Tucson, Arizona | Published: 03.29.2008
advertisementCHARLOTTE, N.C. — The head of a congressional homeland security panel said Friday that a program to arm pilots should get more scrutiny after a US Airways captain's gun discharged last weekend during a flight to Charlotte.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas and chair of the House Homeland Security Committee's transportation security subcommittee, said she plans to get more facts on the incident in a briefing as early as next week and may call for a congressional hearing on the program.
"The tragedy of a one-time accident is it could have been a one-time catastrophe and loss of life," Jackson Lee said. "This is a wake-up call. Even if it's one incident, oversight, procedures and protocols need to be strengthened."
The shooting also has pilots and others renewing criticism of a federal law that requires a pilot to remove his gun and holster, place a lock on the trigger and secure them in a bag before leaving the cockpit. The US Airways captain, James Langenhahn, was stowing his gun when it discharged last Saturday morning, firing a bullet through the cockpit wall and fuselage, according to a Charlotte airport police report.
Since its creation in 2002, the Federal Flight Deck Officer program's restrictions on carrying guns and rules for stowing them have been challenged multiple times:
In May 2005, two members of the U.S. House of Representatives unsuccessfully proposed a test program allowing pilots to carry concealed weapons on their person outside the cockpit, similar to other federal officers. Backers said it would have cut the risk of accidents from taking the gun and holster off and locking it each time a pilot leaves the cockpit.
In December 2006, an audit by the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Homeland Security determined that the limits on carrying guns was one reason why pilots didn't want to join the program, which is run by the Transportation Security Administration.
Last July, the Air Line Pilots Association — the union for more than 60,000 pilots — said in a report that TSA procedures on transporting guns "create the potential for significant safety and security risks within the aviation environment." Instead, ALPA wrote, flight deck officers shouldn't be separated from their weapons at any point during the work day, including while commuting or flying as a passenger to catch another flight.
The TSA has said the shooting last Saturday was the first in the program's history, and the flight from Denver, which had 124 passengers and five crew members, landed safely. Langenhahn, TSA and US Airways have declined to discuss the incident, citing a TSA investigation.
Under the current law, a pilot may put on and take off the gun and holster — and secure or remove the lock — anywhere from a few times a day to several times, depending on how often he leaves the cockpit during or between flights.
In addition, critics say, the trigger lock poses its own problems: the .40-caliber Heckler & Koch pistol carried by pilots has a lock that is intended to pass through a hole in the holster and behind the gun's trigger. If the gun isn't securely in the holster — perhaps loosened while being transferred — the lock can end up in front of the trigger, pilots and gun experts say.
Richard Bloom, a professor who teaches aviation security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said the TSA program has "very detailed procedures for what you do and when."
Although the pilot may have been at fault in Saturday's incident, Bloom said that removing some of the handling requirements and minimizing the number of times a pilot has to transfer a gun could limit accidents.