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POOF!

The Obama administration seeks to gut funding for the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program, which would send the Armed Pilots Program up in smoke.

America's 1st Freedom, July 2012. More by Kopel on armed pilots.

By Dave Kopel

The Obama administration’s hostility toward firearms is endangering the safety of everyone who flies—and everyone who does not. Although the administration wasted trillions of taxpayer dollars to reward its political allies, the administration is now attempting to gut the armed pilots program, supposedly to save money.

According to federal law, in order for a pilot to carry a firearm in the cockpit, he or she must receive training through the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program. While the program is already failing to train any additional pilots, the administration is proposing a 50 percent funding cut, which will nearly destroy the program.

Thanks in part to the NRA, huge bipartisan majorities in Congress passed the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act, which became law on Nov. 25, 2002. Unfortunately, the Bush administration implemented the program in an extremely restrictive manner, and the Obama administration is about to make things much worse.

Pilots who are U.S. citizens and who fly passenger flights, private charter flights or cargo carriers can apply for the FFDO program. The training takes places at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M., and lasts a week. Before being accepted into the training program, pilots must undergo extremely rigorous physical and psychological examinations. Once a pilot has passed the program, he or she is deputized as a federal law enforcement officer—a Federal Flight Deck Officer. The FFDO’s law enforcement authority comprises only the aircraft flight deck and does not include the power to arrest.

Graduates of the program are given a .40-caliber semi-automatic Heckler & Koch USP (universal self-loading pistol).

The cost of the classes and the gun are about $4,800 per pupil and is paid by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Air Marshal Service. However, participation in the program is still expensive for individual pilots, who have to give up a week of work and pay for one week’s lodging and all their travel expenses to the training center. Pilots must also pay the cost of firearm requalification, which is required twice a year. Taking all these expenses into account, over a six-year period the typical FFDO licensee spends $10,000 of his or her own money to obtain and maintain qualification.

For the public, the FFDO program is a bargain. When you average the taxpayer-paid cost of the training over a typical pilot’s number of flights, it costs the taxpayers only $15 per flight to have an armed pilot guarding the cockpit.

Contrast this with the vastly more expensive Federal Air Marshals (FAM) program. Air marshals are full-time federal employees whose job consists of being an airline passenger while carrying a gun. The Air Marshals program costs about $3,300 dollars per flight.

Armed pilots cover five times as many flights as do air marshals. The result is strong deterrence and, in case of an attempted hijacking, strong security against a hijacker gaining control of an airplane and being able to use it as a weapon against targets on the ground. Terrorist chatter confirms the deterrent effect of armed pilots.

In fact, armed pilots are one of the most cost-effective counterterrorism programs in existence. Perhaps the only thing that is even more cost-effective is the widespread ownership and carrying of firearms by law-abiding citizens. At zero cost to the taxpayers, these citizens deter Mumbai-style attacks on large crowds and would provide the first response if an attack did take place.

The first FFDO pilots graduated from their training program on April 19, 2003; fittingly, the date is the anniversary of the 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord. Then, as now, armed Americans are the first responders against foreign enemies who want to destroy our freedom. Since April 2003, more than 10,000 of America’s 120,000 pilots have been trained.

But since 2004, the budget for the FFDO program has never been increased. At current funding, it can accommodate only 48 pilots per week, so pilots may have to wait a long time for their training.

The truth is, the FFDO program is so poorly funded that no new FFDOs are being trained. There is no money for the extensive background checks that the TSA insists applicants undergo, ignoring the fact that all commercial pilots have already undergone a thorough background check. So as the trained pilots retire, the number of FFDO licensees dwindles, while 700 pilots who want the training are being shut out. 

To make things much worse, the Obama administration’s budget for fiscal year 2013 (which begins October 1, 2012) proposes a 50 percent cut of the $12.6 million in the already shoestring FFDO training.

Testifying before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 15, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended gutting the FFDO program. Her explanations were dangerously clueless.

Rep. Chip Cravaack, R–Minn., is himself a former Federal Flight Deck Officer. He asked Napolitano, “Is a Federal Flight Deck Officer the last line of defense for our traveling public?”

Napolitano replied, “I think the armed [locked] cockpit door actually is.”

The reinforced cockpit doors on today’s airplanes are a great idea. But cockpit doors, like any barrier, can be breached. It is foolish to pretend that locks and barriers are always impervious. The better approach is defense in depth: to have back-ups in case any single form of defense is thwarted.

Besides, during a typical flight the cockpit door must be opened several times for pilots to be handed their meals or to use the restroom.

Napolitano complained that the Armed Pilots program “is not risk-based.” By this she apparently means that FFDOs carry guns regardless of whether TSA officials have estimated in advance that a particular flight might be at greater risk of hijacking.

To state the obvious, the federal government is not infallible in its “risk-based” assessments. The air marshals program has been around for decades. Intelligence reports in the summer of 2001 warned of Al Qaeda’s interest in hijacking planes. Yet on Sept. 11, 2001, not one of the four hijacked airplanes had an air marshal on board. Trusting your life to the perfect accuracy of the federal government’s “risk-based” analysis is a good way to end up dead.

Napolitano also argued that while the FFDO program might have been legitimate in 2003, it is no longer needed because TSA screening of passengers today is so good. To say the least, the traveling public is not exactly unanimous in agreeing with Napolitano about the excellence of TSA’s current screening procedures.

Based on my own travel experiences, the large majority of TSA screeners are decent, hardworking and courteous. They are doing their best under challenging circumstances. But the fact is, when thousands of TSA employees have to perform tens of millions of screenings per year, at least a little human error is inevitable. That doesn’t mean that TSA employees are bad—just that they are as human and fallible as the rest of us.

Every week, TSA screeners find about 15-30 guns. The vast majority comes from law-abiding people who simply forgot to remove a carry gun from a briefcase or purse. But some of the guns may be from people who are testing the system. How many guns are not discovered?

Notably, passengers are not the only people who can put a weapon onto an airplane. Every airport, airline and cargo employee who works in the shadow of the plane may have an opportunity.

Thus, notwithstanding the TSA’s best efforts, a box cutter was discovered on a Southwest Airlines flight at Houston’s Hobby Airport this March. A passenger noticed the box cutter in the overhead luggage compartment. It seems unlikely that the box cutter was put there for benign purposes. All of the TSA’s “risk based” screening of passengers and employees had failed to stop whoever positioned the box cutter. While the Houston incident was noticed by the media, the quiet discovery of edged weapons in airline cabins is actually nearly a daily occurrence.

If the box cutter had not been noticed by an alert passenger, then an armed pilot would have provided an additional layer of protection against the plane being turned into a ground attack weapon.

Last year, a passenger attempted to breach a cockpit door. He was stopped by an FFDO who happened to be a passenger on that same flight.

When the Armed Pilots program was being considered, the anti-gunners warned that a pilot’s defense shot would open a hole in the aircraft skin, thus catastrophically depressurizing the plane and causing it to crash as all the passengers were sucked into sky.

This really did happen once, but it was in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger. In real life, a bullet hole in the fuselage could not have such a dramatic effect.

Pilots have been armed since the dawn of aviation. During the 1960s, the federal government required that all pilots whose cargo included U.S. mail must carry a firearm. So about 60 percent of pilots were armed.

In 1986, a former airline flight attendant who had been fired for theft brought a gun onto a Pacific Southwest Airlines plane. At the time, airline employees were allowed to bypass magnetometer screening, and the employee did so with his airline ID card, which had not been confiscated when he was fired. The man murdered the pilot and crashed the plane into the ground, killing everyone on board.

The response of the Federal Aviation Administration was to mandate that pilots go through metal detector screening at the airport. So in 1987 the number of armed pilots dropped to zero.

We know the results of that experiment: four planes turned into ground attack weapons on 9/11 and 3,000 people murdered. One of the victims was United Airlines pilot Victor Saracini, who had warned that the FAA’s disarmament of pilots would lead to repetition of murderous attacks like the one on PSA.

At a White House meeting on March 30, 2011, President Obama told Sarah and Jim Brady that the administration was working for gun control, but was currently attempting to do it “under the radar.” Federal appropriations bills are certainly “under the radar,” escaping the notice of almost all the media. But they don’t escape the notice of the NRA, or the Heritage Foundation, which has done exemplary work in publicizing the administration’s quiet attempt to cripple armed pilots.

Rep. Cravaack is promoting legislation to provide full, proper funding for the FFDO of $50 million per year, to be paid for with other cuts in the TSA budget.

If someone does not trust a pilot to have a firearm even after intensive background and psychological tests and a week of special training, that person is very unlikely to trust an ordinary American to have a firearm. The irresponsible attempt to gut the Federal Flight Deck Officer program may be just a preview of what the Obama administration will attempt to do to the self-defense rights of all Americans should the administration win a second term in November and no longer have to worry about public approval for the next election.

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