The plan to arm US pilots is not unfolding quickly enough for some, who say that the training programme should be turned over to private firearms schools

Since being forced by US Congress to give commercial pilots guns, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is slowly rolling out a federal flightdeck officer (FFDO) programme - but much too slowly for some.

So far only 44 pilots have been trained and equipped with firearms, and the TSA is planning to proceed on a slow track to a wide-scale arming of pilots. The agency has implemented a programme in which pilots can only wear their guns when inside a secured cockpit on a domestic US flight, and can only use the weapons to ward off a flightdeck intruder. Pilots are prohibited from leaving the cockpit to confront troublemakers in the aircraft cabin.

More pilots will be trained and armed this year, but the TSA says it wants to monitor carefully how the "prototype" group of 44 pilots handles their new responsibility before moving ahead with arming potentially thousands of flightcrew with 0.40 calibre semi-automatic pistols.

But pilot groups and some key members of Congress say the training of pilots to use guns should be turned over to the private sector, qualifying for the programme should be made easier, and it should be widely implemented as quickly as possible.

"I am concerned the TSA is creating an overly costly, complicated and bureaucratic programme. Some of the standard operating procedures do not make sense, and the extensive psychological testing [to qualify to be armed in flight] seems unnecessary," says US House of Representatives aviation subcommittee chairman John Mica.

He adds: "Pilots are already trusted with the lives of every single person on their aircraft. TSA must accelerate its efforts to train and deploy more armed pilots."

But TSA deputy administrator Stephen McHale says piloting an aircraft and having the authority to fire a gun are two entirely different kinds of responsibility.

"Ultimately, FFDOs may be required to use deadly force and that requires a different kind of psychological training [than flying an aircraft]," he says. "Also, the hardest thing these pilots will face is staying in the cockpit if there is a disturbance in the cabin. That requires a different kind of mental strength than what's involved in piloting an aircraft."

House Transportation Committee Democrat James Oberstar, an opponent of arming pilots, says pilots being trained to carry and fire guns should accept the rigours of the TSA's 48h training programme. He says: "Pilots are complaining they're being treated like raw recruits. That's the whole point - they are raw recruits. They volunteered for this and are there to be trained."

Mica wants the training of armed pilots turned over to private firearms schools, which he says can train many more pilots in a much shorter time and do it less expensively. The TSA spent $500,000 to train and arm the first group of 44 pilots.

"I'm told the private sector could do this for half the cost," says Mica.

Owens Mills, chief executive of Arizona-based small arms and tactics training facility Gunsite Academy, says: "We believe the programme should be expanded to include as many pilots as possible. The pilots unions have told us 30,000-35,000 of their members will volunteer to become federal flightdeck officers and will need training in the near term. We believe that these numbers cannot be efficiently nor economically accommodated using existing government resources."

He adds: "There are several privately owned, quality training organisations, which train thousands of law enforcement officers, military personnel and qualified citizens annually. These facilities are regionally dispersed, which would facilitate access by pilots."

Gunsite has installed a Boeing 727 aircraft cabin on its premises and Mills says the facility could be used to train 100 pilots a week or 5,000 annually. He adds that Gunsite could begin training within two weeks of TSA approval.

But the TSA's McHale says training should be done by the government "to afford maximum opportunity for federal law enforcement professionals overseeing the training of FFDO candidates to evaluate each individual's overall fitness for the programme and to control the quality of training". He notes that all other federal law enforcement officers trained to carry guns undergo initial basic training at federal facilities.

Cargo concerns

Mica is also leading an effort in Congress to expand the FFDO programme to include cargo pilots. He says excluding cargo pilots from the gun programme "has left a gaping hole in aviation security". Mica's subcommittee has overwhelmingly cleared legislation that would allow cargo pilots to volunteer to be armed in flight. The proposed bill must still work its way through Congress, but support for arming cargo pilots appears to be building.

"Air cargo is a weak link," says Mica. "Cargo carriers often fly the same large aircraft as the passenger airlines. Their aircraft are lightly manned and do not have air marshals, secure cockpit doors, or dozens of passengers on board to help defeat a terrorist takeover of the aircraft. I strongly believe that arming cargo pilots is fundamental to the safety and security of our aviation system."

McHale has told lawmakers that the Bush administration "has not taken a position" on whether cargo pilots should be armed. He says cargo security is not conducted on the same level as passenger security. "We're continuing to tighten [cargo security]," he says. "It needs more work and we're hoping to have a better system in place this year."

Oberstar warns that perceived weaknesses in cargo security could convince Congress to pass legislation allowing cargo pilots to carry guns. "I'm not in favour of it, but the gaps in cargo security validate the arguments of those that say cargo pilots need to be armed too," he says.

The TSA says it is continuing to investigate "the potential catastrophic damage" to an aircraft from an accidental discharge of a firearm. The agency has undertaken "an analysis of the risk associated with various catastrophic failure scenarios, such as if the weapon were discharged into the avionics, electrical, cabin pressurisation or other vital systems".

Says McHale: "TSA has reviewed all research done on this issue, such as a study by Boeing, and submitted a report to Congress that concluded that the redundant systems in modern aircraft would probably prevent the discharge of a firearm from resulting in catastrophic failure. TSA is working with aircraft manufacturers and the Federal Aviation Administration to engineer and conduct tests, including live-fire 0.40 calibre firearms discharges, to evaluate that conclusion."

The TSA was reluctant to arm pilots, but the organisation relented when a political groundswell in the USA led to Congressional passage of a guns-in-the-cockpit programme. When the legislation was working its way through Congress last year, TSA administrator James Loy said: "The reality is we have some very serious concerns. A thoughtful programme must be put together. I can only hope we end up with a 'walk before you run' mentality so we do sensible things."

Senator Barbara Boxer, a liberal Democrat from California, disagrees: "I think this is the first time I have ever stood with [conservatives] on an issue that has involved guns. However, I have decided that until I am satisfied with the number of air marshals on commercial flights, [arming pilots] is necessary - indeed it is a matter of life and death."

The TSA has set $8 million aside for training additional pilots to use guns for cockpit defence. The agency, citing security, refuses to disclose the number of pilots in the second wave. Loy says the $8 million "will allow us to build on the momentum" of the first class of armed pilots.

Source: Flight International