The TSA allows airline pilots to qualify as Federal Flight Deck Officers, undergoing selection and training to carry a loaded firearm in at their workplace. The program came into effect in 2003, as a response to the 2001 terrorist attacks using airliners. This past Mar 22nd, one of these guns was fired on the flight deck of an A319, puncturing the fuselage.
The result, as I'm sure has been explored in a Mythbusters episode, was that the airplane got a hole in the side. No one was sucked out, and the airplane did not explode. The plane was only at 8000', coincidentally the altitude to which the cabin was probably pressurized for most of the flight, so this can't count as a real life test of the Mythbusters' television show. The expectations of this entry's title are not, however, those of Adam and Jamie, but those of the TSA.
One of the lessons that aviation has learned well is that if something can go wrong, it will. It may take a long time, but eventually it will happen, and safety is all about being prepared for it to happen. Give thousands of pilots cups of coffee and some of them are going to spill coffee on themselves and the autopilot. (Hmm, maybe that's why my autopilots never work?) Give dozens (hundreds?) of pilots handguns and eventually one of them is going to accidentally fire it. Eventually one of them will accidentally shoot him or herself or another crew member, too. I wonder if any pilot has yet used his government-issued weapon to commit suicide. In Canada, eighty percent of gun deaths are suicides, and maybe five percent accidental, so I'd expect some suicides along with the accidents.
The TSA knew this when they resisted the FFDO program. I said that while I didn't think there was a huge risk posed by pilots having guns in the cockpit, that the risk from the guns was greater than the risk without the guns. Since 2003 I don't know of any US airplanes that had to be removed from service because of terrorist actions that would have been prevented by armed crews, nor do I know of any terrorist actions that were prevented by the presence of armed crews, but that doesn't mean there weren't any. The United States is pretty secretive these days.
There was no terrorist threat to this flight, and the discharge has been described as accidental, and tentatively as mishandling. Well, I'd think so. If a gun fires where and when it's not supposed to that would indicate poor manufacture, poor maintenance or poor handling. The expensive .40-caliber semiautomatic Heckler & Koch pistol was selected for the program as a gun that wasn't going to fire because it was dropped or subjected to turbulence, so either the pilot so abused the weapon that it was no longer safe, or he handled it in an unsafe manner. "An unsafe manner" here being a manner in which made it possible to be accidentally fired into his own airplane.
Apparently he was stowing the gun in preparation for landing. Now anyone who knows the details of the FFDO program is not allowed to disclose them, but I don't know anything about it that isn't posted on the website, so I'm free to speculate. As the gun is approved for a particular pilot, clearly the gun comes on board with the pilot at the beginning of his workday. So either the pilot carries the weapon through the airport and through security, himself or some secure designate does, and gives the weapon to the pilot at the airplane. The latter seems weird and needlessly complicated: the pilot would have to check in, find the designated person to carry his weapon to the airplane for him, and then rendezvous with that person on the airside. It would be a pain in the neck. So maybe that's how it works. Either way, once the pilot is on board the airplane he has his weapon. Now did it come through the terminal loaded or unloaded? Either he loads it at home right after putting on his tie, and then carries it, loaded and holstered, right through his day, or he carries it through security unloaded and then loads it in the airplane.
Loading it at the beginning of the day means less handling throughout the day, but also that the gun is loaded at times when it is not needed to be ready. Loading it on the flight deck might require loading and unloading several times during the day, as the pilot changes airplanes during one duty period. I would be willing to believe either strategy, perhaps leaning towards 'loaded all day' because otherwise they'd be standing in the galley loading their guns, so as not to be seen by people staring at them through the windows of the terminal. (I once had an airline pilot come up and speak to me reassuringly, because he'd recognized me as the one who'd had her nose pressed to the glass watching, and mistaken my "I wonder if I'll make it" expression as one of apprehension about the flight rather than hope about my career).
Whether the gun comes on board in a case or a holster, it has to be accessible during the flight, or there is no point in it's being there. I would think that a shoulder holster would be a natural place to keep it. Amusing as it would be, it doesn't make much sense to slap it down on the centre console: it could slide off and end up under the rudder pedals or seats. Unless A319s have been modified to include a dashboard gun mount, there's no secure but accessible place to put it down.
I'm guessing that the pilot in question did find some place to put the gun that he felt was a better compromise between secure and accessible in cruise. The turbulence and movement associated with descent and landing was such that he intended to return it to its holster before landing. Perhaps he picked up the gun in a way that allowed his finger to put weight on the trigger, or almost dropped it and grabbed at it, causing the discharge. I don't want to believe he was playing with it.
I am certain that there is not a single control in an airplane that some commercial pilot has not accidentally mishandled. If you retract the gear instead of the flaps, it's embarrassing and expensive. If you mishandle manual pressurization it's painful. If you make a PA on an ATC frequency it's embarrassing. I still don't think that the risk of not having guns is worth the risk of having them, but perversely, I'd probably apply for the FFDO program if I were eligible. But I wouldn't be handling my gun at 8000' unless I perceived an imminent threat of the sort that can be countered with a gun.
The comments on this issue are by definition amusingly uninformed, because anyone who knows enough to comment in an informed way is bound by law not to disclose what he knows.