Cleared for Takeoff—But Not Guns


Some airline pilots are annoyed that it's talking forever to fly the friendly skies armed. This AP report notes that fewer than 100 pilots have gotten the right to pack heat; they flyboys blame the Transportation Security Administration.

Incidentally, is it just me or are the baggage checkers at airports slowly reverting back to their pre-9/11 levels of surliness and slowness?

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  1. I still fail to grasp why it is so friggin’ hard to retrofit the planes to secure cockpit. Isn’t that the real issue? You don’t need pilots with guns if unauthorized personnel can’t get to the pilots in the first place.

    The whole difference is that pre-9/11, the philosophy for handling hijackers was “just do what they say”. That has all changed now, and as much as pilots don’t want to risk the lives of their passengers, under no conditions anymore are they prepared to let hijackers enter the cockpit. “I’ll kill all the passengers” is no longer a workable threat.

  2. I would not want to be on a plane piloted by “captain fumbly”.

    Also, people talk about guns as if they require a high level of skill to use effectively. If this is an issue, why aren’t they worried about our police – who in most locales are only required to fire their gun once a year for qualification purposes (and if they fail, they get an easier test until they pass!).

    Those of you who think that letting terrorists slice and dice your fellow passengers is an acceptable risk of air travel are stupid.

    If a terrorist presented him/herself to me my reaction would be to kill/incapacitate him/her as soon as possible. Disallowing guns in the cockpits only reduces the available options (and no, stun-guns aren’t the answer).

    Sometime in 1998 I was at a local firing range and witnessed some middle-eastern men practicing with a firearm. At one point, one of them began to shoot wildly and yelled (loud enough for everyont to hear over their hearing protection) “I’m a terrorist!” to his buddies.

    At the time, people just looked at him strangely. In retrospect, I should have probably alerted the FBI.

    Today I have to wonder if that behavior wouldn’t get him a bullet in the head right then and there.

  3. Joe,

    Your bias towards how you want things to be has completely clouded out your ability for rational thinking.

    The efficacy of our screening personel is miserable, pre-911 and post. You tip your cards too low in attempting to mark a difference between private and TSA. Thus you want there to be a marked improvement under TSA control but alas, government employee efficacy is and remains a classic oxymoron.

    Witness that pilots still get their nail clippers confiscated but we still hear stories of real weapons getting through. And what I’ve personally witnessed is that those singled out for extra scrutiny or either baggy pantsed teens who are least likely to write their congressman or anyone who looks like a possible FAA agent.

    And for pilot training, 1) No one has advocated that pilots be armed without a reasonable amount of training, 2) Most pilots have military experience and 3) If a person can master commercial aviation, a reasonable amount of training with a handgun shouldn’t be too much of a task. That’s just logical though I know how logic escapes you.

    And now, the eponymous Lefty should surface anytime.

  4. MP,

    There are certain financial difficulties in just bringin’ in the planes and slapping on some metal to make a secure cockpit.

    Not that it shouldn’t be done but it is a financial impossibility for an ailing industry whose essential economics are not geared towards profitability to begin with, to simply do so much work in a relatively short period of time.

    Also, that area of the fuselage is particularly senstive in an engineering sense. It’s not just a matter of slapping together some steel doors. Next time you fly, take a look at the outside of the door just before you enter the plane and take note of how much more “work” there is around those doors.

  5. Ray-

    A well trained shooter would pause at taking a shot, given the backdrop is an aluminum tube full of humans. I’m all for guns, But not in this situation. There has to be a better way.

  6. 7.62

    You’re watching too many movies, a bullet hole in a fuselage would not cause a catestrophic depressurization as some of have opined. This theory was tossed around a little at first but has since faded away because it has been so universally dismissed.

    And besides, using that argument, even air marshalls shouldn’t carry.

    I like your moniker though, how’s the saying go, “silent souls leave 308 holes.”

  7. That pesky gubmint entity, the FAA, stipulates how frangible the cockpit door must be. The doors must be strong enough to resist impact damage (i.e. a drink cart whizzing down the aisle during a dive). But they must also weak enough to allow rescue people access to the cockpit.

    A friend of mine designed on a retrofit door that also had to stop a .45 bullet yet allow enough airflow to pass so as not to pop the pilots eardrums in case of decompression.

    Sure you can make a stronger door but you trade rescuability.


  8. Holy shit, 7.62 is on my side! Whatever else I know about the guy, he knows the mechanics of gun use.

    Ray, I’m just reporting what I’ve observed; fewer bored, sullen teenagers ignoring their station, and more proactive, professional types concentrating on their job. And no, I don’t think it has anything to do with federalizing them; I think the same result could have been brought about just by regulation and more cooperation between the feds and the airlines. (This is the part where all the libertoids say “Hooray!”) Yes, the rules about IDs and nailclippers are stupid, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

    If the guy who’s supposed to fly the plane is engaging in combat, something’s already wrong. You give me “cutting up passengers?” I’ll see your rampage through the 737, and raise you two collapsed skyscrapers. Call.

  9. Ray,

    Why not mandate that the cockpit only be accessable from the outside. The government could help pay the cost of retrofitting planes and all new planes would have to be built by these specifications. The money for the extra security would be shifted to this. Not to mention this would be a boon for business. Then you can go back to pre-9/11 crappy security. You could go back to the days of arriving at the airport 15 minutes before the flight and not worry about being harassed. No ID checks. No taking off shoes. No anal probes. The initial cost will be high, but the money spent on security in the long run, the extra business and civil liberties that we regain would be worth the cost. I tried writng my Senators and Congressmen this idea and got no real response.

    I know this would suck at first, but it’s a better and more sustainable solution than what we have in place now. Also, unlike most other plans, this would guarantee that Sept. 11 NEVER happens again unless one of the pilots are in on it. Is the chance of losing a plane full of people because both the pilot and co-pilot have heart attacks mid-flight worth it? I think so.

  10. Ray-

    “Full of Humans” I’m worried about bullet holes in humans Ray. I already know the argument is going to come, risk some, save the majority. the argument doesn’t work with me. Due to the both risk to the innocents and the distraction to the shooter. As far as air marshals carrying, it becones very different as far as positioning (geometry)and due to his anonamous nature he gets
    to pick when and how. I hope you can appreciate the difference

    unsetteling for me to 😉

  11. The hell with a reinforced cockpit door, I’m sitting on the other side of it subject to whatever hell the pilot can hide from, and my gun’s in checked baggage.

    The pilot has all of us in his charge, and hiding behind the door while we are executed in succession is no solution.

    But back on topic, yes, baggage handling is much slower, since it gets double handled. First I have to show the airline my gun, its case, and that it is unloaded, to get the tag. The airline weighs the bag, but it has to now go to TSA and I’m not allowed to touch it to get it there. TSA tells me to leave, so they can pick through all my stuff, including my gun. I refuse, since I must attest that I have had my bags with me at all times. After TSA is done, I can lock my bag so long as I don’t touch it.


  12. Why not mandate that the cockpit only be accessable from the outside.

    Hey, great idea! Then, when the personnel on the flight deck are, say, incapacitated due to a sudden cockpit depressurization or other accident, nobody can get in to fly or land the plane! And when there’s a serious problem in the passenger compartment, nobody from the flight deck can get out to assist!

    I cannot conceive — literally cannot conceive — of the pilot or commander of any passenger vehicle agreeing to give up access to the majority of his craft. Ever.

  13. Reworking an aircraft cockpit to make outside accessible only doesn’t even work on paper. There are a number of reasons why but the main probelm again is economy. And designing and developing a brand new airplane takes years and then to replace the our airline fleets would take decades. They’re not exactly spitting aircraft out like Toyotas. Most of the planes we fly in on a regular basis are 10 to 20 years old, depending on where you’re at.

    First of all, the pilots would not be in the outer cabin brandishing their weapons, they are not supposed to leave the cockpit. So if the pilot misses his assailant, the bullet will lodge somewhere in the cockpit (hollow tips being used and so on).

    I started to spell out why the argument against risking the entire plane for fear of errantly shooting one passenger contradicts itself but the very scenario that places a pilot in the outer cabin with weapon drawn is completely unrealistic.

    And we cannot afford to have air marshalls on enough flights to be reliably in place in every situtation. We cannot afford to scrap our entire national fleet of aircraft, it is a physical impossiblity to just start making them differently, we cannot afford to just haul them all into the garage over the weekend and retrofit vault doors on them, we cannot afford to place highly trained marshalls on every flight. . . .

    But we can take a group of highly trained, intelligent and stable minded men and train them to use a hand gun properly and they would, of a neccessity, be on every flight.

  14. Phil,

    Thanks for the criticism. It is duely noted. However, what would necessitate the pilot to get out to help the passengers? Someone w/ a heart attack or medical problem? Have the flight attendants do it. As far as a sudden cabin depressurization incapacitating both pilots, how often does this happen? More importantly, how often does this happen where a passenger saves the plane? I am unfamiliar with the intricacies of the situation, so I wonder whether these situations happen often enough to warrant concern and whether or not losing the occasional plane is an “acceptable loss.”


    Same as to Phil as far as thanks for the criticism. However, I don’t see the economy being a huge issue. Most planes have multiple entrances, one in the front, one in the back. Isolate the front door completely and pull out a couple of rows of seats. The new planes that would be built would have less of a jury rig feel. More people flying due to less hassle at the gate will make up for part of the economics. Shifting money from TSA gate employees to some government assistance to help retrofit these planes will also help as well. Since most airlines only use one set of doors for boarding and deplaneing, the big loss would be for emergency exits, which would another potential issue. Once again, the question is how often are these exits needed and used in a time critical situation. I don’t see how redesigning entry into the plane is an impossibility. Obviously it couldn’t be done by tomorrow, but what’s wrong with a phase in (this of course is predicated on an analysis of the issues Phil brought to light).

    FWIW, I see no problem arming pilots. But in close quarters (which the cockpit is), a trained attacker could easily disarm the pilot. Not that the hijacker possing the gun is any worse than him possesing the plane. I think the armed pilots idea is overblown on both sides. It’s not that dangerous, but it’s not necessarily gonna make the plane as safe as some make it seem.

    Thank you both for your insight. When I have bandied this idea to my collegues, I got almost universal praise and statements like “Why not?” It’s good to hear constructive criticism.

  15. They are too busy looking in bags for loose pieces of paper with f-bombs all over them so they can throw teenagers in jail.

  16. “I’m sitting on the other side of it subject to whatever hell the pilot can hide from, and my gun’s in checked baggage.”

    Sorry dude. Your ability to protect yourself, even your ability to protect 150 people on the place, isn’t the primary concern anymore. I can understand your feelings, but your individual self interest cannot be the primary area of concern when formulating this policy.

  17. is it just me or are the baggage checkers at airports slowly reverting back to their pre-9/11 levels of surliness and slowness?

    That would be a welcome change. They have gotten worse, if anything, on the flights I’ve been on. And if you complain, you’re a terrorist.

  18. I’d like to interrupt this blog with an observation about the quality of the discussion.

    I’m impressed. When the comment box isn’t dominated by ideologues reaching for ever grander statements of self-regard, Hit and Run has consistently better informed, more imaginative, more thoughtful policy ideas and criticism than any other political site I’ve been to – including those that more closely match my own philosophy. That’s why, despite my obvious minority status, I hang out here. I’ve learned a lot from you people.

    Goddam libertoid freaks.

  19. Anyone else see an inconsistency in that we trust our pilots with a 250,000 lb. hunk of metal flying at 800fps (550 mph), but we refuse to trust them with a half-ounce hunk of metal fired at 800fps?

    NOTE: Comparison is between a Boeing 757 and a .45 caliber pistol round.

  20. Please avoid exaggerating. I object to your use of the word “slowly”.

  21. Neb Okla – yes. If a pilot wants to, he can kill everyone onboard as well as countless others. A great deal of trust is already being placed in the pilot’s mental stability, not to mention his skill in operating a complex piece of machinery. Plus, every commercial jet in service in the U.S. today has an axe in the cockpit so the pilot can cut through the window and/or fuselage in the event of an emergency exit. And yet, pilots are being stopped at security checkpoints so that our TSA can confiscate their nail-clippers.

    One must admit, LOGIC has never been our federal government’s strong point.

    Oh, and BTW, the certified take-off weight for the B757 is actually 251,000 lbs. 😉

  22. ^^^Sorry. That post above was me.

  23. I haven’t flown in a few months, but I think the TSA employees seem a lot more polite, efficient, and capable than the private security pre-9/11. Dumb rules, yes, but no problem with the personnel.

    As for the guns-in-cockpits vs. jetliner question: a pilot is a person who is trained to handle a plane at a professional level. A pilot is not a person who is trained to handle a firearm in close quarters combat at a professional level. Note how little objection there has been to armed air marshalls.

  24. joe – I understand the training issue. Pilots typically have years of training and 1000 hours or more of flight time before they can even think about flying for a major airline. Anyone who can pass muster to become a commercial airline pilot can easily pass a short course in handling a firearm. Having said that, I do recognize the risks and liabilities associated with a potential deadly weapon, although I maintain that said risks are worth taking to create a last line of defense against another 9/11 style attack. Another possible solution would be arming pilots with stun guns.

  25. I’m concerned that a weapon on a plane would make the danger of another 9/11 greater, if it is in the hands of someone who does not know exactly what to do, when to do it, and how. Imagine someone who spent 2 years training in an Afghan camp, being confronted by Captain Fumbly, a skilled pilot, holding a pistol he’s not really very comfortable with.

    The issue of firearm vs. stun gun is irrelevant, since 1) they have special bullets that won’t go through aluminum, and 2) the concern is not that a terrorist will shoot 8 passengers with a weapon, but that he will use the weapon to take control of a plane, which can be done with a taser just as well as a pistol. Just put up a steel door, and fly the plane. There’s your line of defense.

  26. Give Captain fumbly a “short course,” and I still don’t like the odds.

  27. A) Bit of trivia: Up until the 1980’s, planes flying US Mail were flown by pilots who were armed. With real handguns. As an arms collector and avid shooter, I have seen handguns with markings indicating ownership by major US airlines. These were issued to pilots flying US Mail. So there is precedent for armed pilots. After the 1980’s, FAA regulations disarmed pilots.
    B) Most commercial pilots are ex-USAF. Pilots of military aircraft of all types are officers. Military officers are trained, to some degree, in defensive use of a handgun. (Typically a Beretta 92 or, as the military terms it, M-9.) The Glock 23 that the Federal Flight Deck Officers are issued is somewhat simpler to use in a crisis situation.
    C) There are armed citizens that are as or more proficient in the defensive use of a handgun than the pilots (current and active law enforcement, armed citizens with State CCW permits for starters). These persons, if allowed thier Constitutional rights would, at the least, deter takeover of an aircraft by pernicious individuals. After all, martyrdom is not too attractive if the success rate is poor.

  28. Here’s why I support the reinforced door/isolated cockpit solutions. Here’s what was brought to light after Sept. 11.

    Problem: Unsavory terrorist types gaining access to the cockpit and flying planes into tall American buildings.

    Solution: Deny said terrorist types from entering the cockpit.

    Merely giving pilots guns does not fix the problem. I believe it was in the comments of one of the earlier posts that stated that a securtiy tester was able to sneak large, bullet shooting weapons past security w/ relative ease. Ignoring the fact that a pilot drawing a weapon in the raltively cramped cockpit area is one semi-skilled martial artist away from being disarmed. Who wins when the unsavory terrorist type draws an Uzi vs. the pilot’s airplane safe 9 mm? Heck, even a 9 mm duel doesn’t guarantee the pilot’s victory. You still leave the possibility of the plane being taken over and the Sears Tower being taken down. However, if you make it extraordinarily difficult to enter the cockpit, by either requiring a James Bond-esque entry from outside or a oxy-acetalyne torch to cut through the door, you prevent the terrorist from even having the opportunity of winning. Once they realize they can’t take the plane over, plans to take over the plane as a passenger all but disappear. You then limit their options to a) blowing up the plane in midair, killing just the passengers, or b) infitrating the cockpit as the intended pilot. Neither of these problems are solved by guns in the cockpit.

    I love the 2nd Amendment as much as the next guy, but it doesn’t mean that guns are the solution to all of life’s problems.


    P.S. If you say that the passenger would tackle and restrain any hijacker that pulls a gun (ala flight 93), rendering the situation above null and void, I have this to say to you, “It doesn’t matter if the pilot has a BB gun or an M-16, the passengers will tackle the would-be terrorist regardless of the armament in the cockpit.”

  29. I’m brought to mind one, among many, flights I took shortly after 911. There were National Guard guys wandering around in their fatigues trying to look like they were guarding something. I recall standing behind one in line at an ATM, inches from his slung rifle.

    I think now of one hung over, pissed off pilot that’s been screwed one too many times by United and decides to go postal.

    Both scenarios are benign without weapons.

  30. And I must agree with Joe. I like the slug-it-out, thoughtful dichotomy that happens here. It’s a raucous choir. Beware, anyone who preaches to it.

  31. I disagree with those who say that making the cockpit accessible only from the outside is inconceivable and doesn’t even work on paper. As I understand it, the planes on El Al have been set up this way for years, and the Israelis are way ahead of us on keeping air travel secure. Why don’t we hire some of their experts as consultants?
    And I still oppose arming all pilots with guns, for two reasons: 1) a shoot-out inside an eight-mile high pressurized tube filled with people would be stupidly dangerous, and 2) giving the pilot the responsibility of an armed security guard is a distraction from his main job: flying the plane.
    By the way, one problem on 9/11 was that no one knew where the hijacked planes were, because the terrorists turned off the transponder location device. There was some talk at the FAA of removing the kill switch from the cockpit, and modifying the transponder so it would shut off automatically on landing and turn on again on take-off. Does anyone know if this was done?

  32. In any CQB sistuation, the guy on the defensive has a significant advantage. The guys trying to gain entry are at a disadvantage.

    Generally, it you are attacking someone in a room, you would use some explosive to “mousehole” a wall & gain the upper hand. But the terrorist has to go through that door . . .

    If you do have to go through a door, you want to pitch a granade in first, but that wouldn’t do the plane’s controls any good . . .

    Simply breaking down the door & rushing the pilot gives him at least one free shot at you. At close range.

    Breaking the door & shooting it out with the pilot still gives him a time advantage.

    Frankly, armed pilots are a good thing. The pilot has the tactical advantage that the terrorist can’t easily overcome, as long as the pilot IS ARMED WITH A GUN.

  33. “Who wins when the unsavory terrorist type draws an Uzi vs. the pilot’s airplane safe 9 mm? Heck, even a 9 mm duel doesn’t guarantee the pilot’s victory.”

    Well, an Uzis just a big 9mm with lots of bullets. In close quarters, the pistol really has an advantage. That’s why those SAS guys use the Browning HP 9mm pistol instead of the H&K MP-5 SMG in CQB. And why LAPD SWAT and the FBI HRT like the 1911 .45 pistol. The big advantage of something like an Uzi is that its a carbine, and easier to shoot accuratly at a distance.

    Beside, if the terrorist hoses down the armed pilots, doesn’t he risk destroying the aircraft’s controls?

  34. Lefty,

    I agree with you that the scenario of the national guard guy is a little suspect. Not so sure we’d have much defence against a suicidal, pissed off pilot who’s gone postal anyway. I guess he could shoot the co-pilot to take over the plane. Really, how likely is that? A greater worry would be terrorist types actually going through all the motions necessary to become an airline pilot. Given that it ususally takes decades for someone to qualify for this position, it is unlikely that we’d see this happen sometime soon. Presumably pilots are getting background checks as a condition of employment (or should be) to at least make it harder for someone like this to get in there.


    I also think if we did redesign aircraft as suggested, that would be the best solution. You are right as well that having a gun is no guarantee of success, however it may improve the odds. I think it should be allowed, upon discretion of the airlines and the pilots themselves, who has others have pointed out are in many cases ex-military with some gun and/or combat training already. It does seem like the most cost effective solution.

    One concern with the impenetrable cockpit, as alluded to above, if the terrorist actually gains access as the pilot, no one (not even an air marshall) would be able to get in there to stop them either.

    Bottom line, I don’t think any one solution will cover all cases, nor probably will multiple solutions absolutely prevent a really determined terrorist organization from gaining access to the cockpit. However if we can raise the costs of doing so enough, perhaps it will encourage them to pursue more garden variety (and less lethal) methods such as blowing themselves up in public.

  35. Oh, and one other thought – if passengers know that someone else is armed on the airplane (the pilot or an air marshall, fer instance), I doubt any of them would be willing to risk death or injury by trying to tackle the terrorist, regardless of what he’s armed with. So really, we would be expecting the pilot or pilots to defend us. One point in using the plural here, is that all commercial flights have a pilot and copilot and only one of them at a time needs to fly the plane – therefore one of them could act as a defensive element against a terrorist attack while the other flies the plane. Also, as above, it would reduce the terrorist’s chances further by requiring that they either succeed in getting two of their guys in the cockpit, or that they must first kill or otherwise disable the other pilot who is also packing heat.

    As far as sealed cockpits with two incapacitated pilots, the electronics in modern aircraft are sophisticated enough, or so I’ve been told, that the aircraft can even land itself if necessary.

  36. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/25/2004 03:45:24
    There was no immunity to cuckoo ideas on Earth.

  37. EMAIL:
    DATE: 05/20/2004 09:36:12
    Men are close to one another by nature. They diverge as a result of repeated practice.

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