Emergency Q&A About Arming Pilots

Posted: Sep 21, 2003 12:00 AM
My recent discussion of the Transportation Security Administration's foot-dragging when it comes to letting pilots bear arms earned both claps on the shoulder and punches in the nose. Here are some of the concerns readers expressed.

Q. Many pilots are ex-military! They already know how to shoot a gun! When I was in the military I was entrusted with guns, secret documents, and passwords--and nobody on our side ever thought twice about it! Pilots can be entrusted to fly a missile that can drop 100-story buildings, yet TSA can't trust them to bear arms? Ridiculous!

A. You're right. It's ridiculous that TSA is dithering about letting pilots carry guns who have already learned how to shoot one. Plus, those who are untrained can be trained very quickly. (I think first you point the gun, then activate it by squeezing a mechanism called the trigger.) Some readers have speculated about bureaucratic motives, but I prefer not to join in this speculation, as I am not an expert in psychopathology.

Q. Why in your column didn't you recommend that pilots start walking off the job until the TSA starts being more cooperative?

A. It's fine with me if pilot unions start scheduling walkouts to compel more attention to how pilots are being treated. I fly a lot, but I'd be willing to get knocked off a couple flights if it meant pilots could bear arms without being run through the ringer.

Q. What about pilots who are drunk? Should drunken pilots be allowed to fly the plane with a gun in their hip pocket?

A. No. On the other hand, drunken pilots should not be flying an airplane at all. I'm also opposed to drunken brain surgery.

Q. I have been in combat and I know that it is possible to shoot and miss! The adrenalin starts pumping and not all of the bullets adhere to the preferences of the person pulling the trigger. If you have a terrorist coming at a pilot and he shoots and misses, you risk puncturing the airplane or severing some crucial wire and killing all the passengers. Instead, let's just prevent all weapons from getting on board the plane in the first place.

A. By your reasoning, whenever one is confronted with a combat situation, the first thing to do is read a book.

A few points. First, for the past two years airport security personnel have been pouncing on tweezers, nail clippers, and bullet-shaped brooches in the name of "security" even as persons testing the system have managed to penetrate this "security" again and again carrying actual weapons. And we can be sure that all the top terrorist masterminds are pondering the problem of how to smuggle weapons on board American airplanes despite airport security and pseudo-security.

Second, a few bullets in the wall of a jumbo jet are not going to automatically depressurize the whole plane and reproduce a 1970s disaster movie scenario. Sure, a bullet could go into the exactly the wrong place and cause trouble, maybe even blow up the plane. But this possibility would arise only when everybody's life is already at immediate, grave risk. Our choice in that situation is give up and die, or fight back. And the best way to fight back against a suicidal terrorist trying to kill you is to kill the terrorist first. He is not going to agree to settle things with a game of paper-scissors-rock.

Third, a pilot will most likely be aiming his gun as the terrorist is smashing through the cockpit door. That arena isn't Grand Central Station. What the pilot would need to do is shoot at the terrorist coming through the door.

Every combat situation is attended by a slew of uncertainties. But at least one thing is certain if pilots have guns: a hijacker paying a visit to the pilots can be shot.

Q. If terrorists manage to take over the passenger cabin but cannot breach the cockpit, what then? You don't want the pilots opening the cockpit door so they can take aim at the terrorists, do you? That might give the terrorists a chance to fly the plane. (And we know they take flying lessons.)

A. Good question. The pilots don't want the terrorists to have an opportunity to use the plane as a missile. But why must it be so easy to take over the passenger cabin?

Other readers tell me that we don't have to worry about terrorists breaching the cockpit, because the passengers would be all over the terrorists in a minute, once the terrorists make their presence known. I do agree that the best development in airline security is the fact that passengers are much less likely to respond passively to a hijacking attempt.

But the truth is that we don't know exactly how any particular suicidal-terrorist hijacking will play out. The situation is atypical, and if terrorists try this sort of mid-air assault again they will probably revise their game plan. I see no reason why flight attendants can't be armed as well, if they can bear arms in such a way that a passenger cannot grab the weapon or even know where it is hidden. If this isn't realistic, perhaps weapons can be cached in special compartments. And why not make it possible to flood the passenger cabin with knockout gas from within the cockpit? The point is to find a way to fight back, rather than surrender.

Q. Two words: flare guns. They are part of standard flight survival equipment. The crew should already know how to use such items, and they are dangerous and single-shot. And if it's Muslim terrorists we have to worry about the most, encasing bullets in hardened pork skins might also serve as a deterrent.

A. I think Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. I don't know that they're forbidden from being shot by pork. Anyway, the tiny minority of Muslims who are terrorists are very selective about which religious precepts to follow. The bottom line is: any way passengers and crew can prepare to defend themselves against a terrorist attack is all to the good. I suppose it isn't tenable to install rubber-bullet-shooting machine guns in the ceiling next to the gas masks, with flight attendants demonstrating the usage of these droppable AK-47s at the beginning of each flight. But there must be many ways to plan for a terrorist contingency in addition to the two or three we've heard about. All it takes is American ingenuity and imagination to come up with plenty of options.

Q. Sure, there are a million ways to improve in-flight security in the post-911 era. But you seem to be forgetting that airline security is a monopoly of the FAA and the TSA. Don't you think that the airlines should be allowed to compete in offering security solutions, instead of just being forced to follow the orders of regulation-quoting bureaucrats?

A. Yes I do, which is why I planted your question.