A Deterrent to Terror

The first class of well-trained and well-armed Federal Flight Deck Officers has begun flying the line.

By Gary DiNunno, Editor-in-Chief
Air Line Pilot, June/July 2003, p.12

The attacker approached the seated pilot from behind, a double-bladed knife pointed only inches away from the pilot’s neck. Suddenly, the pilot turned and expertly disarmed the intruder. Then, upon command, the two combatants switched roles, and the exercise with rubber guns and knives was repeated until the defensive tactics instructors decided that all of the Federal Flight Deck Officer candidates had demonstrated satisfactory knowledge of the procedure.

The first FFDO training class was conducted in a manner that any professional law enforcement officer would recognize—after all, the participants would, at the end of it, be deputized and empowered to carry a firearm in their cockpits as a last defense against terrorists or anyone else who might try to breech the cockpit door. The Transportation Security Administration conducted the 7-day course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., April 13–19.

All of the participants were fully aware of the serious task before them and the historic nature of the program for which they had all volunteered. They were willing, even enthusiastic, to accept the sore muscles, scratches, bruises, sprains, and blisters that were inherent in a rigorous physical training program that complemented classroom sessions covering regulations, legal aspects, and procedures required of law enforcement officers who are also airline pilots. And then, if those sessions were not enough, they ended each day with hours of drills and practice on the center’s shooting range.

All of the FFDO training participants were well aware that they might have never arrived at this point had not ALPA and a few other persistent advocates for armed pilots been able to sustain pressure on U.S. government officials and members of Congress to support the FFDO program. Immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ALPA officials remained skeptical that Congress would ever approve such a controversial proposal; but when the union’s National Security Committee began looking into various methods to defend the cockpit from additional attacks, the need for a lethal counterforce to terrorism became apparent.

Common Strategy no longer works

"With the death of the pilots, cabin crews, passengers, and people on the ground at the hands of terrorists on 9/11/01, we had to take a look at what really happened on that day, what might have helped to stop that tragedy from occurring, and what might help people survive if something like that happens again," says Capt. Steve Luckey (Northwest, Ret.), chairman of ALPA’s National Security Committee. "The first thing that had to change was the ‘Common Strategy’ we had then to handle hijackings—airline pilots were trained to cooperate with hijackers to minimize catastrophic damage and the deaths of hundreds of passengers. But those pilots had not had to contend with or plan for suicidal terrorists. The Common Strategy did not provide a defense against a lethal threat once a hijacker gained access to the cockpit. So we had to develop a new strategy that took into account all the emergency contingencies that might happen."

Capt. Luckey points out that "we can’t pull over to the side of the road when we get into trouble and we can’t call 911 to get help. When we close the cabin door, we seal out access to any resources we don’t have on board and seal in all the problems. So, we had to reassess our situation to face this new threat. We quickly concluded that the only real, last-chance solution to avert having a hijacked airliner shot down by U.S. military aircraft was to arm the pilots.

"To do that, we needed another piece of emergency equipment—a firearm in some form or another," Capt. Luckey says. "A tremendous amount of responsibility, careful planning, and organization, and many legal hoops and procedures are required to get that new piece of equipment. We felt that a lethal threat had to be met with a lethal defense capability. A lot of available equipment can provide increased security, but we concluded that none is quite as available, applicable, and versatile as a firearm."

Capt. Luckey says that the idea of arming pilots is not new. Throughout the history of aviation, several events have resulted in pilots becoming armed. In 1956, the ALPA Board of Directors approved policy allowing MECs to decide issues relating to their pilots’ carrying firearms. In 1965, in response to a 1964 Pacific Airlines crash in which the flight crew had been shot, Bonanza Airlines sent pilots for training to handle firearms and allowed guns in the cockpits. In addition, Bonanza installed on its F-27s an additional cockpit door with a lock and considered placing a wide-angle lens in the door for viewing the cabin (see "Their Target Is Cockpit Security," August, 1965).

"In the 1970s, the FBI, the agency with jurisdiction over crimes aboard aircraft, decided to train agents as airline pilots," Capt. Luckey says. "We helped with that project. We took agents who were already pilots—who flew for the FBI—and we checked them out on airliners. The problems with this approach were that the agents were not able to fly enough to maintain currency and their piloting abilities were not up to our standards. The FBI finally concluded that the cost of maintaining their agents as airline pilots was prohibitive. So they recruited 10 to 12 pilots to be trained as agents who would respond in the event of any hijacking. That was how I participated in the program. With the terrorist attacks on 9/11, that second approach seemed the most practical way to defend against a reoccurrence."

Everything changed

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 changed the world or, at least, opened windows on a world that most people had not wanted to see.

After reviewing options for viable deterrents, ALPA once again championed the need for a select, highly trained team of airline pilots to carry firearms aboard their airplanes. Having these armed pilots recognized as law enforcement officers was paramount to the success of their mission—to never allow another terrorist to use their aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction.

"Many people and organizations opposed our efforts when we first proposed a program to create federal law enforcement officers from the ranks of our pilots," says Capt. Luckey. "For example, the Air Transport Association, the umbrella group for large carriers, didn’t like the program, claiming it would be too costly for airlines. So, we looked for ways to provide the most effective team while keeping costs to a minimum. Given that our new Common Strategy is aimed at maintaining the integrity of the cockpit, the Transportation Security Administration, when it was developing the training program, had to look at the law pertaining to the cockpit."

Developing a training course

"Instead of making a special course for FFDOs centered around the cockpit, the TSA took the standard federal law enforcement officer training program offered at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and eliminated parts that the FFDOs would not need, such as arrests, drug interdiction, surveillance techniques, law enforcement vehicle operations, and legal matters not germane to aircraft operations," Capt. Luckey explains.

"The parts remaining in the training course," he says, "include all kinds of security matters to defend the cockpit, such as the use of firearms and hand-to-hand combat in a very closed environment, weapons training (tailored for FFDOs, who will be working in close proximity to their attackers), and laws, procedures, and custodial responsibilities that carrying a loaded firearm entail.

"The possibility of ‘collateral damage’ to passengers was discussed as was the topic of aircraft systems as they pertain to security," Capt. Luckey says.

Acquiring an attacker’s weapon during an ‘explosive entry’ and keeping your weapon out of the hands of the ‘bad guys’ were the goals of extensive training in weapons retention and hand-to-hand combat. We tried to think of all the various contingencies we might be confronted with and what the best way might be to respond to them. So the 7-day course emphasizes fighting, defensive physical tactics, and shooting—a lot of shooting. Participants generally shot more than 16,000 rounds (about 400 per pilot) per night at the Center’s range—and then had to pick up all the empty cartridge cases for recycling.

"The course includes classroom work, physical training, and shooting, with a lot of physical contact during the PT sessions, even though the instructors ensured that combatants conducted the exercises at speeds slower than would be required in a real attack situation. I don’t think one candidate got through PT without some bruises or sore muscles to show for their efforts," Capt. Lucky notes.

"In the classroom, presentations from TSA officials covered the regulatory requirements commensurate with carrying a firearm and with applying lethal force; the laws you are confronted with when you carry a firearm; the tactical environment and the application of that lethal force; how and when to legally restrain people; what to do after someone is shot; what resources are available; what contacts are available; how to interface with the Federal Air Marshals who are aboard; how to transport your weapon; and other general, practical matters that all LEOs encounter with carrying firearms, such as tort protection—the U.S. government requires meeting certain standards before it will give an individual that protection," Capt. Luckey says.

Screening FFDO applicants

"Because FFDOs are deputized law enforcement officers, the selection process for candidates is similar to that for police, FBI agents, or other LEOs. But just because someone can fly passengers in an airplane does not mean that pilot is automatically suited to carry a firearm aboard or to apply lethal force," Capt. Luckey points out.

"ALPA supports the TSA’s position that candidates for the FFDO program must undergo an extensive psychological exam and personality profile. In addition, the TSA conducts a very thorough background check. I have experienced various background checks over the years that were not as extensive.

"The TSA clearly wants to know nearly everything about the pilots to whom it will issue firearms.

"Nothing in this FFDO screening procedure is new—screening criteria for law enforcement candidate selection have been around for a long time," Capt. Luckey says. "The government is looking for a candidate who might not be able to use lethal force when required or for any who might have overly aggressive or other behavioral problems, disciplinary problems, etc., that might point to legitimate reasons why a candidate should not be authorized to carry a firearm.

"The FFDO program is voluntary and open to any candidate who can meet the stringent selection requirements. Airline pilots may apply through a link on Members Only area of ALPA’s website, www.alpa.org. The link takes them to the FFDO section of the TSA’s website. Once candidates meet the background check and psychological exam requirements to determine suitability, they still must pass this intensive training course. The selection process is demanding—there is no question about that," he says.

Developing a bond

Capt. Luckey observes that the FFDO candidates in this first, prototype class "demonstrated a great deal of camaraderie during the rigorous training—even though many of them had never met before. They shared a number of strong common bonds. First, they were all airline flightcrew members. Many of them had some previous law enforcement experience. Among the participants were former FBI agents, military police, civilian police, FAM trainers, and others with extensive weapons training. Those with LEO backgrounds enthusiastically shared their knowledge and expertise with others with less experience.

"Even the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center instructors, who see thousands of prospective LEOs every year, were impressed with the FFDO candidates’ skills, expertise, and enthusiasm," says Capt. Luckey.

"These pilots studied together, went to the firing range together, and wrestled around on the mats together —beating each other up a little for several hours a day," he notes." Many of them were surprised at the intensity of their physical, mental, and firearm training.

"Although these pilots came from different airline cultures, there seemed to be little disparity in their attitudes about their roles as pilots and their future as FFDOs," Capt. Luckey notes. "

Although the FFDOs’ physical training was conducted at a fraction of full force—many of the hand-to-hand combat drills are conducted at 10 or 20 percent of what might be full force (some of the drills might reach 50 percent for a few moments)—every participant had sprains, bumps, taped-up body parts, scratches, and bruises.

This was an enthusiastic class, and they participated in this course for a serious purpose. They approached their training with great motivation, cooperation, and determination.

Choose your weapon

"Although ALPA did not select the specific weapon that the TSA decided to issue to the FFDOs," Capt. Luckey states, "we did strongly recommend that the TSA obtain a semiautomatic handgun suitable to respond to a potential multiple threat. We wanted the FFDOs to be able to shoot enough times without reloading to terminate the attack. So a magazine-loading, semiautomatic pistol with a sufficient number of rounds seemed the way to go. They used the same ammunition that is issued to FBI agents," Capt. Luckey says.

Training pilots as FFDOs

"The number of hours these participants put into their training is significant. They all put in 10- to 12-hour days of intensive study, practice, and drilling. They got all of the training that is germane to their mission—protecting the cockpit from attack. I think flightcrew members, in general, start a little higher on the rung than most LEO candidates. They are disciplined, trainable, mature, knowledgeable, and highly motivated. All of these factors play a part in the level at which they enter law enforcement training.

"This FFDO program is new, and improvements will be required as additional classes are trained for duty. But this initial program met many of our requirements and expectations," Capt. Luckey says. "The new FFDOs will need requalification and ongoing practice and training to keep their physical training and perishable shooting skills honed to the highest possible level. But, again, that is no different than what is expected and required of all LEOs.

"The TSA has received FY03 funding for the FFDO program—some $8 million. This is an economical government program—FFDOs are not paid for their participation. The firearms are not expensive when compared to other proposed terrorist deterrents," Capt. Luckey points out. "The FFDOs buy their own practice ammunition. The airlines incur no costs. So taxpayers are getting a lot for their money with this program.

"We cannot predict how many FFDOs we will end up with. Those numbers will be classified. But we are looking more for quality in candidates than for quantity. We owe ALPA members as much knowledge as we can impart on this program without compromising security or the safety of the individual FFDOs.

"Future applicants must have some idea of standard operating procedures for FFDOs so they can decide if this is what they really want to do with their flying career. They must decide if they want to really restrict themselves with the legalities and responsibilities of carrying firearms or using lethal force," Capt. Luckey says.

"We would like to see the TSA issue a badge to FFDOs. Most LEOs have a badge that is customarily issued when they are deputized and allowed to carry a gun. We have discussed a proposal to use a small portion of metal from 9/11 sites in making the badge—metal from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the United airplane in Pennsylvania. We are proposing a motto for the FFDO program: Never Forget, in Latin.

"I was very impressed with this first class of FFDOs as they graduated from the course and began assuming their duties on the line," Capt. Luckey says.

"Just the fact that these pilots toiled 10 or more hours a day for a week—on their own time, getting beat up, attending intensive classroom sessions, and still spent hours on the firing range—says a lot for the dedication of this group and for the long-term success of this program."

Flying the line as FFDOs

FFDOs have flown with no reported major operational problems. Although the procedures for carrying their weapons while not flying are still cumbersome, the FFDOs report that most co-workers—pilots, baggage handlers, and airport security personnel—have been cooperative. But the FFDOs were unanimously concerned about the TSA requirements for weapons carriage when the FFDO is not on flight status.

In mid-May, the TSA scheduled "feedback sessions" with the deputized pilots to reevaluate the training and program operations. The next training class is expected to be held in July.

What’s next for FFDOs?

The House Aviation Subcommittee noted in May that the FY 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act earmarks $8 million for the FFDO program and that the TSA spent $800,000 on the first class. The agency, the Subcommittee said, expects to train 18-20 classes in FY 2003 and has requested an additional $25 million for the program in FY 2004. TSA officials noted that established FFDOs will require recurrent proficiency training every 6 months and are developing the procedures and requirements for this ongoing training.

ALPA Testifies To House Subcommittee On FFDO Program

ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, on May 8, appeared before the House Aviation Subcommittee to discuss progress implementing the congressionally mandated program to select, train, and arm airline pilots to combat terrorism—Title XIV of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

In written testimony, Capt. Woerth applauded the Subcommittee’s efforts to endorse and enact the FFDO program and the TSA’s efforts to implement the congressional mandate in a timely fashion. Acknowledging that the program still has a few growing pains, Capt. Woerth reported that ALPA members who participated in the first training class found the defense tactics and firearm training to be excellent. They also found the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center instructors to be very professional. "Our FFDO pilot members came away from the training with a tremendous degree of appreciation for the hard work that these instructors put into their mission," Capt. Woerth said. He added that the instructors "were very impressed with our students—each of the graduates took the training very seriously and excelled far beyond the instructors expectations."

Since the FFDOs reported to the line, "there is no evidence to show any deficiencies in the tactical training" they received, said Capt. Woerth, although "the FFDO operating procedures that the TSA developed have several flaws, all of which we have made known to the agency." He noted that ALPA would willingly discuss some of these problems in a closed session.

He said the most significant flaw that ALPA has found is part of the public record and relates to the TSA’s requirements for FFDOs’ carrying their weapon. "FFDOs are required to store their assigned weapons, loaded, charged, and holstered, in a metal lock box, and place it in a nondescript bag of the FFDO’s choosing," Capt. Woerth told the Subcommittee. "The FFDO is to transport the bag and its contents into the airport environment and clear through the security checkpoint using standard law enforcement protocols. If on mission status, once in the cockpit and with the door locked, the FFDO removes the holstered weapon from the lock box and secures it on the FFDO’s person. Anytime the FFDO leaves the cockpit, the weapon must be stored in the lock box.

"An FFDO who is transporting a weapon on an aircraft while deadheading or commuting must personally take the bag containing the weapon to the cargo hold of the aircraft, transfer it to a cargo handler, and personally watch the cargo handler place the bag in the cargo hold. When the aircraft lands, the FFDO must go on the ramp and personally retrieve the bag from a cargo handler.

"This methodology is problematic for several reasons:

• "Federal law prohibits placing a loaded weapon in the hold of an airplane.

• "Transporting a loaded weapon in a carrying device separate from its owner defies long-established law enforcement standards.

• "The potential for theft or loss of a bag known to contain a firearm is very high.

• "Objections have been raised, and rightly so, by ramp workers at one major airline over safety concerns stemming from handling bags that contain loaded weapons.

• "Ramp workers may easily and mistakenly place bags containing loaded FFDO weapons into checked baggage systems.

• "FFDOs often do not possess Security Identification Display Area (SIDA) access credentials for the airport ramps on which they must walk to stow their weapons. In such cases, they are to use their government-issued FFDO credentials to demonstrate their authority to enter the SIDA. This methodology does not comply with TSA regulations that require all personnel to wear an appropriate ID on their outermost garment while on the ramp.

• "In most cases, FFDOs will not know combinations to secure doors that allow access to and from the SIDA. In such instances, they will need to rely on the assistance of air carrier personnel."

Capt. Woerth observed that "conventional law enforcement practices require officers to carry their assigned weapons on their persons. Because the law defines FFDOs as law enforcement officers, they should be treated as such, and when required to transport their weapons, be permitted to carry them on their person, as do federal, state, and local law enforcement peers."

ALPA urges Congress to expand the scope of the program, Capt. Woerth said, to include flight engineers and flightcrew members of all-cargo airlines. He said, "We strongly support H.R.765," which would lift the current ban for all-cargo flightcrew members to become fully trained and deputized FFDOs.

"ALPA likewise urges Congress to ensure that all-cargo pilots be included in the definition of ‘crew’ as cited in Section 44918(e) of Title 49, U.S.C.," Capt. Woerth said. "Doing so will mandate that these pilots receive the same classroom and effective hands-on situational training in the elements of self defense as is provided to crews of passenger carriers. Both of these measures are necessary to achieve the ‘One Level of Security’ that our industry and national defense require," he said.

Although ALPA cannot predict how many pilots will actually volunteer and complete the FFDO training course, Capt. Woerth suggested that large numbers of FFDO candidates could overwhelm the federal training facility. He suggested that keeping the FFDO training standards very high is imperative and that the program should remain under federal jurisdiction even if some recurrent training is contracted to private sector firearm and physical training instructors.

The House Aviation Subcommittee unanimously approved H.R.765 on May 14 and sent the bill to the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for action.