Thursday, June 23, 2005

Weapons in the Cockpit

Someone e-mailed me a link to what I assume is a joke cabin PA. The person who sent it merely wrote, "I want to fly with this pilot." The first time I watched it, the audio was turned off on my computer, so I was watching video only, scrutinizing the clouds waiting to see a lightning strike, a narrowly avoided oncoming aircraft or a roll of toilet paper thrown out of the cockpit. When nothing happened, I activated the sound and replayed it, discovering it to be a pro-gun statement.

Pilots who fly armed should be proficient and confident in the use of their weapons. A pilot who is not a good shot would probably do more harm than good. A pilot who would hesitate to use the weapon when the need arose, would simply be supplying a weapon to the attackers. Skill could be assured by adding firearm proficiency to the already long list of initial and recurrent training items that airline pilots must demonstrate proficiency at, but what about the attitude?

To a certain extent, the pilot-in-command attitude already suggests the attitude of someone who would not hesitate to shoot someone who threatened the safety of an aircraft. Thats the attitude that causes a pilot to take whatever action necessary to assure the safety of a flight, to take personal responsibility for everything that happens on that flight and to be able to take control from another pilot, even a senior one, if a dangerous situation is not being corrected. But some people are repelled by the idea of carrying guns.

Should pilots be allowed to carry guns if they are competent and willing to use them? After all, someone who is not ready and willing to use a firearm in defence of the aircraft probably wouldn't want to carry one anyway. Some people would say that someone who is eager to carry a gun onto the flight deck shouldn't be allowed one. I believe that the risk of a pilot coming to harm because he or she didn't have a gun on the flight deck is lower than the risk of accidental harm resulting from the presence of a gun on the flight deck. It's not that the risk of gun accidents is high: it's probably very low. But the chance of needing the gun is vanishingly low, because hijackings are very rare. Police--a more highly trained gun carrying group--have gun accidents, but that accident risk is worth it to them, because police have a far greater likelihood of needing to use the gun, daily and over their careers.

With reference to the linked video clip, a flight attendant should not be armed, especially not known to be armed, because passengers are close around him for legitimate reasons for the whole flight, so he is far too vulnerable to having the weapon taken away.

I wouldn't object to taking weapons training to carry a gun on a flight deck. (There are very few areas of skill or knowledge that I would decline an opportunity to learn). I once worked for a company which responded to post-September-11th concerns by arming me with--I swear I'm not making this up--a big stick. The stick was already present for another purpose, but the person training me indicated it with all seriousness as my weapon of defense against unlawful interference.


Anonymous said...

9/11 happened not because the pilots weren't armed -- after all, the hijackers were barely armed themselves, and far outnumbered -- but because the conventional wisdom at the time was to cooperate with hijackers. Now that passengers and crew know they will die if they cooperate, they will always fight back. A gun would make little or no difference to the equation -- life isn't an action movie.

I would carry an unloaded rifle (with ammunition stored separately) in the baggage area of a plane operating in the far north simply for survival in case of a forced landing. Otherwise, I see no advantage (and many disadvantages) to having any firearm, especially a loaded one, and particularly on a commuter or airliner inside a crowded, pressurized cabin.

Anonymous said...

Mythbusters did a good bit of debunking of the gunshot-related depressurization theory. The theory did not stand up well to their tests.

Re: I believe that the risk of a pilot coming to harm because he or she didn't have a gun on the flight deck is lower than the risk of accidental harm resulting from the presence of a gun on the flight deck. ... because hijackings are very rare.

One's intuition comparing very unlikely events is just not reliable. Likewise it is unwise to predict the future likelihood of hijackings mrerly based on historical patterns. These are not predictable natural phenomena, but planned intelligent actions by evil individuals. Don't expect the next one to be like the last one.

Anonymous said...

No, it is very unlikely that a bullet hole would cause someone to be sucked out of a plane; in fact, depending on the equipment, and the size of the hole, the plane might even be able to maintain partial pressurization.

On the other hand, sudden depressurization at high altitude leaves very little time of useful consciousness, and there's no guarantee the flight crew would get their masks on in time. Even without a hijacker to deal with, it appears that the crew of Payne Stewart's jet didn't manage to get their masks on (though we'll never know for sure what happened).

I agree with Aviatrix -- there are lots of ways a gun could make things worse, and very few ways that it could make things better. A can of mace (or a pot of hot coffee) might be a better choice.

Greybeard said...

To the extent I want everyone carrying a weapon to be thoroughly trained, I agree with your comments.
But be aware there are tremendous changes in ammunition. Ceramic rounds are being developed that will affect soft tissue, but disintegrate upon hitting anything more firm.
Also consider birdshot......It would be very effective, even fatal at close range, but not damaging to anyone beyond a certain range, and certainly not damaging to the airplane.
I also agree with a previous poster that the next "Big thing" will almost certainly not be airplane related....too much focus........there are easier ways: Load a big U-Haul truck with mildly radioactive medical waste and fertilizer bomb ala OK City, and explode it upwind of Wall Street. Immediate chaos in the financial world!
(And what about those missing Russian suitcase Nukes?)
Sleep well, all!

Aviatrix said...

This is interesting. I appreciate all your insights.

Regarding intuition about rarity, I agree, and actually have a link to a paper on that topic. I was going to blog about it, because it uses fatalities caused by falling airplane parts as an example.

I really do believe that situations were a gun would be useful in the cockpit are an order of magnitude rarer than situations where it would be a risk, just because carelessness is far more common than evil, and boredom on the flight deck far more common than terror.

GC said...

The U.S. FFDO (Federal Flight Deck Officer) Program gives a pilot all the necessary skills to defend his flightdeck against unlawful entry by people intent upon using the plane as a missile.

FFDO Overview

There are a few aspects of the program that I feel need changing before I'd volunteer. I won't get into them here, but I have heard that significant changes are in the works.

Do you North-Of-The-Border folks have something similar at least?

Anonymous said...

North of the border, currently at this time, no. The best offence is a good defence. I think any professional pilot will agree with that. With the obviously tightened security after 9/11, we have seen time and time again of the measures being taken to avoide such problems. I figure, who needs a gun when you have a fully functional aircraft with an idiot passenger ignoring the "fasten seatbelt" light. :) Cheers from "North of the Border"