing the FFDO program, included the following: "The program allows eligible crew members -- including pilots, navigators and flight engineers -- to use a firearm to defend against any act of air piracy or criminal violence."

Well, OK, but for what it's worth commercial aircraft no longer carry navigators. There have not been navigators on any U.S. registered commercial aircraft for many years.

The second story featured a rather reckless quote from aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who heads the Boyd Group, a Colorado-based firm: "If that bullet had compromised the shell of the airplane," stated Boyd, "the airplane could have gone down."

Is this true? As discussed in this column in 2004, the dynamics of a cabin decompression will differ, varying mainly on the aircraft's altitude (i.e., the amount of pressurization) and speed, and the specific location and size of any breach. However, a bullet puncture is highly unlikely to bring on any sort of catastrophe. The Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" series once tested the premise that a bullet penetrating the skin of an airliner would result in disaster. It sealed and pressurized several mothballed commercial aircraft to re-create the conditions of high-altitude flight, then remotely fired a 9 mm pistol from inside. The results were surprising. Even when a window was completely blown out, the punctures did not create larger tears in the structure, at worst inducing a manageable rate of decompression. (Indeed, photographs of the US Airways jet reveal a fuselage puncture near one of the left-side cockpit windows.)

Boyd has been watching too many movies, and it was irresponsible of the AP to include his comment.

To be fair, by Wednesday the AP had better control of the facts. The story quoting Boyd was effectively pulled; links to the original now connect to a newer and more accurate version, with decent analysis by a pair of aeronautics professors. One of the professors brings up the 1988 Aloha Airlines cabin burst, in which, despite violent structural failure, the aircraft made a successful emergency landing. I made the identical comparison in that column in '04.

Boyd's overzealous comment may have been a case of expedience. I got the feeling he was using the opportunity to express his displeasure with the policy of pilots carrying guns. On this, he and I share some common ground. I don't consider the FFDO program a dangerous idea so much as a not very useful one; its value as a deterrent is highly exaggerated, reliant on a skyjacking template that is all but obsolete to terrorists.

More on that in a moment. In the meantime, speaking of not-very-useful security measures ...

I was pleasantly surprised recently to hear the German magazine Die Welt reporting that the European Union Parliament had called for elimination of the senseless liquids and gels restrictions at European airports. Parliament members called the current regulations "not intelligent," and said they deliver "no increase of security." Most experts would agree.

If you've forgotten, the restrictions stem from an alleged terror plot foiled by authorities in London two summers ago. A gang of would-be terrorists were hoping to bring down several jetliners using liquid explosives. (Their plan was something of a Project Bojinka knockoff, harking back to Ramzi Yousef's foiled plan to bomb a dozen U.S. jetliners over the Pacific in 1995.) Following the bust, the doomsday rhetoric was hard to ignore, with government spokespeople citing that we were "days away" from a massive attack. In Europe and America, a sweeping set of rules was enacted, restricting the carriage of liquids, gels and aerosols to 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or less per container. Sales of zip-lock bags went through the roof.

Much of what we were told turned out to be hooey. Shortly after the arrests, a New York Times story revealed that the conspirators had been known to law enforcement officials for more than a year. The plot's leaders were still in the process of recruiting and radicalizing would-be bombers. They lacked passports and airline tickets and, most critical of all, had been unsuccessful in producing liquid explosives. "The reactions of Britain and the United States," said the Times "... were driven less by information about a specific, imminent attack than fear that other, unknown terrorists might strike." As for the scope of the attack, British officials described the widely parroted report that up to 10 U.S. airliners had been targeted as "speculative" and "exaggerated."

Among those who expressed serious skepticism about the bombers' readiness was Thomas Greene, whose essay in the Register, published a week after the arrests in London, explored the extreme difficulty faced in mixing and deploying the types of binary explosives purportedly to be used. Greene is the Register's associate editor, and has written extensively on security issues. In researching his story, he conferred with professor Jimmie C. Oxley, an explosives specialist.

Speaking with me in August 2006, Greene conceded that the threat of liquid explosives does exist, but that they cannot be readily brewed from the kinds of liquids we have since devoted most of our attention and resources to keeping away from airplanes. Certain benign liquids, when combined under highly specific conditions, are indeed dangerous. However, creating those conditions poses enormous challenges for a saboteur. "The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane lavatory is pure fiction," said Greene. "A handy gimmick for action movies and shows like '24.' The reality proves disappointing: It's rather awkward to do chemistry in an airplane toilet. Nevertheless, our official protectors and deciders respond to such notions instinctively, because they're familiar to us: We've all seen scenarios on television and in the cinema. This, incredibly, is why you can no longer carry a bottle of water onto a plane."

Incredibly indeed.

Whatever their reasons for giving the restrictions a second look, we should not accuse the Europeans of being cavalier. The spectacle of Sept. 11 notwithstanding, nobody is more familiar with the habits of terrorists than the Europeans. From Black September to Lockerbie, they've been dealing with violent air crimes for 40 years. Call me naive, but if members of the EU Parliament deems it sensible to abandon the liquids ban, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Alas, it won't be happening anytime soon. False alarm. Rulings of the EU Parliament are unbinding and routinely ignored, as was this one. An earlier vote to repeal the ban, urged on by the Norwegian Ministry of Transportation, similarly went nowhere, despite a 464-158 vote. Leading the charge to keep the strictures in place was the only nation crazier about airport security than we are, Great Britain.

Nonetheless, it is heartening to know the Europeans are at least debating the issue, and that people in government, including transportation officials, are lobbying for repeal. There is no such organized movement in America.

An interesting question: What would America's beleaguered Transportation Security Administration choose to do if, at some point, Europe does change its mind? Failing to follow suit would, among other complications, result in serious problems at U.S. airports. Tens of thousands of passengers arrive from Europe daily and connect onward to domestic flights. Imagine the confusion if regulations were not compatible.

Then again, we should hardly be surprised if U.S. authorities insist on enforcing their own set of rules. You see it already. In Latin America, for example, local security personnel are forced to set up gate-side screening tables exclusively for flights to the United States. After passing through the standard metal detector and X-ray station, which does not enforce a liquids ban, passengers get in line to have their carry-on bags hand-searched for any oversize containers. Those headed elsewhere are exempt from such nonsense.

These gate-side checks are not only tedious but useless. In South America recently I was sitting at a crowded gate and witnessed something hilarious -- or maybe sad is the better term: At the screening tables, a handful of contract guards were ransacking carry-ons, but there was no frisking or pat-downs of passengers themselves. So, as the line snaked forward in agonizing slow motion, people would simply reach into their bags, remove any toothpaste or other personal effects they'd rather not forfeit, and slip them into their pockets!

Over the past six years or so I have written upward of 20 columns on airport security and the TSA. Through it all I've found myself searching for a word -- a single word that might encapsulate the nonsense we go through, from the pointy-object confiscations to the shoe removals to the childish folly I just described. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there is no single word that can simultaneously account for things wasteful, pointless, humiliating and immature. Neither is there a word to describe the level of frustration some of us feel when we are required, at the risk of confrontation and hollering, to treat obviously silly rules with unmatched seriousness.

What we're dealing with is, to some extent, human nature. At this point the TSA is the kind of self-perpetuating beast that inevitably results when a bureaucracy is granted lots of power and little actual purpose. But also, we have spent six years living in a state of institutional denial. Our government, willfully or otherwise, refuses to admit a basic and irrefutable premise: that the attacks of Sept. 11 were not, in fact, caused by a failure of airport security. As I've posited many times before, the hijackers did not exploit a weakness in security, they exploited our mind-set -- our understanding and assumptions, based on dozens of earlier events, of how a hijacking is supposed to unfold. What weapons the men carried aboard was irrelevant. Thus the plot, in its brutal simplicity, was all but guaranteed to succeed. Today, due chiefly to the awareness of passengers and crew, just the opposite is true, and no group of terrorists would be stupid enough to attempt a takeover with such a high likelihood of failure. (This is my reason for criticizing the FFDO initiative.)

Nevertheless, the government insists on combing through luggage for box cutters, small knives, razors and scissors. Regardless of how this does or doesn't make sense on a philosophical level, per above, do we need reminding that a weapon can easily be fashioned from almost anything, including materials found aboard any plane? The government also insists on banning liquids and gels, despite expert testimony that doing so is unhelpful, and despite the reality that such measures are easily skirted. And last but not least, in perhaps the most glaring example of self-defeating foolishness and public insult, it insists on subjecting pilots and flight attendants to the same screening protocols as passengers, while other airport employees, including those with full access to planes (caterers, cleaners, cargo loaders, etc.), are subject only to occasional random checks.

(On that last point, the Air Line Pilots Association has been fighting for implementation of something called CrewPASS, a system that would allow properly credentialed airline crew members to bypass the X-ray belt and metal detectors. A similar program is already used in Canada. It's a sensible idea that would speed up screening for everybody. But as one ALPA official puts it, "Progress at the TSA level has been glacial at best.")

Where are we headed? I've been asked on several occasions if I believe that a change of presidents -- or more specifically a change of presidential party -- might make a difference. Conventional wisdom holds that a Democratic administration would be less tolerant of the pseudo security we've grown accustomed to. Will the TSA be overhauled, assuming the fear-mongers are washed out of office next fall?

It's a nice thought, and it's not unreasonable to expect that policies would be revised, albeit slowly, incrementally. (And if we need our friends across the Atlantic to make the first moves and show us the way, so be it.) However, I'm unsure if public sentiment is strong enough to inspire anything drastic. There needs to be a more audible level of outrage from airlines and their customers. To date there has been plenty of bitching, but little formal complaint, particularly where it would do the most good: at airports. On the contrary, travelers appear willing to do almost anything they are asked. Fear, as much as apathy, is one of the reasons why. People are annoyed, and even amused, by the TSA, but they are hesitant to speak out, afraid of being detained or blacklisted. I have witnessed the majority of TSA guards acting professionally and courteously, dealing as best they can with cranky passengers and the impossible task of rooting out "weapons" of every conceivable shape and size. But I have also seen them be rude, bullying and confrontational, intimidating travelers into submission like a bunch of crooked cops.

And the end of the day, perhaps there aren't enough citizens who really care. Most Americans are not frequent fliers. While hassle at the airport is unfortunate, they have more pressing concerns. People deal with it and move on.

I was thinking, though. While a TSA tear-down would be more than welcome, there are certain aspects of the airport screening ritual that some of us might miss. If you're patient and open-minded about it, going through security can be entertaining, allowing for the same sorts of voyeuristic thrills as grocery shopping. We get a unique, if occasionally troubling insight into our fellow travelers' lives -- or at least their taste in hygiene products and electronics. Come on, who doesn't crane their necks when the guard shouts "bag check!" eager to catch a glimpse of the offending item, hoping it's something scandalous. And who of us doesn't relish the chance to feel superior as we compare our tastes in footwear, luggage, computers and personal entertainment devices?

And like the supermarket, the concourse checkpoint could be the ideal kindling spot for romance. "I see that you're a MacBook user. Care to join me for a Chick-fil-A combo meal at Gate 6?"

And am I the only one who hasn't fantasized about various pranks one might play on our hapless TSA minders? Back in 2006 I wrote of the time my mother attempted to carry frozen tomato sauce through a checkpoint in Boston. Guards had a difficult time determining whether the block of marinara was a liquid. That brought up the issue of mashed potatoes, and several other hypothetical challenges.

Here's a new one: snowshoes. What if a passenger tries to wear snowshoes through the metal detector? Would he or she have to take them off? Not that TSA's procedures generally follow logic, but snowshoes have no soles, and should thus be exempt from the X-ray inspection. Would somebody try this, please?

Another, more daring proposal: packing a toiletries kit full of live earthworms, with a small bottle of shampoo in the center. "I'm telling you, sir, it's 3 ounces. But if you really want to check, be my guest."

And so on. My friend Dave Blakney, who today fronts the Boston rock band the Black Clouds, once came up with the idea of packing a gun-shaped piece of aluminum in a roll-aboard bag, surrounded by a hundred pounds of loose sand, or maybe marbles. This was years before Sept. 11. Dave was ahead of his time.

Such games might not qualify as valuable experiments of civil disobedience, but they sure would be fun.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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