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The Dartmouth
May 30, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Pilots Fight Back

There may be a new passenger on your next airline flight: a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol. This past weekend, 46 airline pilots became the first graduates of the Transportation Security Administration's self-defense and firearms training course. After completing the week-long class, conducted at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia, the pilots went back to their planes -- packing heat. Thousands more pilots are expected to enroll in the new program, the product of post-9/11 legislation allowing pilots to carry guns in the cockpit. Now air travelers will be safer as a result.

One lesson from the Sept. 11 hijackings ought to be clear: the cockpit is the final line of defense against any massive loss of life. If terrorists breach the cockpit, the potential for destruction is immense, and there are no good responses. Either passengers must wrest control of the aircraft from armed hijackers, almost certainly resulting in a crash (as befell the brave men and women aboard United Flight 93), or the plane must be shot down by the military. In either case, all lives aboard are lost. This means that the cockpit must be defended at all costs.

So pilots must be able to stop hijackers with lethal force. Unarmed passengers and flight attendants cannot be expected to keep armed terrorists from reaching the cockpit, and it is logistically impossible to put an armed air marshal on every flight. An armed pilot is the most effective defense. Non-lethal weapons, like tazers, are finicky and effective only at extremely close range and cannot halt more than one attacker. A gun can stop multiple attackers permanently. Armed pilots are also a strong deterrent: would-be hijackers must face the possibility of entering the cockpit and being greeted by the barrel of a pistol.

Granted, giving pilots guns is an imperfect solution and creates a whole range of problems. For one, a cramped cockpit is hardly the ideal space for a gunfight. Pilots may not have time to leave their seats if an assailant breaches the cockpit door; for that reason, the TSA course trains pilots to shoot over the shoulder. But shooting over the shoulder is hardly accurate, and stray bullets may fly into the passenger cabin. A hijacker might disarm the pilot and take the gun. And if terrorists were killing passengers in the cabin, it's not clear whether or not the pilot would try to intervene.

Fortunately, most of these dangers can be minimized. Reinforced cockpit doors can slow hijackers and buy pilots valuable seconds to prepare. Rigorous screening and training can prepare pilots for most of the threats they might face and teach appropriate responses; the TSA firearms class appears to be an effective start. Pilots will keep their guns in a metal lockbox when not in the cockpit, thus minimizing the chances that they will fall into the wrong hands. Besides, a disarmed pilot is hardly more helpless than an unarmed pilot.

In the words of one pilot, a 16-year industry veteran who graduated from weapons training: "You never know what may be on the other side of the cockpit door. If we can defend against a threat, the benefits far outweigh the risks."

After all, it was the pilots themselves who lobbied for the right to carry guns. That's because most pilots feel responsible for the protection of their passengers and their planes. And in today's world, the threats they face are very real. As air travelers, we owe our pilots the right to defend their planes and the means to do so. As Stephen Luckey, chairman of the National Security Committee of the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilots union, said to USA Today: "There has to be something between that cockpit door and that F-16 that's going to blow you out of the sky if the terrorists take over."

That "something" turns out to be a semiautomatic pistol. The fact that pilots may now wear shoulder holsters as well as captain's wings is a sad comment about the times we live in: the skies are not so friendly anymore. At least they can be safer.