TSA Head’s Verdict on Cockpit Misfire: Pilot Error
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff
When a US Airways pilot accidentally fired his handgun during a March 22 landing in Charlotte, N.C., it wasn’t evidence of a flaw in the way pilots carry or store sidearms, Transportation Security Administration head Kip Hawley said Friday.
Although the discharge apparently involved a trigger lock in the pilot’s holster, Hawley said the problem wasn’t the equipment, nor was it the program that allows pilots to carry it.
“If somebody uses it in an inappropriate way, inappropriate things happen,” he said of the locking mechanism. “It wasn’t the holster. It wasn’t the process.”
In reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress authorized pilots to carry guns with the 2002 Homeland Security Act (PL 107-296). Since then, the Federal Air Marshal Service has trained thousands of pilots on safe handling practices through its Flight Deck Officer program. The pilots carry Heckler and Koch .40-caliber pistols, which must have trigger locks on them in transport.
Hawley said the holsters pilots use — a standard law enforcement type — has a lock meant to fit behind the trigger. But if used improperly, the locks could cause an accidental discharge.
“If someone put the locking mechanism in front of the trigger in error and then tried to tug the holster, the gun would go off,” Hawley said.
Hawley said TSA is still investigating the case and would not elaborate on exactly how the gun went off, but reiterated, “The holster’s not the problem there.”
When the Flight Deck Officer program was first launched, the guns were initially stored in lockboxes in airplanes’ cockpits. Hawley said that practice was abandoned because the box was too obvious a target, making it easy for someone to figure out what was inside. Holsters presented a more discreet alternative, he said.
“I would say the holster works great,” he said. “It’s flown over a million times since 2006.”
According to TSA, the March incident was the first of its kind. US Airways officials have told reporters they have begun the process of firing the pilot, Capt. James Langenhahn, 55. The bullet he accidentally fired went through the aircraft’s fuselage, but did not hit any crucial components.
Along with the creation of the Flight Deck Officer program, another reaction to Sept. 11 was a 2002 increase in the Air Marshal Service’s size. But a recent CNN story quoted former and current marshals as saying the service is understaffed due to a high rate of departure and that recruiting standards have been lowered. Other media outlets picked up on the piece, which Hawley dismissed.
“We are well-staffed to cover the critical staff we need,” Hawley said, criticizing the story’s sourcing. “You get a former employee who’s anonymous with a bag over his head guessing at statistics — I would say, not really credible.”
The TSA administrator said the marshal attrition rate is about 6 percent per year, which he called about average. He said the service has “significantly increased our coverage of international flights,” including flights to Asia in the runup to the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Current air marshals quoted in the CNN story used the hiring of some of TSA’s screeners, or Transportation Security Officers, as air marshals to illustrate lowered hiring standards, something Hawley called “distasteful and offensive.”
He said air marshal service is an alternative career path for TSOs, and the 35 or so who have made the jump have undergone extensive training. In fact, he said, the ex-TSOs present a tough opponent for anyone who tries anything illegal or dangerous on a plane.
“Anybody who messes with a flight having a TSO on it who’s now an air marshal will be dead,” he said.