December 23, 2003


Latest Scare Shows Need For Better Gun Program, Pilots Say (Adrian Schofield, December 23, 2003, Aviation Daily)

U.S. pilot groups believe the latest security alert highlights the fact that not enough pilots have been trained to carry firearms in the cockpit, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) needs to accelerate the training process.

The Airline Pilots Security Alliance said only 500-1,000 pilots have been trained in the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program, which is "rife with roadblocks" that discourage pilots from signing up. TSA "needs to fix the [FFDO] program before the next orange alert," APSA said, including lifting the training rate, improving screening process, and eliminating the requirement for guns to be carried in lock boxes.

Except, of course, that the latest scare was something quite different, a scare which demonstrates the point that guns in cockpits would be a greater threat to safety than terrorists are. The argument over guns has little to do with safety and much to do with Second Amendment ideology.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 23, 2003 2:20 PM

oj --

Whoever sincerely believes that inhibriated pilots is a real and chronic problem should think that flying, PERIOD, is an unacceptable risk; and pilots carrying guns, but noise on the risk scale.

I have to assume that you do not challenge that, in general, there are numerous reasons (and studies behind them) to suggest that guns are an effective enhancer of personal and societal safety (aside from being an ideological, conservative, constitutional issue). Thus, I have to assume that your comment relates only to the guns-in-cockpit issue (where I would assume there can not be any studies -- yet -- to validate the claim). Still, I wonder what you think of Lott's work on both areas.

Posted by: MG at December 23, 2003 2:39 PM

Actually, oj, if we just legalize the shooting of drunk co-pilots, then guns in the cockpit might solve the drunkenness problem and make flying appreciably safer.

Posted by: pj at December 23, 2003 3:10 PM

I second oj's opinion though for a different reason.

If guns are readily available to aircrew, it won't be long before one is used to subdue an 'unruly' passenger who is in no way, shape, or form a terrorist. Incidents where aircrew use threats and excessive force against passengers aren't rare, and are only going to be made worse by giving pilots a weapon.

The pilot's job is driving the plane, not playing Rambo. Bar the cockpit doors, and spend the target practice money on more air marshalls.

Posted by: Chris at December 23, 2003 3:34 PM


I have no problem with folks carrying guns in environments where you might reasonably expect bad guys to have them--planes are manifestly not such an environment.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 4:17 PM

You don't need many actual guns if you can persuade people there are many.

We are having a debate here about kayakers coming into a natural area reserve. What's the best solution: limited permit system, total exclusion, self-policing?

I suggested just anchoring buoys with placards reading "Tiger Shark Restocking Project."

As usual, nobody took me seriously.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 23, 2003 4:38 PM

Chris --

I recommend that you read Loot's The Bias Against Guns. He works out the cost ineffectiveness (to the point of almost impossibility) of providing gun defense in airplanes via dedicated marshalls on all flights. Moreover, your concern on guns eventually being used against "unruly" passangers would not go away, unless you thought that marshalls are much better than pilots at self-restraint, etc. Remember that to provide such blanket coverage would lead to hiring the bottom bottom of the barrell. Think federal airport security. (There are alternatives, that while not sufficient to provide all the marshalls needed, we should also be considering, but current laws make impossible -- allow off duty policemen to carry them, even give them discounts.)

oj --

Clearly bad guys can carry a lot of things into an airplane, which would require some means of defense on the part of the citizenry and the crew -- short of self-sacrifice, like UA 93. In the post 9/11 world are we safer regardless of whether pilots carry guns or not? Sure, as the element of surprise is gone. I think those who propose facilitating pilots' carrying guns do so on pretty objective cost-benefit analysis, not ideology.

The analysis may end up being wrong (though one learns surprising things, like an airplane's relative structural resilience to being punctured with bullets of a wide range of calibers -- something you may never hear on Good Morning America) or may err too much on national security instead of individual security. I think we should give this a break.

Posted by: MG at December 23, 2003 4:39 PM


As a career pilot (20 yrs in the AF, 3 with a major airline), I am hobbled by having to rely on first hand knowledge.

As with many problems, this one goes back a ways. The official US position is to never negotiate with terrorists. Unfortunately, throughout the history of hijackings, that is precisely what we did. Pilots were trained to do virtually anything the hijackers asked in order to preserve passenger lives.

Had the US from the outset of airline hijackings simply directed that all hijacked aircraft would be met with overwhelming force wherever they landed, pilots directed to make that place convenient to our forces, and we backed it up with reinforced fligh deck doors, the airline hijacking phenomena would have been very short lived.

Unfortunately, it took 9/11 to wake us up to the futility of negotiating with terrorists. In the event of hijacking, airline pilots are now directed to put the aircraft on the nearest suitable runway, regardless of whether hijackers are stacking passengers like so much cordwood.. And aircraft now have reinforced flight deck doors.

In a sense, OJ is right. With an actual no-negotiation policy and doors to back it up, armed pilots are a meaningless redundancy.


Harry is also right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with defense in depth, and anything that adds complications to terrorist planning is a good thing.

MG, PJ: I'll bet drunk pilots are far less common than drunk [fill in the blank]. Obviously they are out there, and even one is too many, but I have yet to run into one personally. Additionally, I don't know of even one airline accident where alcohol was even a contributing factor.

Pilots don't leave the flight deck for any reason not involving the restroom--including unruly passengers.

MG is precisely correct in noting the resilience of aircraft structures. Remember the Hawaiian Air 737 that lost a third of the upper fuselage, and landed safely? Bullet holes are mere trivia in comparison.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 23, 2003 6:50 PM


A surfeit of wisdom and common sense. Thanks.

Posted by: Peter B at December 23, 2003 7:21 PM

Jeff - I don't think drunken pilots are a problem but I don't think armed pilots would be a problem either. So I'm challenging OJ's suggestion that both are problems and the two together would be worse. And a wise choice it was to leave the cogent responding to you and MG, who did it with far more knowledge and wit than I could have mustered.

Posted by: pj at December 23, 2003 9:19 PM

Of the three, terrorists are the smallest problem.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 9:40 PM

How many airline deaths have been attributable to drunk pilots?

The available evidence so far--body count--contradicts your assertion.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 24, 2003 6:06 AM

A plane will be flown today by a pilot under the influence, none will be hijacked.

Posted by: oj at December 24, 2003 8:31 AM

Apparently the betting is that if you depend on French security and let the planes take off, one would have been hijacked today.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 24, 2003 8:05 PM

That is as may be. But that problem has been far less effective at adding to the premature death count than terrorism.

Maybe it is just because I am a morally blinkered materialist, but I find that whole premature death thing pretty convincing as to which is the worst problem.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 25, 2003 4:51 PM

Yes, well, that meteor stike that wiped out the dinosaurs caused a lot of premature deaths too, but it seems more productive to worry about immediate dangers. In the case of flying that would be pilot error more than hijacking. In particular, it seems to make more sense to worry abbout the immediate threats because they're so easily dealt with--keep the gun ban and put breathalyzers in the steering columns.

Posted by: oj at December 25, 2003 5:01 PM

That would have been a pretty convincing argument 20 years ago, Orrin, but pilot error (at least on Western airlines) has turned into a vanishingly small problem.

There have been several years in the last 10 in which the death toll on modern scheduled carriers from pilot (or maintenance) error was zero.

Jeff probably remembers better than I do, but I think the last US crash involving error (management, in this case) was the Alaska Airlines crash off California, about a decade ago.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 26, 2003 3:41 PM

Yeah? There were no successful hijackings for like twenty years prior to 9-11.

Posted by: oj at December 26, 2003 4:39 PM

Watch that first step, it's a killer.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 26, 2003 8:58 PM

Since the Alaska Airlines crash, an American Airlines plane went off the runway in Little Rock, AK, killing about 11 people. The aircrew landed despite thunderstorm generated winds exceeding ops limits. And Fed Ex has trashed five airplanes in the last five years (one two weeks ago in Memphis) in landing accidents that have all been due to pilot error. But since there were no fatalities, they didn't get much press.

But overall, you are correct. Historically, pilot error has been the cause of roughly 80% of all accidents. Over the last ten years though, that portion has plummeted.

9-11 wouldn't have happened if we had an established policy of no negotiations under any circumstances ever.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 27, 2003 8:28 AM

Point taken about hijackers, Orrin, but I think it is necessary to distinguish two kinds.

The kind that is pretty much extinct is when the hijackers expect to walk off the plane in Havana at the end. When they intend to get killed, as we've seen, new avenues open.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 27, 2003 2:56 PM