Thursday, March 27, 2008

Didn't They Expect This?

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.


GC said...

First, if you were an FFDO or have flown with an FFDO, you'd understand the procedures. Speculation about this incident is completely pointless. I'd respectfully suggest you let the media do that since they're so good at jumping to conclusions. I'd also suggest that the speculations you make in this particular blog post about potential procedures might put FFDOs (who are supposed to remain anonymous while in the terminal) in danger of discovery.

Second, the amount of hours flown by FFDOs in the United States since the re-implementation of the FFDO program after 9/11/01 would surprise you. Not one FFDO-related fatality has occurred to my knowledge. And potentially suicidal pilots surely don't enter into the mix due to EXTENSIVE pre-screening by psychologists and psychoanalysis. Now, when you think that every aircraft that was involved in the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks had its flightdeck overrun by murderers, you absolutely cannot say that the presence of a firearm used to defend that flight deck from hostile takeover would not have made some difference in the outcome. Combine the presence of firearms and new (and very proprietary) procedures for air crews to use to deal with onboard threats that are now in place (not to mention the general population who would spring into action to prevent such an occurrence on an airliner) and you can definitely say that we have better defense against a potential takeover of an aircraft so that it may be used as a missle.

Of course, the last line of defense is the cockpit door. If you have the potential to keep an intruder from forcing his way in and killing you (and everyone else on board and many people on the ground) by putting three bullets into his center-of-mass, then you damned well better do it.

And that's what FFDOs are trained for.

And that's why I'm glad the FFDO program exists.

Nothing is without risk. The risk of the guns accidentally discharging in the cockpit is very very remote, and therefore very very acceptable.

amulbunny's random thoughts said...

The FFDO does not undergo screening. they check in with a screener at a designated location who calls a supervisor. The supervisor takes them over to where the LEO is and they sign in their little book.

I've seen lots of FFDO's both male and female and have never seen a weapons case (unlike troops traveling who have to have their weapons inspected before checking them in). Anyone with half a brain will know who they are if they are around a checkpoint for any amount of time though.

Still wonder why the gun was out. That's what scares me the most.

Lord Hutton said...

Maybe a few pilots, like a few doctors, or a few teachers, or a few presidents, or a few "security experts" are complete twats?
This is going to be bad, isnt it?

Lord Hutton said...

And yes, the Boy's first flying lesson went well today

GC said...

It may only take half a brain to figure out who the FFDOs are, but why do we need to make it easier for anyone by discussing specifics about how FFDOs operate on an internet site??

Aviatrix said...

GC: While I'm proud that your opinion of my analytical abilities is so high that you believe I could discern information vital to national security while sitting here in my hotel room, I don't concur. My speculations are nothing more than a matrix of the possible means (pilot vs. security designate), states (loaded versus not loaded) and locations (holster versus container) by which a FFDO gun gets to an airplane. I have zero knowledge about the procedures involved that didn't come from submitting to pax screening or reading the linked webpages. Anyone lacking the amount of logic to do the same analysis probably has trouble buying an airline ticket.

It must be really aggravating to fall into the category of "knows about the program and therefore cannot comment," and for that I apologize.

If I had any information that came from speaking with or observing someone who participated in the program, I would not share it, but I'm not going to give up the fun of ignorant speculation.

This post was not written in opposition to the FFDO program. I'm not actually someone who thinks the world should conform to my perceptions. People with much more knowledge than I have designed this program and consider the risk to be worth it. My willingness to participate in such a program despite the risk I perceive comes from the fact that I too would like every possible line of defence.

Aviatrix said...

Here's another argument for the FSDO programme.

Anonymous said...

Although I do not have any knowledge of FFDO procedures, I have to say that I fail to see what part of the FFDO procedures must be kept secret for safety's sake.

I've spent enough time in the military (security clearance removed to protect the innocent) to know that secrecy as a preventative measure rarely lasts over the long term. And for secrets that do not revolve around direct, short term actions (ie. dates when an attack is to occur) can cause complacency. For example, suppose I told you that ammunition and/or weapons for a live fire training exercise is usually transported from the storage facility on Sunday morning since a typical Army training exercise starts up on Sunday evening/Monday morning. Suppose we are told to keep this a secret because if we have to transport the ammunition over any public roads we don't want anyone to try and hijack the cargo. Well if I think there's no chance of a hijack because the transport date is always kept a secret then I'm a fool because people who want to find out a secret will always be able to do so. Instead, the Army assumes that the transportation of ammunition done outside of a base is potentially known by all and ensures that all transport vehicles have a Sergeant up front who has a loaded pistol and orders to stop for no one, not even the police.

If the idea is that the FFDO remain anonymous so the bad guys don't know which plane has a hand gun up in the flight deck then we are going about things the wrong way. We want the bad guys to assume every flight has an FFDO on board and the best way to do that is to announce it as such, in much the the same way that passengers are told this is a non-smoking flight; passengers should be told on every flight that an FFDO may be on board. Or perhaps go one step further and say that there IS an FFDO on board, whether it's true or not. But if we are foolish enough to think that the FFDO rules aren't already known to the people who want to know then we are already doomed to failure.

david said...

Handling a gun is a difficult skill that requires training and focus. Flying an airliner is a difficult skill that requires training and focus. Should people really do both at the same time?

If it's that easy, airline pilots could act as flight attendants as well and save the airlines a ton of money -- after all, if they can do two difficult tasks at once, why not three?

I'd rather see flight attendants take care of passengers and their safety, pilots take care of flying the plane, and air marshals worry about handling concealed weapons.

nec Timide said...

Douglas makes a very cogent argument in regards to using secrecy as a security tool. I'll leave it at that.

Any argument for arming pilots, is an even better argument for posting a professionally trained, armed security professional on the airplane. Airline pilots have extensive and complex training to do their main job. Identifying and suppressing a security threat on board, while doing the least amount of collateral damage deserves training no less extensive or complex. The problem with expecting the pilot to do both jobs is that at some point both jobs will need doing concurrently and one will suffer. Possibly what occurred in this case.

Personally I think the FFDO is the Maginot Line.

Anonymous said...

Although I assume this incident falls under Murphy's law, I'm curious of the definition of "loaded" used in the post.

When I completed my (limited) training for an Australian federal firearms licence many years ago, a firearm was considered loaded if the weapon had rounds in the magazine, regardless if the magazine was in the weapon or not.

However, in this case, there must have been a round in the chamber - a step beyond loaded - which seems unnecessary at any point in the pilots working day unless a threat was deemed imminent.

Anonymous said...

I can't comment on FFDO procedures, and I don't wish to talk about my opinion regarding the program.

What I can say is that there are a lot of FFDOs out there, I generally can't tell if I'm flying with one until he/she tells me, and many, many flights a day for the past several years have had FFDOs at the helm. I definitely have to say that FFDOs pose less danger to aircraft than sleepy pilots, distracted pilots, or sleepy/distracted controllers. We all how the media goes overboard when reporting anything aviation-related, and this case is pretty much the same.

Anonymous said...

If it can be gleaned from casual observation, it's not a critical part of the security profile. If you're planning on pulling something off, you'll collect your own 'casual' observations rather than Googling various blogs for them.

The "let's not give the bad guys any ideas" mentality is well intentioned, but if you have critical areas that are so poorly secured that laymen posting observations and speculation to blogs proves expositional, you're better off getting those holes spotted quickly. On the other hand, if your observations and speculation miss the mark, feeding the FUD mill is useful as well.

People under your security tent shouldn't talk. As for everyone else, you want them as chatty as possible.

Anonymous said...

1. I was taught that there is no such thing as an "accidental" weapon discharge. They are "careless", "negligent", or even "criminal". Basically it's a stapler, but a stapler designed to kill people, so no second chances or excuses.

2. If your going to secure a device with explosive components in an aircraft, you design and mandate the manner and equipment to do so, right? If they have to carry their deus ex machinae, then they must be clipped, boxed, etc., not laid on the dashboard or stuck under your thigh.

3. Less-lethal weapons technology (I'm thinking tasers, but I'm not sure what that would do to avionics if a Walkman will send a 747 into a tailspin, yuck-yuck) enables us to install systems which will disable or discourage this sort of rude intrusion. And since a skyjacking nowadays poses likely 100% lethality for the pax, don't be afraid to include somthing that'll make them uncomfortable.

4. Without "seasoning", in emergencies most people don't respond but freeze, and of those who do respond, some respond with excessive zeal or just plain do the wrong thing. Now we will have to screen pilots for their stablity with guns in emergencies, and their combat temperment, then exercise them.
Oh, Mommy........

zeeke42 said...

"However, in this case, there must have been a round in the chamber - a step beyond loaded - which seems unnecessary at any point in the pilots working day unless a threat was deemed imminent."

Maybe a gun in condition 4 (empty chamber, empty magwell) with a loaded magazine nearby is loaded by some legal definition, but not by any practical defense oriented one. If a hijacker busts open the cockpit door, there's not going to be any time to load the gun. With a gun in condition 1 (round chambered, safety on) and proper training and practice, you can draw and fire two rounds in 1 to 1.5 seconds. Starting with an unloaded gun would take much longer.

Also, I agree with majroj's first point. There is such a thing as an accidental discharge, when a gun fires due to mechanical failure, but it's *extremely* rare with modern firearms. I'm talking airplane starts its engine and taxis around by itself rare.

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether the FFDO program is a good idea overall or not, but it is not without precedent. In the USSR, after several unpleasant and sometimes deadly hijackings, the captains of airliners were given guns so that they could defend an airplane against hijacking, and that did prove useful in at least a couple of cases, where the pilot really did stop a hijacker. Of course, (older) russian planes are somewhat different, with four people in the cockpit instead of two, which may mean it's easier to keep flying the plane while someone takes care of the hijacker.

Anonymous said...

I've seen some pax commercial flight decks. Some you could never turn arounin to fire, have to just point it backwards and squeeze.

Anonymous said...

As former military and current police officer, I have to comment. Firearms safety is like driving a car: Play with them often enough and there will be a tendency to get careless/complacent. Modern firearms do not discharge of their own accord. You MUST, MUST, MUST press the trigger to make a bullet come out of the bad end. PERIOD. At the risk of starting a riot, there is no such thing as an "accidental" discharge. Remember, you must press the trigger, thus "negligent discharge."

Police officers in the US are allowed to carry a loaded weapon at all times. I, for one, have a pistol that stays loaded at all times, except for cleaning. As for the FFDO program, I agree with you Aviatrix: There is a certain degree of risk associated with it. The only real debate that matters here is: Does the risk justify the benefit? I don't have the answer to that one, but I know that vigilant adherence to weapons handling safety can reduce the risk to close to nil. My two cents anyway.

Anonymous said...


If you believe that pilots are only capable of completing one important task at a time....please...don't travel by air. By all means, drive. I'm sure you're the guy who sticks his head into the flight deck and says something cheeky like, "do you guys know what all these switches do"?, or, "hope you can find the airport". Please don't try and speculate what we do day in and day out. Air travel is by far the safest way to travel...and yes, David, we can multi-task.
Seasoned Switch Flipper

Anonymous said...

Among the military there is a cliche about holes in guard house roofs. Sidearms are supposedly cleared prior to going off watch. 1) extract magazine; 2) pull slide to the rear to eject any cartridge that may be chambered; 3) pull trigger to release the cocked hammer. If it goes bang you forgot to actuate the slide to eject a chambered cartridge.

If the weapon is carried with the magazine inserted but a cartridge not chambered it is only a matter of actuating the slide to chamber a cartridge and you in business. In this condition it is quite safe yet ready for action.

Clearly, someone didn't know elementary weapon safety. Poor training.