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The Absurdity of Arming Pilots

JD Lock, Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (Retired)

22 May 2002


NOTE: Though this issue has obviously becomea mute point given the years that have passed, I believe the logic behind it is still sound and relevant given our Nation's continued 'Knee Jerk Reactions' to perceived 'terrorist threats.'


On 21 May, the undersecretary for transportation security, John Magaw, ‘unofficially’ announced before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that pilots would not be authorized to have guns in the cockpits of commercial aircraft.  Finally, a rational decision seemingly based on unemotional, logical, and coherent common sense rather than on rash, Pavlovian and emotional fear.  Interestingly enough, however, such a rational decision proved to be unsatisfactory for Senator Conrad Burns, R-Mont., a co-sponsor of the proposed legislation to arm pilots, who requested Magaw reconsider his position, noting that “Those who want to be armed will put themselves through the same training the air marshals go through.” 


Is Burns kidding?  Can a United States Senator really be that naive?  The “same” training as an air marshal?  Obviously, these pilots are really good and we can get a two-for-one deal or our air marshals are really poorly trained.  Personally, I don’t believe either is the case and, if I were an air marshal, I’d be feeling somewhat insulted not only by the Senator’s ludicrous remark but also by this absurd proposal, in general.  Close quarters combat…especially within the restricted confines of an occupied commercial aircraft…is a perishable skill that must be routinely and religiously sharpened through dedicated training by experts proficient enough to deal with such specific circumstances.  Pilots are not and never will be trained to such a level and while I may, and must, trust them to get me to my destination safely, I do not have to trust them with a loaded weapon in their hands.  In whose bible is it stated that ‘professional commercial pilot = qualified marksman?’  After all, pilots are not the only ‘professionals’ about and I wouldn’t trust many of the others with a loaded weapon, either. 


Interestingly enough, airline pilots, themselves, have been advocates of this proposal, claiming that it would allow them to confront a hijacker who breaks into the cockpit.  Obviously, such a position may have had merit prior to 9/11.  But has anyone really considered just how realistic such a possibility is nowadays? 


Out of curiosity and just for the fun of it, let’s develop a worst-case scenario.  Let’s assume for the sake of argument that our terrorist has safely arrived aboard his targeted aircraft, having stealthfully slipped by the guard who is too busy frisking a cute female or brazenly sashayed by the screener who’s too brain dead to notice that her machine is unplugged.  Safely on board, he waits until the flight has departed before he makes his move and, of course, there is never an air marshal around when you need one.


At this point, there are a myriad of options to consider.  Is he alone or part of a group?  Is he a martial arts expert, armed with a finger nail file, touting an Uzi, or carrying a bomb?  Let’s assume the most dire, that the terrorist hijacker has a bomb and, then, work our way back asking that one rather simple question that seems to have eluded many who support this proposal – will an armed pilot make a difference?  Will a pilot armed with a gun prevent a bomb from being detonated by a terrorist bent on meeting Allah?  What do you think?  Will a pilot armed with a gun force a similarly armed terrorist to drop his weapon?  I don’t know about you but I do know the last thing I want is ‘Top Gun’ engaging in a firefight at 30,000 feet with my family sitting in a nearby row.  As for sharp implements, blunt instruments and ‘Kung Fu fighters,’ will a pilot armed with a gun prevent the storming and taking of the cockpit?  Probably.  But, then again, so do passengers who have clearly demonstrated such success on a number of flights during the past eight months.  As for a scenario involving multiple hijackers?  The probability of potential success by an armed pilot would decrease at an exponential rate with a correspondingly and inversely proportional increase of danger to the passengers…statistical ‘speak’ for saying an armed pilot would become a huge liability to all involved.


So…let’s see.  An armed pilot most likely would have no success against a terrorist bomber or against an armed terrorist.  And while an armed pilot would most likely have success against an unarmed terrorist hijacker, so, too, would unarmed passengers.  Remind me again?  Why do we perceive the need to place a weapon in the hands of an untrained and unskilled pilot?  Talk about a false sense of security.


On 9/11 America fought and dramatically lost a battle it was not prepared to fight, taking a sucker punch to the back of the head.  And, yes, while “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” it can also be clearly demonstrated through historical vignettes that those preparing to fight the last battle or war are likely to lose the next.  Would an armed pilot have been able to prevent even one of those aircraft from being hijacked on 9/11?  Unlike others who claim, “Yes,” I’m not so convinced for those who claim “Yes” are assuming…invalidly…that those ‘armed pilots’ would have known that they were already dead men.  Recall that prior to 9/11, hijackings were generally political in nature and, relatively speaking, ‘benign’ in that the plane would eventually land and those being held eventually released.  The real question to ask is would an armed, pre 9/11 pilot have had the foresight to realize within the split seconds of the cabin door being kicked in that those terrorist hijackers were on a suicide mission?  Of course not.  And neither did the passengers who originally sat by and watched.  Such is not the case in the post 9/11 era where one now automatically assumes during a potential hijacking that his boarding pass has just become a takeoff with no landing and, thus, begs ‘audience’ participation to prevent such a perceived demise.


So…where should we stand?  Reinforced cockpit doors?  Certainly.  Taser stun guns or clubs in the cockpit?  Sure.  Active and retired military, who routinely fly, identified and seated by the cockpit door?  Why not?  Guns in the hands of pilots?  No way.  Roll back this tide of fear and paranoia and stop trying to defend against the last battle while our enemy prepares to fight on another field of battle.  Let’s not create a last stand ‘Alamo’ for commercial pilots when the only Santa Anna’s they are most likely to encounter are drunks and psychos. 


Ultimately, the rational for most decisions can be reduced to a few basic questions.  In this case, there are two such questions:  (1) What is the probability of such an event occurring again, and (2) Is there ‘value added’ as a result of the decision.  Can a terrorist hijacker storm the cockpit of a commercial airliner and take over the controls of that aircraft?  Sure, there will always be such a possibility.  However, is it probable?  Unlikely.  That ‘horse’ has already bolted.  Given how difficult it’s become for normal passengers to fly, does one really believe that a suicidal terrorist hijacker is inclined to endure the adversity and humiliation of post 9/11 commercial flying just to convert an airliner into a guided missile…when he can more comfortably, and with much less stress, take some of the millions of dollars that are available to him to charter and to fly his own commercial aircraft loaded with fuel and unchecked explosive luggage into a target of his choosing?  Please.  Talk about a ‘no brainer.’

As for whether or not there is value added by arming pilots?  You decide.


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