Guns, Politics, and Freedom
May 30, 2002

Beware the ‘experts’ on arming pilots

By F. Paul Valone

 

The following piece was published on May 30, 2002 by The Charlotte Observer under the title “Beware the ‘expert’ critics of arming pilots.”

 

Have you noticed how a debate sheds all rationality once you introduce the word “gun”?  Consider, for example, the absurd arguments against arming pilots.

 

Current proposals would deter terrorism by deputizing volunteer pilots who would undergo stringent background checks and training as “Federal Flight Deck Officers.” Carrying approved firearms and ammunition, their sole law enforcement duty would be defending the cockpit from unauthorized intrusion.

 

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act allows—but doesn’t require—creating standards for pilots to carry firearms. Although 75 percent of the public wants pilots armed, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and security undersecretary John Magaw disagree. Refusing to authorize firearms in the cockpit, the best tactic Magaw can offer hijacked pilots is “maneuvering [the airplane] so it knocks people off balance.”

 

Anticipating the obstructionism, US reps. John Mica and Don Young introduced HR 4635, the “Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act.” Says Mica, “I can’t believe they haven’t instantaneously allowed pilots to defend themselves, given gaps in the current system.”

 

Opponents include bureaucrats whose fiefdoms are threatened, airline liability lawyers and gun control advocates. Each brings to the debate an agenda quite unrelated to protecting you from terrorism. Their objections would be laughable were they not taken seriously by people who should know better.

 

Apparently inspired by the movie “Goldfinger,” they claim gunshots in pressurized cabins will cause passengers the size of sumo wrestlers to be sucked out of dime-sized holes. In truth, airliners already have lots of holes (some even big enough for Mineta’s head), and a gunshot would have little effect on pressurization.

 

Describing gunshot risks as “miniscule,” Boeing aircraft safety director Ron Hinderberger notes: “Commercial airplane structure is designed with sufficient strength, redundancy and damage tolerance that single or even multiple handgun bullet holes would not result in loss of the aircraft.”

 

While opponents favor issuing stun guns, former FAA security chief Bill Vincent says we should stop “studying the issue to death” and arm pilots. Calling stun guns “inadequate,” he says: “If you can reach them, they can reach you. Stun guns are not adequate weapons in dealing with someone who is armed with a cutting edge or a handgun.”

 

Stun guns, including Tasers are arms-length weapons designed to temporarily incapacitate single, untrained, unarmed opponents. Firearms are standoff weapons, allowing one pilot to deny cockpit access to multiple attackers while the other lands the airplane.

 

We currently have only 1,000-odd air marshals to protect 35,000 daily flights. One pundit describes them as “trained sharpshooters [using] special ammunition that can’t penetrate the aircraft’s hull.”

 

As a pilot who’s flown between the LaGuardia and Washington National airports since Sept. 11, I’ve worked with marshals. Most are borrowed from federal agencies such as U.S. Customs and carry standard service ammunition. A former manager of the National Traffic Safety Board estimates 15-25 percent can’t even meet marksmanship standards.

 

While some fear hijackers might gain control of a pilot’s firearm, multiple attackers – even if unarmed – can eventually overcome marshals. If marshals lose control of a hijacked aircraft, would you rather have firearms in the passenger cabin, or locked behind the cockpit door?

 

Others argue that a pilot using a firearm would be “distracted” from controlling the airplane. But since firearms would be used only against hijackers who’ve already breached the cockpit door, distraction becomes moot. Is it more “distracting” to shoot an intruder, or to have one’s throat cut?

 

But most foolish is the columnist who, recalling the EgyptAir crash from apparent pilot suicide, frets: “And we want men like this to carry guns?”

 

Ignoring the insult to professionals who dedicate themselves to the safety of millions, let me suggest the obvious: In the exceedingly unlikely event a pilot ever decides to sabotage his own airplane, he doesn’t need a weapon.

 

El Al and two major European airlines reportedly arm pilots now. Polls reveal between 73 and 83 percent of airline pilots want firearms. And Gen. Ralph Eberhart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, calls the downing of a commercial airliner by our own military a “possibility.”

 

Airline terminal evacuations and cockpit break-ins remind us no screening process is airtight, and no door can be hardened enough. As U.S. Rep. John Hostettler remarked,” Doesn’t it seem reasonable to insert one more preventative step before an F-16 launches a missile against a passenger plane?”

 

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F. Paul Valone is an airline captain, defensive firearms instructor and director of Grass Roots North Carolina and RightsWatch International.  Contact him at P.O. Box 4735, Mooresville, NC 28117 or director@rightswatch.org