Five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a growing number of U.S. airline pilots are packing handguns, prepared to use lethal force to protect the cockpit. Soon they will also carry badges, bringing them even closer to being bona fide law enforcement officers.
"Every cop has that metal badge to flash," said John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. "It is a valid recognition signal between law enforcement officers."
Officially known as federal flight deck officers, airline pilots keep side arms handy to provide one more layer of security and a last line of defense.
About 8,000 pilots now tote government-issued guns on a voluntary basis, or about 8 percent of the nation's 100,000 pilots, according to the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, a grass-roots organization that advocates increased cockpit security. Two years ago, about 3,000 pilots were armed.
Although there have been no reports of pilots drawing their weapons since the terrorist attacks, the federal government has granted pilots slightly more leeway in how they take guns on board planes.
Notably, pilots now can lock their guns into holsters, which are then placed in an unassuming bag. After pilots are in the cockpit, the holsters are removed from the bag and latched onto their belts. Previously, the guns had to be transported onto planes in a heavy steel box.
To further fold pilots into the police community, the federal flight deck officer program has been placed under the Federal Air Marshal Service, an arm of the Transportation Security Administration. Last month the marshal service approved issuing badges to pilots so they are more easily identifiable.
"We're a law enforcement agency, so we understand the culture they're trying to develop as federal flight deck officers," said Conan Bruce, an Air Marshal Service spokesman.
To become flight deck officers, pilots undergo six days of intensive training at a federal complex in Artesia, N.M., including weapons handling and close-combat techniques. Most importantly, they learn "how to use the appropriate level of force," Bruce said.
In one exercise, they are placed in a simulated, darkened cockpit. Intruders attempt to overpower them. The pilots must decide whether to draw guns or confront the attackers physically, Bruce said.
"It can be anything from a lethal-force scenario to an intoxicated passenger," he said.
After graduation, the TSA issues the pilots a Heckler & Koch .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol.
Yet some pilots feel the federal program has a long way to go.
One problem is a tedious enrollment process that discourages pilots from applying, said David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance. The process includes, among other things, a psychological evaluation and a background investigation.
Then pilots must pay for transportation to New Mexico and usually end up forgoing $3,000 to $4,000 in pay during that week, he said.
Another problem: Many pilots object to rigid rules governing how the guns must be handled. For instance, during a flight, pilots are not allowed to take guns out of the cockpit to go to the restroom. Yet that is when the cockpit is most vulnerable to attack, said Mackett, a captain for a major airline.
"The moment the cockpit door is open, that federal flight deck officer doesn't have a weapon on him, and that just makes no sense," he said.
As a result of such restrictions, he said about 50,000 pilots have declined to volunteer for the program. In turn, he said, only about 4 percent of domestic flights have an armed pilot.
Pilots are not allowed to carry weapons on international flights because the United States has yet to win approval for the program from other nations, Bruce said.
Dean Roberts, an Orlando-based pilot with a major airline, said he was rejected by the federal flight deck officer program because he voiced criticism of how it was managed.
Roberts, who is a member of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, said he has no desire to try again because the rules imply the government doesn't trust pilots with guns.
As an example, he said a pilot riding as a passenger in the back of the plane is forbidden from using a gun if a passenger becomes dangerous. "It's rules like that -- just-because-we-said-so rules -- that keep a large percentage of guys from participating," he said.
Bruce, of the Federal Air Marshal Service, disagreed, saying that most classes are full. About 50 pilots are trained each week.
He said the enrollment process is "typical and consistent with most law enforcement applications," and that most applicants successfully become federal flight deck officers.
"In fact, a mere fractional percentage of applicants have been not met program standards," he said.
He also noted that pilots are not allowed to brandish their guns outside of the cockpit as a matter of security.
"Any law enforcement officer will tell you that, with a weapon, if you don't have control over it, there's a chance someone else will," he said.