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Where Are The Armed Pilots?

Capt. Tracy W. Price

On November 25th, 2002, President Bush signed the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act. The law compelled the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to train and arm airline pilots that volunteered for the program. Many Americans and, in my experience as an airline captain, much of the traveling public happily believe that large numbers of airline pilots are now carrying guns. Unfortunately, they are living in a fool’s paradise.

At a press conference on August 26, 2003 the TSA gleefully reported that far fewer airline pilots have volunteered for the armed pilot program than pilot groups estimated might volunteer. As of now, there are only a few hundred airline pilots flying armed in the U.S. out of about 80,000 that are eligible to volunteer for training. TSA bureaucrats in the Bush administration, who convulse at the mere thought of anyone but a government agent carrying a gun, have been opposed to the armed pilot program from the beginning and they have worked tirelessly to ensure its failure. The large majority of Americans that support arming airline pilots, and their representatives in the Congress that passed a law mandating an armed pilot program might rightfully ask: Where are the volunteers? The answer to the question is really quite simple.

The Bush Administration’s TSA has very intentionally and very successfully minimized the number of volunteers through thinly veiled threats and by making the program as difficult as possible to get into.

All airline pilots practice their profession at the pleasure of the federal government. Airline Captains are required to hold and Airline Transport Pilot’s certificate (ATP) issued by the FAA. To gain the experience required by a major airline, a pilot must have thousands of hours of flight time amassed over many years as a civilian or military pilot. During those years, the pilot must survive constant evaluation. Each pilot’s proficiency and judgment are relentlessly evaluated and must meet rigorous standards to obtain and keep advanced ratings, as well as the right to additional experience and the right to remain employed as a pilot.

Once hired by an airline, the gauntlet continues. Airline pilots are required to demonstrate their proficiency at four-hour long sessions in advanced flight simulators twice each year. Engines quit and catch fire, hydraulic systems lose pressure, electrical systems malfunction and flight controls fail. The penalty for failing to meet the standard is termination of employment and loss of your ATP. Each year, airline pilots will receive a “line check” in which “check pilots” will ride in the cockpit and evaluate the performance of the crew. Several times each year, FAA examiners will – without notice – show up to give pilots a check ride. Again, failing to meet the standards for these rides will lead to a trip to the simulator for another check ride where your job and livelihood are on the line.

Twice each year, airline captains are required to report to FAA designated physicians for a physical and psychological exam. Medical history is evaluated and a physical exam with exacting standards is performed. The FAA doctor is trained to ask probing questions and look for any sign of psychological instability, stress or depression. Failing to meet the standard will, of course, result in immediate removal from the flying schedule and loss of any opportunity to be employed as a pilot.

Observing the numbers of those around them that have not successfully passed through this demanding process, airline pilots employ a little gallows humor when facing one of these evaluations and simply tag them a “bet your job” day.

Now, fresh with this backdrop of the professional life of an airline pilot, consider the armed pilot program that the Bush Administration’s TSA has constructed. First, understand that the TSA is adamantly opposed to the armed pilot program (they think it’s a threat to their cash-cow, the Federal Air Marshal program) and are arguably very hostile to pilots. Last year, the TSA granted itself the power to unceremoniously revoke a pilots ATP if they deem him to be a security threat. No due process, no requirement to show the pilot the case they have made against him, just the irrecoverable loss of the profession you’ve worked a lifetime to practice if the TSA decides that you are a “threat.” Next, pilots that volunteer for training to carry guns must complete a very detailed,13-page application. Now the pilot is ordered to report for a three-hour written psychological exam probing into the most private components of any person, his thoughts, feelings, opinions and emotions. Pilots that pass this government sponsored psychological strip-search then are ordered to report to a government psychologist for a one-on-one “interview.” (One such government psychologist confided to a pilot-applicant that his job, as explained to him by the TSA, is not to find the few that may be unfit for the program but to assume that all are unfit until proven otherwise.) It is very telling that reliable sources within the TSA report to pilots that the failure rate for airline pilots that volunteer for the armed pilot program is 52% and that every single failure has been in the psychological evaluation/background check phase of the program.

For the pilots that finally make it into training, they will have to travel at their own expense to and pay for their own room and board in Artesia, New Mexico. (Artesia is 186 miles from Lubbock, Texas, the nearest city. Glynco, Georgia was apparently too convenient to Atlanta and Jacksonville, so training was relocated to this less convenient site). There they will find that TSA psychological “evaluators” will outnumber the firearms instructors and they will dutifully make notes each time a pilot exhibits an unauthorized facial expression or asks any uncomfortable questions. (For instance, “Why are we using this cumbersome and ridiculous weapons protocol?” Or, “Why were our peers, once entrusted with nuclear weapons and now regularly entrusted with large, commercial airliners, found psychologically unsuitable for the armed pilot program?”)

Just as pilots are trained to evaluate all of the factors concerning a takeoff and make a proper decision (delay the departure, cancel the flight or proceed normally), they evaluate the totality of the TSA’s armed pilot program and they decline to participate in droves. Pilots view the TSA armed pilot program as a “bet your job” fiasco, that will cost each pilot that volunteers at least one week of flight pay (in addition to his out-of-pocket expenses) and requires him to bare his soul to an out-of-control government agency that hates the idea of armed pilots. Couple this with the breath-taking failure rate of the psychological evaluations and pilots are saying, “No, thanks.” It appears that the TSA lawyer who in the summer of 2002 said, “We will make this program so difficult, cumbersome and threatening that nobody will volunteer” was correct.

To justify their onerous, excessive and intrusive tactics, the TSA says, “We need to make sure that each pilot we give a gun to can use the gun if attacked by terrorists and can then land safely after taking the life of terrorists.” In other words, “We think that you’d be better off dead.” Obviously, pilots wont volunteer for the program in the first place unless they are willing to use a gun to defend their passengers. Moreover, if a pilot is “screened out” of the program by the TSA Psychological Sooth-Sayers and terrorists attack his cockpit, the outcome is very certain: he, all of his passengers and possibly many thousands on the ground will soon be dead. A logical armed pilot program would not be looking for ways to screen pilots out; it would be looking for ways to encourage more volunteers.

News reports in recent weeks indicate that al Quida operatives are planning cockpit takeovers of airliners flying over the U.S. with the intention of murdering the pilots and using the airliner as a guided bomb. Clearly, the nothing the TSA has done thus far has been any deterrent to al Quida and almost two years after the horrific attacks of September 11th, 2001, we are nearly as ill prepared to prevent or counter a similar terrorist attack as we were on September 10th. Congress should take the armed pilot program away from the TSA and give it to an agency (the FBI?) that will do the job properly. Then Congress should ask itself, “Why are we continuing to fund the TSA?

Contact Info

Airline Pilot's Security Alliance

8190 Beechmont Avenue, # 340
Cincinnati, OH 45255-6117
(Business and only, please.)
Electronic mail: apsa@secure-skies.org

Copyright © 2003 Airline Pilots' Security Alliance (a/k/aAPSA). ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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