Arms in the Air

Thinking through arming pilots.

By Dave Kopel, research director, Independence Institute

National Review Online. September 26, 2001 9:25 a.m. More by Kopel on armed pilots.

Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas) has introduced H.R. 2896, a bill that, if passed, would arm airline pilots. Although current federal regulations allow pilots to be armed if both the airline and the FAA consent (14 Code of Federal Regulations section 108.11), bureaucratic inertia appears to have prevented the widespread arming of pilots. That policy must change, because it is the only reform — unlike the panoply of freedom-restricting measures currently being promoted by the Department of Transportation — that actually would have foiled the September 11 acts of war.

The Federal Aviation Administration, though, has announced that it will repeal the regulation allowing armed pilots, effective November 14. Thanks to the new "security" measures imposed by the FAA, pilots can no longer even possess a three-inch pocketknife in the cockpit. Enactment of Rep. Paul's bill would remove the FAA's ability to block pilots from carrying defensive arms.

Although the FAA apparently has deepened its own faith in the culture of passivity, many other Americans are asserting their right and duty to resist evil. Foremost among these is the Air Line Pilots Association, the union for U.S. and Canadian commercial pilots, which testified to Congress on September 11, in favor of all pilots being armed.

A web poll on the CNN website, with over 100,000 votes, is reporting 72% of the public in favor of armed pilots, with 28% opposed.

United Airlines spokeswoman Jenna Ludgate said that under no circumstances would United allow its pilots to be armed: "Pilots are first and foremost pilots and in any emergency situation, they need to be flying the plane."

This statement ignores the obvious: Pilots can't "be flying the plane" if a hijacker kills them. That's what happened in the "emergency situations" on September 11. One of the ways to ensure that the pilots stays in control of the plane is the ensure that the pilots stay alive.

Many thoughtful NRO readers have responded to my previous two columns (Sept. 12 & Sept. 14) on the subject of arming the law-abiding on planes.

Some corrections: Bob Poole, of the Reason Foundation, pointed out that my Sept. 12 reference to the "steel" fuselage of an airplane should have been to "aluminum."

Firearms writer Dean Speir informs me that the air marshals of the 1970s did not, contrary to gun-shop rumors, carry .44 revolvers. They did use Glaser Safety Slugs for ammunition, as I reported. The Glasers are high-velocity handgun ammunition containing birdshot or "dust shot" (not, as I'd read on the Internet, buckshot).

Also, the risk of a stray bullet creating a decompression that could cause a crash, which I'd reported to be virtually nil, is apparently even less than that. Retired Air Force General James Chambers points out that the Air Force has plenty of pressurized planes, such as AWACS, which are able to sustain penetration/damage from bullets from enemy fighter jet machine guns. The General said that the worst case would simply require a plane flying at an altitude of about 30,000 feet to hurry down to lower altitudes. If the plane were above 30,000 feet, there would probably be enough breathable air for the pilots to maintain consciousness, even without the air masks.

An American Airlines flight attendant pointed out that if a hijacker's head were "justifiably blown out the side of the aircraft with a Glock," this "would not be a terribly big problem because pilots have full face oxygen masks that are 6 inches from their heads at all times and they could quickly put them on and dive the plane to a safe altitude." The flight attendant also wrote: "I think pilots should definitely have firearms. The majority of them are ex-military; they are behind the door and best able to use them."

I had also suggested that flight attendants be armed. One reader worried that hijackers might overpower a steward(ess) in "order to obtain the gun that they otherwise could not spirit onboard the plane." This is a legitimate concern.

Thus, neither pilots nor stewards should wear guns in unconcealed holsters, where they could be snatched. Concealed guns, with a variety of methods of concealment, would be the better approach. And because carrying a gun, especially when in constant contact with the public, requires a high degree of thoughtfulness and vigilance, flight attendants who do not want to arm themselves and thus assume increased responsibility should not be forced to do so.

I'd also written in favor of allowing passengers with state-issued concealed handgun permits to possess their guns on the plane. Such carrying should be limited only to U.S. citizens (some states issue permits to lawful resident aliens), and it would be perfectly legitimate for additional training requirements to be imposed on passengers seeking to carry.

Finally, one reader makes a point that has been widely overlooked: Cracking down on air travel so severely that people switch to driving instead will lead to increased deaths — because commercial air travel is still much safer than driving, especially on longer trips.

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