Transportation Security Administration rules are to blame for the conditions leading up to an accidental discharge of a US Airways pilot’s pistol during landing, say airline pilots familiar with the program.
On March 22, pilot James Langenhahn was stowing his Heckler & Koch USP .40, issued to him by the Department of Homeland Security under the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, while his co-pilot prepared to land the plane. As he was placing the pistol, locked in its holster, into his flight bag, it discharged a single shot which exited the left side of the plane, doing little damage.
Outside the cockpit, no one heard the gunshot, and Flight 1536 from Denver to Charlotte, N.C., landed safely. But Langenhahn has been suspended without pay, according to an airline spokesman.
Some 10,000 pilots participate in the program, which allows for pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers to carry firearms in the cockpit during flights, and according to the TSA this is the first time a gun has been discharged. But some pilots say it was an accident waiting to happen.
At issue is a highly unusual TSA requirement that pilots remove the guns from their belts and lock them up using a government-provided combination padlock before leaving the cockpit, a requirement that pilots say creates unsafe conditions.
“The pilot was trying to lock his gun and remove the holster in an airplane going 300 miles per hour in preparation for landing and the padlock depressed the trigger,” said a federal flight deck officer who declined to be identified. “TSA knew this could happen but didn’t get rid of the requirement.”
“Every other federal law enforcement officer in the air and on the ground carries his gun concealed on his person where he can control it. And he never touches it except in an emergency, because the less it is handled, the better,” said David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. “TSA’s got these pilots taking off and putting on their guns 10 times a day. It’s a recipe for disaster and that’s why no other agency does it.”
The holster has a hole in it through which the padlock is meant to pass. When installed, the padlock should lie behind the trigger. However, if the gun has become loose in the holster, which can happen through normal handling, the lock ends up in front of the trigger, which can cause the gun to discharge.
It’s pretty obvious that nobody who knows anything about firearms had anything to do with setting up these procedures, because they would have instantly rejected them as unsafe. James Langenhahn is to be commended, though, for ensuring the safety of his aircraft even in the face of procedures designed to make it unsafe, by following the normal firearm safety rules, to wit: Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. This is why the bullet hit nothing important as it exited the aircraft.
Pilots have been unable to criticize this arrangement publicly because the TSA had classified it; however, a group of federal air marshals met with the TSA last year to recommend that pilots carry their pistols in the same way that air marshals do, not to mention everyone else who carries a firearm safely. “We said, ‘Just use the same procedures you use for your own air marshals,'” said one federal flight officer. “How hard is that to understand?” The TSA took no action on the recommendation.
It was not clear whether the pistols issued in the FFDO program had external safeties. On the H&K USP the external safety can be removed by a gunsmith and the pistol can be delivered from the factory without it.
“We have to have the FFDO program since screeners miss so many weapons at checkpoints and air marshals will never protect more than 1% or 2% of flights,” Mackett said, adding that the TSA’s requirement has also resulted in numerous guns being lost or stolen. “But, TSA can’t continuously ignore standard procedures proven over thousands of other law enforcement officers and then blame the pilot when it goes wrong.”
Lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee were to be briefed on the incident this week. Perhaps the TSA can explain to Congress why it created such bizarre and unsafe firearm handling rules for airline pilots. Further, let’s hope the TSA finally takes the air marshals’ recommendation and changes these rules before the government’s stupidity gets someone killed.