Fly the Friendly Skies?

As a consequence of the terrorist attacks of September 11, American pilots now have a new companion when they fly. This past Saturday marked the graduation of the first group of 46 pilots who received special training to allow them to carry guns in their cockpits. Congress granted this privilege in an attempt to protect the lives of airplane crews and passengers and to prevent another tragedy much like that in the fall of 2001. The initial group of trainees consisted of both male and female pilots of different ages and backgrounds. These pilots received law enforcement training for 48 hours, taking turns as the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” They practiced fake attacks and tried to become comfortable fighting in the close quarters of a cockpit. They obtained instruction in hand-to-hand combat and firearms, including extensive practice sessions on the firing range, and additional training focused on the mental aspect of fighting. But while substantial, this is a far cry from the years of training that police officers and professional soldiers receive before they are authorized to carry guns. The pilots will each receive one of two types of weapons. Some will be handed less-than-lethal weapons and others will obtain firearms. The less-than-lethal weapons disable targets with electrical shock, chemicals, impact projectiles, physical restraints, optical effects, or acoustic effects. The primary goal of these weapons is to temporarily confuse or hinder the approaching attacker. Although they are reported to have a lower danger of accidental injury and death to innocent bystanders than firearms, these less-than-lethal weapons have a high risk of collateral damage. Firearms, on the other hand, have many risks and therefore the ones provided to pilots are designed to hold special bullet loads that result in maximum damage to an attacker without passing through his/her body, therefore lowering the risk of accidental or collateral damage. The decision to allow pilots to receive guns was not a simple one, and prompted considerable controversy. Industry experts and federal authorities are skeptical of the effects of pilots’ possession of guns. However, the public has overwhelmingly supported this idea. Furthermore, according to recent poll results, 70 percent of pilots advocated their possession of guns. The government initially opposed arming pilots. However, after further consideration of potential terrorist threats, government officials finally concluded that it was advisable to permit commercial airline pilots to bear guns as a defense to cockpit intruders. The presence of firearms, while appeasing some passengers, also instills in some a certain uneasiness. Firearms have a dual nature wherever they are officially authorized. Although they protect innocent civilians from getting hurt, they can just as easily be used against them. The risk is particularly great in an airplane both because of the large number of passengers and crew sitting in a confined space and also because there is no way to escape when the plane is in flight. Moreover, pilots are trained primarily to fly planes, not to use force to subdue attackers. However, if the government sees it fit for pilots to bear guns, the pilots should be subjected to rigorous preparation to prove their competence. During the training session, two pilots failed the program because the overseers did not see them to be capable enough to bear guns. While I approve of the overseer’s judgment to select only pilots who are adept, how can the overseer make an accurate decision when the training lasts for only 48 hours? This amount of time is not nearly enough to prove that any individual has a true ability to manage a gun. Police officers go through years of intense and concentrated training before they are awarded a firearm, so should not pilots be subjected to this as well? As I was sitting on the Delta Shuttle this past Friday evening, returning home for the weekend, I was wondering about my pilot. How do I know the pilot hasn’t had a fight with his spouse, had a drink before the flight, or recently suffered some tremendous personal loss? All of these things could affect his judgment and use of his gun. It is infinitely more likely that the pilot was a responsible, happy, well-tempered man who was putting the lives of his passengers on the top of his priority list, but the problem is, we just don’t know. Our lives should not be left to a single individual whose judgment could be impaired by factors beyond our knowledge or control.