Fatally Flawed

The question of the day following the events of September 11 became the question of the hour after an enraged passenger recently gained in-flight access to the cockpit of a United Airlines 777. Should airline transport pilots carry weapons? Like many of us, Ken Cubbin - a career flight crewmember - has some strong feelings on the subject.


Part of the initial improvements to airline security following September 11 was to upgrade cockpit doors. Ultimately, cockpits will have Kevlar reinforced bulkheads, doors and reinforced door jambs, hinges and locks. However, as an interim measure and to comply with FAA directives, airlines fitted a variety of deadbolts and reinforcing panels to their cockpit doors. As the recent United case shows, cockpits are still not impenetrable. While aviation authorities and airline managers espouse the safety of airline travel now that security improvements have been made, the reality is that we on the front line — pilots and cabin crew — have been left out to dry. So much for air marshals. Like I have said all along, air marshals can’t help unless they’re on every flight.

Handicapped Crews

"Safe" Cockpit DoorThere is only one thing that will stop a cockpit intruder from getting into the cockpit and wreaking havoc: a gun. After 9/11, United took the bold move to announce that it intended to train its pilots in the use of Tasers. These weapons, they said, would be fitted in every United airplane in the near future. And then along came the foot-dragging, politically correct politicians and bureaucrats. Had a Taser been installed in the cockpit of the recent United flight, the assailant would have been instantly disabled as soon as he put any part of his body through the cockpit door. There would have been fewer distractions to the pilots — such as the copilot having to strike the man with the side of the crash ax several times — and the cabin crew would have had an easier time in restraining the intruder once he was stunned.

Well, it’s not the politicians and bureaucrats who are at risk is it? They sit in the safety of their offices while they dictate edicts that hamstring effective defense of the cockpit. We pilots and cabin crew should take this latest incident as a heads-up and demand that we be given access to more effective defense mechanisms. In my opinion, that should be guns in the cockpit or, at the very least, Tasers. Authorities need to forget about the pansy antigun lobby and start gearing up for reality. We are at war with terrorism. How the heck can we fight a war when we are unarmed?

El Al’s Security

Up to five armed undercover agents travel on El Al flights, usually occupying strategically placed aisle seats. Also, many of El Al’s flight attendants are ex-Israeli soldiers who have received combat training. In 1970, a Palestinian hijacker was killed and another wounded when their hijacking attempt was foiled by an armed guard on an El Al flight. The U.S. is rapidly adding air marshals to its security forces, but the sheer volume of flights in the U.S. will mean that either thousands of marshals will need to be employed or every flight will not be protected by an undercover air marshal.

El Al’s pilots enter the cockpit before the flight and are sealed off by doors of reinforced steel. They do not emerge from the flight deck until every passenger has deplaned at the destination airport. Some industry pundits claim that El Al’s pilots also have access to guns in the cockpit, but El Al refuses to comment on this issue. The airline also will not reveal how pilots are fed and allowed access to rest room facilities, but it is assumed that there is a separate bathroom and small galley that can be accessed from only the cockpit.

It will take some time before cockpits on U.S. airlines offer the same crew protection. But notice that even though El Al’s cockpits are extremely secure, their pilots still carry guns in the cockpit — at least according to some reports.

Things That Go Boom In The Night

Immediately after the terrorists’ attack on September 11, Avweb was literally swamped with comments on questions it posed on its web site regarding arming of pilots. There were 4 survey questions:

1. Would armed airline pilots pose a threat to airline safety? (1062 respondents)

a. Yes. There’s no place in the cockpit for weapons. (18%)
b. It all depends on the weapon and the pilot’s training/proficiency with it. (47%)
c. Not at all. Weapons would be no more a threat to safety than a hijacker. (35%)

2. Would the arming of airline pilots be a deterrent to hijackers? (1057 respondents)

a. Yes it would. Anyone would think twice before attacking an armed pilot. (32%)
b. Not completely, but it’s better than nothing. (42%)
c. Nothing could deter a hijacker once he is committed to his mission. (26%)

3. Should other security measures be considered prior to placing weapons in the cockpit? (1060 respondents)

a. Absolutely. The should be the very last option considered. (34%)
b. Yes, but weapons must still be considered. (58%)
c. No. Arming the pilots is the only way to deal with this kind of situation. (8%)

4. What other security measures should at least be reviewed prior to arming pilots? (1056 respondents)

a. Replace and strengthen airline cockpit doors. (17%)
b. Installing cockpit/cabin video cameras. (2%)
c. Increasing the number of Federal Air Marshals onboard airliners. (7%)
d. All of the above. (68%)
e. None of the above. (6%)

As seen by the survey’s results, 82% of respondents (many of whom were pilots) thought that arming pilots might be a good idea as long as they received training and were proficient in the weapon’s use. However, only about a third of respondents thought that armed pilots would be a deterrent to hijackers.

In a survey conducted by the Department of Transport, 6,331 respondents answered "yes" or "no" questions that revealed the publics’ opinion that pilots should be armed. Survey results revealed that 56% of respondents favored pilots being armed with guns, but that figure rose to 78% in favor for the question of whether pilots should be allowed to carry stun guns.

These surveys reveal that most people favor pilots having access to stun guns in the cockpit. This attitude is in line with legislation passed by Congress that offers that option to pilots and airlines provided adequate training and other security measures are undertaken. United Airlines and Mesa Airlines announced plans to begin pilot training and install stun guns in the cockpits of their airplanes. To date, these plans have not come to fruition.

While airline union groups called for pilots to carry guns in the cockpit, concern over stray bullets damaging avionics systems or piercing cockpit windows stopped politicians from approving this request. While one bullet hole in the fuselage would not cause a rapid decompression, opponents to pilots having guns said a bullet passing through a cockpit window might cause enough weakening of the glass to cause it to blow out. Proponents argued that one bullet through a cockpit window would not cause an explosive decompression — just a loud whistle from air escaping through the small aperture.

The one saving grace for cockpit windows is that they are multi-layered and can sustain the loss of one layer while maintaining the integrity of the pressure seal. However, at least to my knowledge, impact tests on windows usually only include objects striking the window from the outside. I have been an A&P for over thirty years and I would not like to go on record as saying a window would not fail if a bullet was shot through it at 30,000 feet or more. Unless windows are actually tested for this eventuality, and I see the published results, I find it impossible to form an opinion one way or another. However, as I say, there are a multitude of experts who are prepared to guarantee that a decompression will not occur under these circumstances.

What Pilots Thought

ALPA LogoIn early October 2001, a resolution was circulated among various councils of the Air Line Pilots’ Association (ALPA) to ask that federal regulations be changed to allow for voluntary arming of flight crew members. It was suggested by some members of the union that if the union’s request was denied by politicians, pilots would suspend service of commercial flights. The resolution called for pilots to be trained by the FBI and for them to be given concealed weapons’ licenses and indemnification against legitimate use of their firearms. While testifying before the House Aviation Subcommittee several weeks later, ALPA’s President Duane Woerth said that the union wanted pilots to undergo training to act as federal marshals.

Around the same time Bob Crandall, former CEO of American Airlines, said that airlines have long agitated the federal government to have it take over integrated aviation security including everything from cross-checking airline reservations with CIA and FBI databases to air marshals and ‘under appropriate circumstances, armed pilots." He went on to say that if he were currently an airline pilot, he would want to carry a gun.

Pilots have been required to pass through security like everyone else and prohibited from having guns by consensus between aviation regulatory authorities and airlines after an accident in 1987 in which a disgruntled airline employee smuggled a gun onboard and shot both pilots. Therefore, it would require a change in attitude that would allow volunteer pilots to be given background checks, psychological screening and air marshal-like training. When it looked like Congress was not going to approve pilots having access to handguns in the flight deck, the pilot unions insisted that pilots should at least be given the right to have access to non-lethal stun guns in order to offer a last line of defense against cockpit attack. This option is still pending.

Anti-Gun Arguments

Opponents to pilots having handguns profess to be worried that a deranged pilot might one day wreak havoc in the skies. Alternately, his or her gun might be taken by someone else on the flight and used against crew members. And, they say, the extreme confinement of the cockpit would make it very difficult to shoot an intruder who is entering the cockpit from behind. Pilots, however, say that federal air marshals may be picked out of the crowd, overpowered and have their guns taken away from them. At that point, pilots would have no viable defense against an armed hijacker.

There are plenty of people who profess to know how best to protect the cockpit from intruders. Just about all of these people do not fly for a living. It is not their proverbial "ass-on-the-line." Trying to stop terrorists getting on the aircraft in the first place and fortifying cockpit doors are sensible security improvements that must be accomplished; however, if an armed intruder somehow manages to break into a cockpit, no one is going to tell me that I cannot protect my own life. If that means me only having access to a stun gun, so be it, but I would prefer a handgun loaded with similar ammunition to that used by federal air marshals. I tell you now — one way or another — if an armed intruder breaks into my cockpit, he or she will not be leaving alive — stun gun or no stun gun.

Believe it or not, even prior to September 11, 2001, federal regulations permitted some law enforcement officers and other officials to carry weapons onboard commercial aircraft. Even pilots had the right to carry weapons — at least in theory — as long as the airline (certificate holder) approved, the FAA gave its approval and the pilot received adequate training. The FAA has been withholding permission for pilots to carry guns for many years and seems loathe to change its stance despite given the green light by new legislation.

All-Plastic Guns — The Next Threat?

Glock 17How real is it that an all-plastic gun might be produced?

In January 1986, the Washington Post contained information about an Austrian gun that was made almost entirely of plastic. The handgun, known as the Glock 17, has actually been available since 1982, but the Washington Post article reportedly alleged that the Khaddafi regime in Libya was very interested in getting hold of the new gun. However, the Glock 17 actually turns out to contain over 500 grams of steel and can be easily detected by metal detectors. According to Peter Williamson, Vice President of Worldwide Sales and Marketing for Rapiscan Security Products Inc., even if the gun were broken down into constituent parts and scattered around a person’s carry-on luggage, it would be detectable via his company’s TIP-technology scanners.

But could a gun conceivably be made of entirely plastic materials? The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment foresees the development of two types of plastic guns: those that are entirely made of plastic and those that contain some steel elements. Modern technological advances with carbon fibers, glass fibers and other composite materials could conceivably be used to reinforce conventional nylon or polyester plastics. Such a gun may only be capable of firing several rounds before it became inoperable, but, to a terrorist, that may be just enough to do the job.

To make matters worse, ceramic materials have been developed to withstand very high temperatures. If durable plastic gun barrels were protected from heat and shock by a special lining of ceramic material, the usable life of the gun may be increased considerably. There would still have to be a small number of metal parts, such as small springs, but these would be probably undetectable to current scanners. Like plastics, ceramics would be invisible to most current X-ray scanners and/or metal detectors.

Concern over the possibility that undetectable guns may become commercially available in the near future, Congress set about drafting new legislation to make guns illegal to be sold commercially if they contained insufficient metal in their construction to generate a sharp X-ray image. This bill was passed with full support and cooperation of the NRA. Most of you would agree, I’m sure, that drafting legislation in the U.S. Congress will not stop a terrorist from gaining access to the latest technology in handguns. If totally undetectable guns were available now, the hijackers of September 11 would have probably used them. However, such guns may be available in the near future and this possibility remains a very real threat to airline safety. Just another reason why airline pilots should be allowed to carry firearms.

Stun Guns

Advance Taser M26Captain Duane Woerth spoke before a House of Representatives subcommittee on September 25, 2001. One of the improvements he called for was the inclusion of at least two or three stun guns in the cockpit of airline aircraft, depending on crew configuration.

In mid-October 2001, Mesa Air Group Inc., based in Phoenix, Ariz., said that it would train its 1,200 pilots to use stun guns and that the program was anticipated to take approximately three months to complete. Mesa Airlines has 832 daily departures to 153 cities and 38 states within the United States. Although airline officials recognized that FAA approval to use stun guns in the cockpit was not available at that time, the program was initiated with anticipation that the Airport Security Federalization Act of 2001 would allow such action.

While British Airways and other airlines mulled over their decision of whether to allow pilots to carry stun guns, on October 15, 2001, United Airlines announced that it wanted to equip all its pilots with stun guns in the cockpit. The FAA, which publicly opposed guns in cockpits, initially responded by saying it would not allow pilots to carry stun guns. But after the Airport Security Federalization Act of 2001 was passed by Congress and signed by President Bush a few days later the agency was forced to reconsider its position. To this date, the agency is still procrastinating.

The Airport Security Federalization Act of 2001 says:

(Sec. 125) Flight Deck Security Act of 2001— Authorizes the FAA to permit a pilot, co-pilot, or flight engineer of a commercial aircraft who has successfully completed specified training requirements, or who is not otherwise prohibited by law from possessing a firearm, to carry a firearm for the protection of the aircraft. Directs the FAA to establish a voluntary program to train and supervise commercial airline pilots. Directs the Secretary to periodically report to Congress on the effectiveness of such requirements in facilitating commercial aviation safety and the suppression of terrorism by commercial aircraft.

I Told You To Knock

Taser Safety GraphUnited Airlines chose the ADVANCE TASER made and supplied by Taser International of Scottsdale, Ariz. This is the same gun that is used by 1,000 law enforcement agencies in North America. It has four times the stopping power of any other non-lethal weapon on the market according to Taser President Tom Smith.

The FAA has worried that stun gun use in the cockpit might harm avionics or be taken off pilots and used against them. Another argument the agency used is that to effectively use a stun gun the pilot must first exit the cockpit — that is, of course, unless the cockpit door is beaten down.

Taser International had been adding about 40 new law enforcement agencies to their client list every month. With over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States alone, the market for the Advanced Taser seems quite expansive.

Most people will remember Tasers from the bungled Rodney King incident years ago where use of the weapon did not keep him down. However, technological advances have increased the weapon’s effectiveness dramatically since that time. The new ADVANCED TASER M-Series combines the injury-reducing benefits of traditional stun technology with a quantum leap in stopping power via new Electro-Muscular Disruption (EMD) technology. EMD technology overrides the central nervous system and causes involuntary contraction of muscle tissue that will disable a person for around 15 minutes. Assailants are unable to withstand the effects of the weapon even if they are psychologically focused, have extremely high pain thresholds or are highly agitated. According to Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a police psychologist and author of the book "Deadly Force Encounters" and the FBI, an extremely agitated and focused assailant can continue aggressive behavior for up to 14 seconds after receiving a fatal shot directly to the heart or aorta. There is enough oxygen in the brain and skeletal muscles to allow the assailant to shoot, stab, choke or slash well before he or she keels over and dies. According to Sergeant Darren Laur, Control Tactics Coordinator for the Victoria Police Force Department in Canada, there maybe only two ways to instantaneously stop an aggressor: a bullet to the central nervous system or the new ADVANCED TASER by Taser International.

The ADVANCED TASER M26 uses Electro-Muscular Disruption technology that uses a more powerful 18 to 26 watt electrical signal to completely override the central nervous system and cause an uncontrollable contraction of muscles. This completely disables an assailant regardless of his or her mental focus or physical stimulation. The weapon is effective up to 20 feet.

Taser Target ZonesThe ADVANCED TASER comes in 7, 18 or 26 Watt EMD systems and each is designed to be well within physical electrical safety limits. Taser technology has not been cited as the cause of death of any person over the last 20 years of field use. However, while no long-term harmful effects of being the victim of one of these weapons have been found, it is conceivable that individual anomalies or physical stresses due to narcotics might cause serious injury or death. Obviously they should only be used in extreme circumstances.

The above graph shows how EMD technology weapons and traditional stun gun technology effects are well below the danger area for heart damage. While no long-term effects of being the victim of one of these weapons has been proven in the last 20 years of field use, it should be appreciated that effects from their use are such that the weapon should be used only in extreme circumstances.

The ADVANCED TASER looks and feels like an automatic handgun. It has a laser sight for aiming and is effective up to 20 feet. Unlike a wound from a handgun or a defense weapon such as pepper spray, the ADVANCED TASER will disable an assailant even if he or she is struck on an extremity. Therefore, accurate targeting is not essential for effective use. This is because the weapon affects the central nervous system by imitating the electrical impulses used to communicate with the body.

Unlike defensive sprays or handguns, effective target zones for TASER technology weapons are effective even if an assailant is struck in a body extremity. This is because TASER technology weapons affect the central nervous system by imitating the electrical impulses used to communicate within the human body.

While I personally would like to see pilots have access to lethal weapons such as handguns in the cockpit, I view ADVANCED TASERS as a the next-best alternative to having nothing at all. They certainly appear to be totally effective at disarming an aggressor. But if a pilot fires, misses his target and the probes impact a circuit breaker or instrument panel, there is likely to be some pretty interesting effects on avionics systems. The likelihood of this occurring are reduced due to ADVANCED TASERS having laser target beams; however, it is possible that a pilot could misfire or his target may suddenly move just as he pulls the trigger. The possibility of creating significant electrical anomalies if this occurs are very real, but, in my opinion, the risk of not having a device to stop a cockpit intruder far outweigh any possibility of incurring some electrical and instrument malfunctions.


I think that anyone who forces his or her way into the cockpit should be killed. This is not a game we are playing here. We are in control of an extremely complex machine, and a cabin full of defenseless passengers whose lives depend on our presence of mind. While I commend the United copilot who struck the cockpit intruder on the head several times with the crash ax, this action should have been completely unnecessary. Had he had a gun or a taser, he could have quickly put an end to the situation. As it was, I guarantee that the United pilots remained distracted for some time while the intruder, still struggling to get into the cockpit, was hauled out by passengers and cabin crew.

Enough is enough. I think pilots’ unions should follow through with their original threat of industry action. The reality must be that if we are not immediately given training and tasers in the cockpit, no flights will depart — at all. No one should be asked to fight a war with squirt guns.