RF and I were discussing a machine gun attack on Pakistani airliner. RF believed the incident proves that airplane carry is relatively safe. More than that, he believes that concealed carry on an airplane is A-OK. Or, rather, should be an A-OK thing to do. While I understand his point about Americans’ gun rights and agree with him on an ideological level, I can’t agree on a practical basis. I think there are one or two rather important points that Robert was ignoring that are muy importante when considering this issue, points that make my own point of view almost completely the opposite of his . . .
I’m not yet a pilot, though if everything goes well I should be performing my first solo around the time that this post goes live. But I’ve already passed the FAA written exam, have more time behind the stick than Robert, and I think that gives me a little more insight into the world of aviation. Based on just a few things I’ve learned in my short 20 hours in the cockpit (and countless hours buried in the FAR AIM), I can think of a couple very good reasons why guns on airplanes for poorly-trained individuals is a bad idea.
If plane carry is allowed, there will eventually be a negligent discharge. The Gods of probability virtually demand that it happens at some point. And I have three very good reasons why it is in my best interest (as well as the rest of the flying public) to make sure to minimize the probability of that round going off in flight.
Reason #1: I don’t want to burn to death
Modern airplanes carry a staggering large load of fuel. Almost all of the space inside a modern jet liner’s wings and often some inside the fuselage are topped off with highly flammable jet fuel in order to feed those hungry engines and keep the airplane hurtling through the atmosphere. Normally, this fuel is safely carried through the fuel lines and delivered to the engines without issue. But when those fuel lines are interrupted or punctured, things go terribly wrong.
Point in case: Air France 4590. During the takeoff roll, a small piece of debris punctured one of the aircraft’s tires and caused it to burst. Fragments from the tire were flung into the wing, puncturing the skin, and causing fuel within to gush out. The fuel was ignited by engine exhaust and caused the entire wing of the aircraft to become engulfed in flames. Less than a minute after takeoff everyone on board was dead, barbecued alive.
On ground transportation, fuel system punctures aren’t nearly as catastrophic. If a bus starts leaking fuel all it needs to do is pull over to the side of the road and everyone can escape within seconds. But at 35,000 feet, it would still take almost full minute to get to the ground even if the pilot points the airplane straight down and flies at full speed.
While there have been some improvements to aircraft design to keep similar incidents from happening, the requirement for lightweight materials means that the wings and fuselage of an airplane are nowhere near bulletproof. If a small piece of rubber can inflict that much damage on an airplane, imagine what a 220 grain slug traveling at nearly the speed of sound can accomplish.
Bullets wouldn’t even need to puncture the skin of the plane to cause this worst case scenario on most smaller aircraft. Airplanes like the MD-80 or the ERJ-145 position their engine nacelles on the main fuselage of the aircraft instead of under the wings. That means the fuel lines that feed them run through the main cabin and are relatively unprotected as they enter the engine. There isn’t much metal or insulation to impede a bullet’s path, and one stray round in this vital location could send everyone on board to a fiery death.
Reason #2: I don’t want to crash
Modern airplanes are too big and too fast to be controlled by the old system of cables and pulleys that allow me to steer my Cessna 172SP. Instead, they use a system of hydraulics to power the control surfaces and move them during flight. The problem is that these hydraulic systems only work when there is sufficient fluid in the systems to provide pressure to move those surfaces — if the pipes are dry, the airplane won’t respond.
United Airlines flight 232 suffered an unexpected loss of hydraulic fluid as a result of a burst fan disk in their rear engine during a flight over the central United States. Without hydraulic fluid, the pilots were unable to control the aircraft using any of their flight controls. They piloted the aircraft down to the ground using differential thrust to steer the bird, and the subsequent crash landing killed a large percentage of the passengers and crew.
Northwest Airlines flight 85 was flying over the Pacific ocean to Japan when a single component in the tail of the aircraft cracked and caused something called a “rudder hardover event” where the rudder moved to the furthest point in its travel on one side and stayed there. The pilots were only able to get the airplane back to Alaska thanks to their vast experience and extreme luck.
The point is that in an airplane, even a very small or expected failure can lead to a crash. Every flight system is vital, and even so much as a small deviation from the normal operating parameters could end in the death of every person on board. Thanks to the use of lightweight materials and ever-decreasing thicknesses on aircraft, there is very little protection for these vital control systems from high velocity pieces of lead.
Reason #3: I want the pilots to be alive
Let’s switch gears for a second and talk about hijackings. The 1970’s was the golden age of hijackings, where the criminals were polite and people rarely got hurt. That all changed in 2001, and now the focus in terrorism is to use the aircraft as a missile to cause as much damage as possible.
At the moment, pilots are protected from their cargo (passengers) by an armored door. It’s very unlikely that a single determined attacker or even a group of attackers would have enough time to break through that door before either the cabin crew or the other passengers overwhelmed the merry band of murderers. But when you throw a gun into the mix, a well-trained attacker might be able to work his way into that secured cockpit.
If a bus driver gets shot while on the highway, the bus may slam into a wall and some people have a chance to survive. But as we saw with Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 1771, a single determined attacker can easily kill every single person on an airplane with a six-shot revolver.
What Robert Missed
The problem with Robert’s argument, as I’m sure has already been pointed out, is that it boils down to “this one airplane didn’t crash, so we should be OK.” In his single, cherry-picked incident, the airplane was already on short final and about to land. There were only 250 feet left to go between the plane and the ground before it landed, and the distance combined with the caliber choice meant that the projectiles hitting the plane didn’t have very much energy left.
There were very few things that could have gone wrong in Robert’s example. Even in the worst case scenario of a total loss of control, the plane would have still landed and there probably would have been some survivors. But take that same aircraft, set it cruising six miles above the ground, and put a bullet in one of the fuel lines leading to the engines and we have a completely different story.
Personally, I have no problem with voluntary gun-free zones — so long as the location provides a reasonable level of protection. Gun-free zones in schools infuriate me because there is no added security to offset what I lose from disarming in the parking lot. Airports, on the other hand, have multiple layers of security and employ armed guards and police officers to offset my personal loss of armed self defense. I’m also not forced to fly — I can drive or take the bus (or fly myself someday) and carry the whole way. Use of the commercial aviation system is voluntary, and these businesses have made their gun-free policies clear and well known.
The problem with guns on airplanes is that the probability of stopping a hijacking is lower than the probability that someone will put a round into one of the engines. Especially with the impaired decision-making abilities that comes with decreased air pressure, safe firearms handling in the air is probably something better left to the professionals.
Where airline carry would start to make sense is if there were an aviation-specific concealed carry licensing process (like the one for law enforcement officers) that would train people in airplane-specific firearms handling and usage principles, but until something like that gets rolling I don’t see any real benefit from guns in airplanes.
On the ground, however, its a completely different story.
TL;DR: A negligent discharge on the ground isn’t the end of the world, but a single misplaced round at 35,000 feet can cause the deaths of hundreds of people. The added risk isn’t offset by the reward at the moment. If you want to start talking about a special CCW license for airplanes with added training requirements, though, I’d be all ears.