By Captain Mark Estabrook
Originally published Sunday, September 16, 2001
In order to immediately restore faith in our nation’s air travel industry, it is time that the FAA Administrator and air carrier certificate holders authorize the immediate carriage of sidearms by all commercial airline pilots in the United States. Existing regulations permit such carriage (See Title 14, Chapter 1, Subchapter F, Part 108), and training should commence immediately.
Long-term, firearm safety courses could become permanent fixtures of commercial airline pilot training. Carrying weapons should be mandatory, as it is for police officers, Secret Service details, and sky marshals.
Critics will argue that an insane airline pilot might shoot someone.
Think about it. A maniacal pilot can manipulate the controls to crash into any target he wants at anytime, so why don’t we trust him with a firearm? Others may argue that an armed pilot could have his weapon taken from him and used to commit the very act of air piracy that the carriage of such weapons would be designed to prevent. But I ask you, if you had been a passenger on board the American and United flights that crashed in Washington, D.C., New York City and Pennsylvania, would you have wanted your pilots to at least have had a fighting chance?
Of course you would.
If national policy dictates it, the technology now exists for handguns to be “imprinted” with the identity of the owner, so that the pilot is the only one capable of discharging the weapon.
Over-penetration in a pressurized cabin is another significant issue. To combat this, many ammunition manufacturers produce a specialized frangible aluminum or plastic bullet that is designed to break up quickly on impact with solid objects. Since selected frangible rounds turn to dust with no ricochet and shoot more accurately then plated or jacketed bullets, pilots can safely put down hijackers in close quarters without penetrating our pressurized cabins.
Every time you board a plane, you put your faith and trust in that pilot. So why not trust him to protect the cockpit from hijackers? Although sky marshals have been used in passenger cabins in the past, they cannot absolutely protect the last layer of defense in any aircraft — the pilots in the cockpit. In addition, who would protect cargo pilots who fly widebody aircraft all over the world if we were to simply rely on sky marshals? And as we have learned from the incidents at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it doesn’t matter who or what is on board a large airliner, the end result is the same.
Here are some other long term solutions for a comprehensive security net that must be constructed:
Bulkheads must be redesigned in future aircraft production to preclude any forced entry — either by mechanical or explosive penetration.
Cockpit doors must be redesigned to replicate a bank vault in design. Solid steel pins should seal the door on all sides. Crews must be trained that the cockpit door will not be opened under any circumstances, up to and including the execution of hostages in the cabin. Bathrooms should be installed in the cockpit, and food can be served to the crews prior to departure and ovens installed in the cockpit for convenience.
Armed air marshals should be stationed between the cockpit and the passengers, or aft of the cockpit entry door on cargo carriers. Utilization of air marshals should be redefined from now on. They should be deployed to protect the pilots in the cockpit and the citizens on the ground, rather than the passengers in the cabin. Therefore, all cargo carriers should utilize air marshals as well.
Professional personnel earning professional wages must be used at airport security checkpoints. Extensive training in interdiction techniques and new technologies are inevitable, but low-paid, uneducated security personnel should be a thing of the past.
Deployment of better and more pervasive bomb sniffing technology can be accomplished on short order throughout our nation’s airports, and sniffing of every bag, both checked and carryon, as well as every box shipped via cargo carriers, should be mandatory. Manual searches of every carryon bag should be accomplished.
Cease and desist all attempts by the Federal government to “harmonize” FAA pilot licensure requirements and procedures with those of foreign governments. American citizens should be the only ones certificated to carry passengers and cargo within our territory. Furthermore, government attempts to ease existing Cabotage Laws, laws which protect American air and maritime commerce for reasons of safety, economics, national defense and labor, should be abandoned. Combined with recent events is the Egypt Air incident, which should tell Americans who they want piloting U.S. routes.
A national commitment to change the way aircraft are constructed should be made. Existing fleets of aircraft should be retrofitted within a defined time period, such as 24 months.
But the last layer in our defensive shield should always be the armed pilots who sit at the flight controls. Identification of airline pilots authorized to carry weapons can be accomplished through fingerprint and retinal scanning technology and their access controlled at selected entry points.
It’s in all of our best interests to take immediate steps to protect our national commerce and transportation system. Granted, investment in an aviation security revolution is expensive, but what is the cost of terrorist attacks on U.S. targets? What price do you put on the other national security targets that would make the World Trade Center pale in comparison?
We should immediately jettison our anti-gun notions when it comes to the protection of thousands of people’s lives. Let’s commit our American ingenuity to revolutionizing our aircraft and airport security measures. Failure to do so will exact a continuing drain on our nation’s resources, economy and most importantly, our humanity.
Captain Mark Estabrook is the editor of AirlinePilots.com. He has served in the United States Air Force as an E3 AWACS aircraft commander with duty in the Persian Gulf region during the Iran-Iraq war. He received a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1987. Mark Estabrook currently serves as an Airbus captain at FedEx.
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