Packing Heat in the Cockpit, Part II

A little over three years ago, this column discussed a contentious issue. The issue concerned guns in an airline cockpit. I took an opposing view. My arguments had valid reasons, but they were based on the unknown. And for the most part, the procedures for arming pilots were an unknown even to the architects of the plan.

Regardless, my fellow pilots should be applauded for their tireless efforts in writing a new chapter of airline history. But at the time, I felt as though they were reacting out of pure adrenaline in the wake of September 11. It was an understandable reaction. My airline lost two crews and two airplanes that day, notwithstanding the thousands of other lives. Airline pilots are not the type to sit on their hands and wait for somebody else to solve the problem. As the investigations into September 11 uncovered the facts, we all learned about our enemy. The enemy was not a haphazard group of unshaven, Middle Eastern men envious of American freedoms, but an organized army of educated religious zealots who wanted to unite the Islamic world by way of death and destruction. I did the research. I had to. I owed it to my passengers because, believe it or not, the enemy is still out there. But this magazine is not the forum to discuss that research. It is the forum to discuss what has happened since the first training class of airline pilots walked into the cockpit with a gun. As you may have guessed, I am not a fan of guns. Up until a burglary at our home when I was young, my Dad-a World War II vet-had a very small collection of military handguns. My Dad bought me my first 22 rifle. We shot at targets together. As I grew older, the newspapers began to fill with tragic stories about lives destroyed by guns. Families that kept guns as a self-protection device were becoming victims of their own weapons. I lost interest in guns. Many of the pilots who advocated a lethal weapon in the cockpit had military backgrounds. I held an underlying fear that they were overzealous. In my eyes, the risk didn't seem to outweigh the potential threat. The possibility of death or injury from one's personal handgun seemed far greater than another terrorist attack.

When the first Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) sat down in the right seat as my copilot, the sight of a fully loaded semi-automatic weapon was not something I had ever imagined in my career.

"I'm not an advocate of guns in the cockpit, but I respect your convictions," I said. "I understand," my copilot replied with a solemn nod.

Voices were never raised. No argument ensued. My copilot's demeanor never went beyond calm professionalism. I half expected Wyatt Earp. Instead, I got Neil Armstrong at the moment he announced, "The Eagle has landed," as though he had simply parked his Buick.

No, I wasn't surprised, but I had my doubts. And as I was to find out later, with very few exceptions, my doubts were unfounded. So what is involved with becoming an FFDO? It is a voluntary program. To qualify, a pilot must be a U.S. citizen employed by a U.S. air carrier that transports passengers or cargo. (Cargo pilots were not part of the original legislation. About one year after the program began, the TSA finally acknowledged that an airplane could still be used as a missile even if it just carried overnight envelopes.)

Although every airline has its own screening procedures for their initial hiring process, an FFDO applicant must complete a separate background check and a separate psychological exam. The psychological exam includes both a written test and an interview with a designated psychiatrist. The pilot's supervisors and references are interviewed. If all criteria meet specified standards, the pilot is eligible to begin training.

It becomes the pilot's responsibility to adjust their own flight schedule in order to attend the training. Some pilots utilize vacation days. Others simply trade or drop trips. The airlines do not pay for any part of the training, nor do they compensate a pilot for time lost. Your tax dollars and the U.S. government pay only for the cost of the training. Room and board for the training comes out of the pilot's own pocket.

FFDO school is an intense week of 12-hour days in the middle of the high desert at a government-owned facility. It is a three-hour bus ride from the two closest southwestern airports. Many other federal law enforcement agencies train at the facility.

Arrival day is an orientation period. ID badges are processed, training attire is issued, cafeteria passes are obtained, rooms are assigned and class material is handed out.

The first day begins with an informal march from the cafeteria to the auditorium. The curriculum and the instructors are introduced. A mini-physical exam is given. Because of the altitude and anxiety levels, blood pressure and heart rates tend to be higher than normal. Unfortunately, some pilots are asked to come back another time.

The remainder of the seven days are filled with classroom study, defensive tactic training, survival strategies, legal issues and, of course, firearm training.

The instructors have a wide variety of law enforcement backgrounds. Some have been Border Patrol cops, while others have been Navy Seals. The experience levels are long and distinguished. It is a testament to the instructors' abilities that they can maintain a courteous demeanor with a 30- to 50-something-year-old man who can land a 300,000-pound airplane in a blinding rainstorm, but is fumbling with the finer points of a deadly weapon. Why would these instructors prefer to teach a middle-aged airline pilot the skills necessary to defend the cockpit rather than train an energetic, 20-something Secret Service candidate how to protect government officials? One major reason is the fact that an airline pilot has volunteered to protect the public without compensation. Conviction is the motivation. Another reason is that airline pilots are meticulous with rules and procedures.

The physical training of the FFDO program consumes a major portion of time. It's understandable. The main objective is to keep the cockpit from becoming a weapons platform. Pilots are taught techniques to defend themselves and to subdue an intruder. The techniques are airplane specific.

Pilots are paired with other pilot partners. Although the instructors can be as graceful as ballet teachers, it is not uncommon for a trainee to end the day with a little less blood, a little less skin and a lot more bruising. Advil is never in short supply.

The virtual simulators that are used as part of the curriculum can compete with anything that might be available at the finest video arcade. The simulators create an airplane scenario that requires the pilot trainee to make a decision on the use or nonuse of deadly force.

In addition, the training facility acquired three 727 fuselages complete with an equipped cockpit and full cabin seating. Ironically enough, the airplanes were once part of my airline's fleet. The fuselages are used as airplane trainers. Pilots are given realistic scenarios with fellow trainees used as "bad guys." If a trainee is self-conscious about role playing, the feeling disappears in the split second that the cockpit door swings open. The firearms portion of the training is accomplished on the numerous ranges available at the facility. By the final day, there is no doubt as to the pilot's capabilities. The weapon is officially issued to the FFDO upon successful completion of the program.

The final two days of training include a classroom exam, a virtual simulator scenario and firearm target qualification. An official graduation ceremony completes the course. The new FFDO receives a certificate and his or her U.S. government issued credentials. The FFDO becomes a licensed law enforcement officer.

To the credit of many people, which included pilots and experienced law enforcement professionals, all of the logistical issues that were before the TSA four years ago as part of the legislation to arm pilots were addressed. Some of these items I can discuss, others have to remain classified information. Starting with the weapon, suffice it to say that the gun is semi-automatic. The ammunition is designed to stop a terrorist threat without destroying the airplane structure. A stray bullet is more of a concern for cockpit equipment than it is for the airplane skin. A stray bullet that pierces the fuselage will have little to no effect on pressurization.

The training standards for qualification and requalification were another concern. Again, through the input of pilots and law enforcement professionals the criteria were established. The criteria follow proven guidelines. For obvious security reasons, the specifics cannot be discussed in a public forum. Although no system is without its flaws, there have been very few reports of problems. Judging by the caliber of the people among the FFDO ranks, the standards are working.

Much has been discussed as to the specific jurisdiction of an FFDO. Is he or she responsible for defending the entire airplane or just the cockpit? Sensitive security information notwithstanding, it is safe to say that if a pilot is armed, anyone attempting to enter the cockpit in flight without authorization will not enjoy the rest of the day.

Dividing responsibility among pilots, whether one or both are qualified FFDOs, was also a concern. Somebody has to have the task of flying the airplane even in the midst of a terrorist attack. A standard pre-departure briefing always includes each pilot's duties during the initial portion of an airplane emergency. In the same manner, one pilot will be designated the task of confronting a terrorist threat. The captain as the PIC still determines the duties regardless of FFDO status. However, no pilot may prevent an FFDO from carrying their weapon into the cockpit.

Another piece of the puzzle that was a concern at the time of the legislation was the interaction of the Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) and the FFDO program. The FFDO program has just recently become a FAM jurisdiction. The FFDO program is complimentary to the FAM's mission. FFDOs and FAMs play well together. I'm paraphrasing, but it has been said that FFDOs provide twice the coverage for a fraction of the cost.

If FAMs are on board, their location and intentions are well-coordinated. In addition, other armed law enforcement personnel on board are made aware of each other's presence.

Although the FFDO program began with a lot of media attention, it is now flying almost under the radar. And that's a good indication of its success. The program celebrated its third year in April. Despite the high marks, it is no secret that improvements would attract a greater number of pilots to the ranks. What improvements?

One of the biggest stumbling blocks with most pilots who are considering the FFDO program is the transportation and carriage of the weapon. At present, procedures dictate a cumbersome method. The method adds to the already burdensome load of manuals and personal luggage that an airline pilot must carry as part of their toolkit. A recently formed study group is researching and advocating other weapon carrying methods. A new method is not far from approval. Another issue is the procedure for carrying out the mission when in an international status. This procedure is also under consideration by the same study group. Any change requires coordination with the Department of State (DOS). The initial negotiation with the DOS has already begun.

As part of the job, airline pilots are always under the microscope. It comes with the territory. Airline pilots are required to demonstrate their proficiency at least once during the year in the form of a check ride. They are subject to unannounced performance scrutiny by both the FAA and company check pilots. They must pass FAA medical standards twice a year. They must submit to random alcohol and drug tests. Their careers can be placed in jeopardy by the licensing authority in the form of an FAA hearing or a court of law, or both. Combine these daily liabilities with the responsibility of carrying a lethal weapon, and the ramifications can be overwhelming.

Despite the fact that the U.S. government will not hold an FFDO liable for death or injury when acting in a mission capacity, i.e. a terrorist attack, there is no due process in place. If an FFDO is accused of other violations, no procedures exist for his or her defense. As of this writing, the FFDO program has been doing a superior job policing itself. The program has its own professional standards organization. The people involved do not want to jeopardize its success. They maintain high standards. That's why consideration is being given to due process procedures. After all, most airlines already have due process provisions written into their union contracts. Without these provisions justice has the potential to be subjective.

There are smaller, more subtle issues with the program. The study group is considering improvement in these areas also. As with all government programs, the wheels of change grind slowly.

If an airline pilot has been considering becoming an FFDO, now is the time to begin the application process. Why? First, the more cockpits that are armed, the more protected the passengers are. If the terrorists understand that the odds of success with an airliner are not in their favor, the chance of another 9/11 scenario becomes less likely. The second reason to become an FFDO would be to beat the rush. The improvements to the program are just around the corner. When the improvements are instituted and more pilots enroll, the training schedule may not be as flexible.

And the million dollar question is: Did this airline pilot join the FFDO ranks? Any responsible airline pilot will tell you that they could give you an answer to that question, but then they would have to … well … you know the rest.

Packing heat or not, airline pilots did not volunteer for the war on terror. On September 11, 2001, they were recruited.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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