Guns and Gear

Don’t disarm pilots

Tracy Price Airline Pilot
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Large numbers of airline pilots have been trained, deputized as federal law enforcement officers (they’re officially known as federal flight deck officers, or FFDOs) and armed since 2003. The Obama administration has proposed reducing funding for the FFDO program by 50%, which would effectively gut the program. The $12 million in savings Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano proposes amounts to 0.00013% of the deficit for 2013 and 0.062% of the 2012 DHS budget, but government spending has exploded and spending cuts have to start somewhere. Reasonable Americans might ask, “Should we continue to fund an armed airline pilot program?”

The answer is yes. Arming pilots is efficient, effective and extremely inexpensive national defense.

The first thing to understand is that if the Obama administration succeeds in killing the armed pilot program, pilots will no longer be able to defend their passengers and crews with firearms. Each armed pilot must be a deputized federal law enforcement officer and may only carry the firearm issued to him by the TSA after completion of government training. Each pilot must pass a government psychological examination and complete an evaluation with a psychologist. No pilot may carry his personal weapon or use any equipment not issued by the government. Thus, if the administration succeeds in killing the armed pilot program, the number of armed pilots will be zero and the cockpit of every airliner will be undefended — just as they were on September 11, 2001.

Arming pilots is not a new idea. In fact, airline pilots flew armed from the dawn of commercial aviation to 1987 with no record of incident. When the federal government disarmed pilots in 1987, many pilots predicted cockpit takeover attempts — including the late Captain Victor Saracini who, in tragic irony, was the captain of United Flight 175 on September 11, 2001 when his Boeing 767 was hijacked and crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. It was the disarming of pilots in 1987 that inevitably led to the 9/11 cockpit takeovers.

Prior to the inception of the FFDO program, there were reckless predictions of accidental shootings and safety degradations. The facts illustrate the absurdity of these claims. The number of pilots who have stepped forward to attend training (paying for their own transportation, room and board, etc.) is huge. Airline pilots have been (re)armed for nearly a decade and the program has a safety record that rivals that of any law enforcement agency in the country.

The FFDO program is extremely efficient and effective. FFDOs protect their airplanes from the best tactical location on an airplane: behind the reinforced cockpit door. Because all FFDOs are unpaid volunteers and because of their large numbers, they protect far more flights for a tiny fraction of the cost of the Federal Air Marshals; it costs $15 per flight for an FFDO compared to at least $2,500 per flight for an air marshal. If an attack occurs and the air marshals are overcome (or are not on board) when the killers breach the cockpit door to find defenseless pilots, everyone on board — and possibly thousands on the ground — will be killed.

Secretary Napolitano has offered the strengthened cockpit door as a reason that armed pilots are no longer needed. But when the first pilots were armed in April 2003, all airliners had long been retrofitted with the reinforced cockpit doors. Wisely, few were willing to bet the lives of hundreds (or thousands) of people on the hope that the door would withstand a sustained attack from killers who had been trained to quickly breach it. Terrorists know what security experts have long known: there is no such thing as an impenetrable door. The reinforced cockpit door will slow terrorists from breaking into the cockpit, but it is foolish to blithely assume that it will stop them.

Secretary Napolitano told Congress that the administration wants to strangle the FFDO program because it is not “risk based” and the administration want to move to a risk-based system. Essentially the secretary is saying, “Trust me, I know where all the threats are.” But “trust me” from a government bureaucrat is simply not enough. Janet Napolitano may think that she is smart enough to micromanage a vast security system and anticipate every threat, but airline pilots demand something much more tangible and reliable than a bureaucrat’s promise.

It’s natural that people are becoming more complacent about airline security as 9/11 fades further into history, but complacency is a luxury airline pilots cannot afford. Arming airline pilots is effective, safe, efficient and very inexpensive. How many government programs can make that claim?

The U.S. military stands ready to destroy an unarmed airliner that has been commandeered, killing everyone on board. I ask this question of government officials who have forgotten the lessons of 9/11: How can you support the use of military force to kill innocent people on an airliner while at the same time denying their pilot the gun that could save their lives?

Captain Tracy Price has been an airline pilot for over 25 years, the past 19 as a Boeing 737 captain for a major U.S. airline. His opinion pieces on airline security and gun issues have appeared in The Washington Times, The New York Post, Aviation Week & Space Technology, First Freedom and many other publications.