Reader's Replies

Here's your chance to join the fray and be heard.  You can respond to my columns and share your own opinions and insight.

  • James from somewhere on the internet describes armed pilots as 'cowboys in the cockpits with guns'
  • A very different James likes the idea of keeping terrorists guessing about whether the pilots may be armed or not.
  • Another internet writer with almost a million miles on UA and 500k on AA is being 'randomly' searched on 83% of his flights.  But he is allowed to carry up to five pounds of explosives legally on board!
  • Emilie from Minneapolis advises about a special type of ammunition for use in guns on planes.
  • Jay from somewhere on the internet raises the politically incorrect issue of profiling.
  • Teri from somewhere on the internet feels that arming pilots would encourage, rather than discourage, terrorism.
  • Carol from somewhere on the internet accuses me of providing misinformation and asks me to be more responsible in the future.
  • Jay from somewhere on the internet feels that the best solution is not to arm either pilots or air marshals.
  • Flight Attendant Pam wants her pilots armed.
  • Peter from somewhere on the internet says 'gas em all'!
  • Gordon suggests depressurizing the plane as a defence.
  • Paul says that it is difficult to be both a pilot and an armed defender of the plane simultaneously.

Reader's Replies :  Other readers share their opinions and experiences.  You can too.  If you'd like to add your own commentary, please send me a note.



James from somewhere on the internet writes :  i disagree with you. we do not need cowboys in the cockpits with guns.

the technology is already available for taking over the autopilot and landing it at the nearest airport. that makes a whole lot of sense; certainly more than armed pilots. the second thing which makes sense is to have the pilots behind impenetrable doors.

if you think that 9/11 was something, you must realize that it occurred because the airline people making policy told the pilots to just give up the airplane to anyone taking it over.

they apparently didn't read the newspapers and understand the potential stupidity of this policy.

if you want to be out front in suggesting policy, suggest to the FAA that they force all airplanes to have the appropriate software on their computers so that the plane may be disabled by either the pilot or a central facility.

David replies :  If I agreed with your characterization of pilots as 'cowboys in the cockpits' I think I'd give up flying!

I do agree that it was foolish to have a 'cooperate with terrorists' policy prior to 9/11, but don't you think that not allowing pilots to be armed is also a lingering remnant of this 'cooperate with terrorists, don't upset them or fight back' policy?

And as for 'appropriate' software to disable a plane, I'd hate that to happen while I was on board - at 35,000 ft!!!

Another James from somewhere else on the internet writes  :  I'm all in favor of an implied threat that the pilots may be armed.

Just as is the case that crime is down in the states that have concealed carry laws - the criminals just never know who's got what, where.  Even if the pilots choose not to be armed,  the hijackers won't be certain.  I like those odds better than letting them know 99% for certain that they have the only weapons on board!

Another internet writer says :  I travel with a handgun. I have a small portable steel safe that I put it into, and I declare it at the check-in counter. They have in the past asked for me to open the safe, show that the handgun is unloaded, and I sign a small orange card that says it is unloaded.

My most recent trips have shown a change in the wording of the card. It now says, "I declare that this weapon is unloaded, and that I am carrying less than 5 pounds of explosives." Ok, this means less than five pounds of bullets for my gun, right? No, not by the definition of the wording. I can legally put the handgun into the safe, along with up to 5 pounds of C-4 explosives (which is more than enough to take down an airplane)!

If I was a terrorist with a suicide-bomber mentality, I could wire the (up to) five pounds of C-4 to a small radio transmitter or even just a simple timer or pressure switch, board the plane, (entirely legally, of course), and then could accomplish what all these billions of dollars are seeking to remediate. Give me a break! The dear FAA is getting so stupid it almost hurts.

Of course, due to the business nature of my travel, I'm the last minute ticket buying, five one-ways in a loop throughout the week kind of guy. I am running an 83% "selected strip search" rate. I've got almost a million miles on United, and 500,000 on American, and I still get the Red Flag treatment. OK, so I must fit a profile of some sort, but there must be a better way to cross reference my traveling history to the present ticketed trip. I'm one of those guys who now will drive 500 miles rather than fly. It's just not worth the hassles.

So where do we go from here? I'd love to get a call from the FAA, and even sent them an e-mail regarding this, but have heard nothing back. They're in "overload" mode, can't handle the hoards of questions, so I am relegated to getting searched, and plan on a three-plus hour check-in process. I don't think that NOT taking my handgun with me will solve this. If anything, declaring a handgun should let them know that I am one of the good guys! Alas, logic is defied once again.

Have a good day, and let me know if you have heard anything else on the explosives issue!

David replies :  Is there a single terrorist, anywhere in the world, that doesn't now understand 'Rule One' of 'how to avoid being searched' - Do not buy last minute one way tickets which you pay for with cash - buy round trip tickets with a credit card a couple of weeks in advance'!

Our threat profiling needs to become vastly more sophisticated.

Emilie from Minneapolis writes :  I can put you in touch with some Charleton Heston types who can specify exactly what kind of ammunition they'd want a pilot to carry.  They directed me to a specific ammo that, once in a human body, does not exit.  It just fragments and the pieces ricochet in there doing more and more damage.  The pieces most likely won't exit and hurt the plane or even the guy behind the target figure.

We discussed this back in September, when I asked if arming pilots was not a reasonable answer but stated that I was worried about compromising the airliner's "skin"

These are people like that Medal of Honor fellow who had his medal confiscated at the airport because it was deemed a dangerous potential weapon.

David replies :  You are thinking of 'frangible' bullets such as the Glazer Safety Slugs.  The break up on impact and will not go through even sheetrock and certainly would not puncture a plane's fuselage.  At the same time, because they do break up and deliver all their energy to the object they hit, they are much more lethal than regular ammunition.

The good news is, as you say, there is no danger of these bullets shooting right through one person and into another, or of puncturing the plane itself.  The bad news - if a person shooting these bullets hits the wrong person, then the increased lethality of the bullet makes this a much more serious error.

Frankly, I don't much like the thought of pilots re-enacting the 'Gunfight at the OK Corral' on any plane I'm flying, no matter what ammunition they're shooting around the place.  But, I'd sure prefer having the pilots defend their plane to the alternative - becoming a suicide weapon in the hands of terrorists, or being shot out of the sky by our own airforce!

Jay from somewhere on the internet writes :  Until late last summer, I was a business and software consultant and made my living flying, averaging 4 segments a week and over 200,000 miles annually. The recession got me off the airplanes via a layoff.

I totally agree that our biggest risk now is on cargo. I only hope the TSA, the CIA, and the FBI read your article with more interest than Al-Qaeda operatives.

It is a sad state of affairs that the government's increased meddling in the security issue has only marginally increased public confidence in the true safety of air travel, but in gaining this intangible, has produced the following unpleasant side effects:

1. Dramatically increased wait times in the airports (easy for a vacationer to adjust to, damn near impossible for a business traveler to adjust to);

2. Increased bureaucracy due to the Federalization of security employees (Simply making them more arrogant and indifferent);

3. Ridiculous 'random' searches of everyone from senior citizens to children (thanks to the gutless and blatantly stupid failure to adopt intelligent 'profiling').

This last point I think I find to be the most offensive. I foresaw the first two points after 9/11 when I was job hunting and actively avoided pursuing travel-based positions. I can't imagine coping with all the nonsense on a weekly basis. What I did NOT foresee was the 3rd point, in which the liberals, with their misguided ideas of egalitarianism, decide it is 'offensive' to search a larger percentage of the people who look like the 19 terrorists that committed the 4 hijackings than people who look like Arnold Palmer and Rusty Wallace.

I have yet to step on a plane since I was laid off and unless our government gets some cojones and starts targeting the people they should be targeting, I'll feel safer and less stressed driving. I do keep up with the news as it's a hard habit to beak. Kind of like being retired military, I guess.

Teri from somewhere on the internet writes :  I have to say that I disagree with you on the subject of arming airline pilots. I'd prefer not to have guns on the planes at all.  My point is this - if a terrorist/hijacker wants to use a gun today, he has to figure out some way to smuggle it onto the plane. I much prefer that to letting him board the plane and then find a way to get the pilot's gun by creating a distraction, by surprise or whatever means he might use to get his hands on that weapon.

Pilots should concentrate on flying the plane. Security should be fixated on keeping weapons and potential hijackers and terrorists off the planes. Arming the pilots - in my opinion - would be more likely to encourage rather than discourage a person with a terrorist agenda.

I do agree with you on one thing - the screening of cargo baggage. With the reactive mentality of the airlines, it will take a bomb in a piece of cargo to force the screening of that baggage. We need to get proactive and take a security lesson from the Europeans and airlines like El Al, and quit locking the proverbial barn door after the horse has already been stolen.

David replies :  In a perfect world, maybe it would be preferable to have no guns at all on planes, but the world - and, more importantly, airport security - is demonstrably imperfect, and until such time as we have truly 100% guarantees that there is no way at all that hijackers can take over a plane, I'm all for the extra security and safety which an armed pilot offers.

As for the suggestion that terrorists might somehow trick the pilots and get their guns and thereby make a bad situation worse, well, if we extend that logic, surely no police anywhere should be armed, due to similar fears?

Carol from somewhere on the internet writes :  Your claim that the government's stated alternative to guns in the cockpit is to shoot down the plane is absurd and untrue. All agencies involved have repeatedly said they prefer non-lethal weapons, such as stun guns, in lieu of firearms.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue, your point is not well-served by resorting to misinformation.  Please be more responsible in the future.

David replies :  The government's willingness to shoot down hijacked planes has been widely documented in the press (most recently, for example, in this article which quotes the head of the Airline Pilots Association).  It is also obvious and common sense - let me ask you this - what exactly do you think a fighter jet would do as a hijacked plane is being flown into the White House?  Or the Empire State Building?  Or anywhere else?

This editorial in the Wall Street Journal, printed two days after my article, does an excellent job of restating the points I make.

I know that government agencies would rather give pilots non-lethal devices.  But both the pilots and many other commentators think this is a stupid non-response to a very lethal threat.

Jay from somewhere on the internet writes :  Yes, you are right that it is inconsistent to deny guns to pilots but then put air marshals on planes. The resolution that achieves consistency is to get the marshals off the planes. Guns on a plane are a bad idea. It just changes the nature of the hijacker exploit from using weapons brought on board to getting the guns from whoever has them. You need to remember that the 9/11 hijackers 1) worked in teams and 2) weren't afraid to die. One of the hijackers sacrifices himself to identify the marshals. The other four (or six) then get the gun from marshals, either immediately or later. We already know where they sit, because of the American first class flap, so the bad guys know where to get their seats.

Moreover, the 9/11 episode was NOT an exploit of our security systems. It was an exploit of the contemporaneous hijack protocol-get the plane down safely, then negotiate. That protocol changed on the 11th of September over a rural Pennsylvania. It has not changed officially, but hijackings are no longer going to be permitted, even at the risk of loss of life to passengers and crew members.

David replies :  I have massive problems with the defeatism inherent in the assumption that, if the good guys have guns, then the bad guys will somehow be cleverer than the good guys and succeed in getting the guns from them, making the situation worse than if the good guys were unarmed in the first place!

Also, one point of revealed air marshal procedure.  As soon as a threat appears on a plane, the entire plane is 'locked down' - all passengers are made to remain in their seats with their hands on their heads or on the back of the seats in front of them.  The air marshals take positive control of the plane, and anyone that moves from their seat or makes any threatening move at all better have their insurance policy fully paid up.  This procedure is, of course, designed to counter a situation where there are multiple terrorists on board.

Pam, a Flight Attendant for 35 years, writes :  I completely agree with your observations and comments on airline security and on the arming of pilots.  Your views on the arming of pilots are the same as mine :  Someone might get hurt if the pilot has a gun - everyone is going to die if the plane is shot down.

Peter from somewhere on the internet writes :  Why hasn't there been a discussion on a method of putting the passengers aboard an aircraft asleep instantly with a gas?  I would find this far preferable to running the risk of a captain appearing with a gun or hijackers driving the aircraft into the ground.  Surely this technology exists?

David replies :  I know this sounds silly, but the idea of using some sort of gas to cause passengers to rapidly fall unconscious is a very dangerous concept.  Different people, with different metabolisms, would require very different dosages.  Add to that the accelerated effects due to the low pressure in the cabin anyway, and results could be potentially fatal to some percentage of passengers.  Maybe it is better that some passengers die rather than all die.  Also there is, ahem, the question of cost.  A passenger gassing system would probably cost somewhere between $20,000-200,000 per plane to install, maybe more; a gun costs $200-500, and we know how the airlines feel about spending money!  I don't know enough myself to comment further.

Gordon from somewhere on the internet writes :  The pilot can already put everyone to sleep fairly quickly by dumping the cabin air. I have one pilot friend who has that on his defense agenda if at sufficient altitude.

The same pilot friend assures me that piercing the skin with a bullet will not affect the flight of the plane. Shattering a window would be uncomfortable, control surface a little more of a problem.

More silliness. With regard to seating air marshals. Nobody with a first class boarding pass is going to take getting kicked back, without a nasty scene. So essentially the only was to get someone out of a seat for an air marshal is to tell them it's for an air marshal. Advantage gone...

David replies :  Depressurizing the cabin without deploying the oxygen masks risks not only 'putting people to sleep' but also having them die from lack of oxygen.  Also, as you touch on, it only works above a sufficient altitude, and unreliably even then.  Some people have climbed to the top of Mt Everest without supplementary air (29,000 ft).

As a quick rule of thumb, using depressurization as a defense means the plane remains vulnerable for its first 30 minutes or so of flight and its last 45 minutes or so of flight.

I'm not saying this is a bad strategy (in a situation where, let's face it, there are no completely good strategies!) merely pointing out it may have a lot of 'collateral damage' (ie passenger deaths) and is only effective, on some people not all, for some of the flight.  As such it is not a complete answer.

Paul from somewhere on the internet writes :  Air marshals and other law enforcement people choose that field, are screened for appropriate temperament, and are subject to constant practice and upgrading of the skills required.

Pilots choose a very different kind of job, are not screened for their suitability to for either combat or law enforcement, and have enough to do practicing and upgrading the skills required to be pilots.

I have met many pilots. They think far differently than do law enforcement people. I do not believe it possible to effectively re-train every pilot in their 40s and 50s to think and act appropriately with regard to firearms.

Each of these jobs is a full time profession. Neither should be compromised by trying to combine it with other jobs.

Perhaps instead of such ridiculous measures on the ground 57,000 new civil servants!! we could have one air marshal on every flight.

I believe the hijackers have accomplished what they wanted vis a vis air travel. It is foolish to treat airports and airplanes as the only vulnerable spots in America. The next assault will come in a very different way. And, unfortunately, there are so many possibilities.

Finally, look at Israel. Their air security is perfect with stringent passenger screening everyone knowing that 1 or more trained armed people are in the passenger cabin and yet they are nearly helpless to prevent terrorist attacks of all sorts on the ground.

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Copyright 2002 by David M Rowell.