TCS Daily

Guns in the Sky: Why James Bond Would Approve Today

By Sallie Baliunas - October 22, 2001 12:00 AM

In the movie version of Goldfinger, James Bond, imprisoned mid-flight aboard a Lockheed Jetstar, eyed a gun aimed at his torso by his racily-named captor and coolly counseled her: "That's a Smith & Wesson .45. If you fire at this close range, the bullet will pass through me and the fuselage like a blowtorch through butter. The cabin will depressurize and we'll both be sucked into outer space together."

The scriptwriter got it right. The .45 Smith & Wesson depicted in the movie looks like a 1917 model. Hundreds of thousands of them were manufactured, so the firearm would have been highly available when the movie was made in the early 1960s. The handgun's jacketed round, a .45-calibre ACP, would have easily penetrated the roughly 10 inches of 007's midsection and then blown through the fuselage of the jet.

Bond's urbane declaration undercut his handler's haughty ignorance of the danger of discharging the handgun aboard the jet while also foreshadowing the film's climactic scene in which arch-villain Auric Goldfinger, aiming to kill Bond, accidentally shoots out the jet's passenger window instead. Goldfinger is then siphoned to oblivion.

This cinematic image is being conjured up to oppose allowing pilots to carry guns aboard planes. But while accurate, the image misses the mark.

Since America's airline pilots were first required to undergo body and luggage screening at airports in 1987, they've been unable to carry protective handguns on-board or in the cockpit. This singular vulnerability of disarmed crews made the calculations of the terrorists in Sept. 11's tragedies less complex and far more certain of success.

No one layer of protection against terrorism will ever prove enough. But more layers of protection raise the uncertainty of success and so lessens the likelihood terrorists will try to do anything. The first layers attempt to prevent any skyjacking terrorist from making it onto the plane, much less into the cockpit.

Thus, we must find and jail terrorists, scan luggage and people before boarding, and put marshals in the cabin of enough planes to make terrorists' calculations of the odds of success very unfavorable. Audio-visual signals should be provided to keep cockpit and ground crews informed of cabin threats. Too, cockpit doors could be strengthened. According to Aviation Week, AVCom Technologies makes a door that survives shots and suppresses ricochets from a .44 caliber magnum pistol, yet weighs only 40 pounds in the case of a Boeing-747.

But what if a terrorist is able to breach all that? What if he starts killing people aboard the plane, forcing the pilot from his cover? Mesa Air, which operates American West Express, US Airways Express and Midwest Express, has proposed one response - having cockpit crew trained in using a taser stun gun. While helpful, it may not be enough.

I would prefer something with a little more stopping power. So, too, would the 67,000-member Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which requested Congress to allow defensive handguns in the cockpit. Already, Congressman Ron Paul has filed bill H.R. 2896 to allow just that.

"But the Bond scenario!" critics cry. "Won't guns aboard plans risk passengers being sucked out into oblivion?"

The answer to that question is, "Not likely."

First, just the fact that one or more cockpit crewmembers might be armed would discourage most terrorists, who would have less effective weapons thanks to good airport screening.

Secondly, commercial pilots who opt to go the distance and protect their passengers as fully as possible would receive professional training. Many already are former military pilots, so are familiar with proper firearm use.

Finally, there is the weapon pilots might use.

The handgun wouldn't have a trigger lock, but could be kept snug in a lock box. That way it wouldn't fall into a terrorist's hands, but a pilot could dial open the lock to access the gun in seconds if needed.

The handgun itself should have sufficient stopping power to neutralize a threat, yet not so much as to imperil other passengers. A .38-calibre revolver with Glaser safety slugs provides a perfect choice for that chore. The slugs have a plastic tip to penetrate clothing and skin followed by lead shot. While the lead shot would create a fearsome wound in a terrorist, more than enough to diffuse the threat, the projectiles on impact are slowed enough that their shattered, spent shards likely wouldn't exit the terrorist's body. If they did, those pieces wouldn't penetrate the skin of the aircraft. Even a round that missed and hit the fuselage or window, the round would likely penetrate only the inner layer, and not compromise the outer one -- unlike Goldfinger's golden bullet.

Would there still be risks? Nothing is totally risk-free. Goldfinger's gunslinging aside, I prefer pilots to be armed if they wish. After all, by the simple act of boarding an aircraft, I am already entrusting the crew with my life in what amounts to a slow-speed guided missile brimming with effective ordinance - jet fuel. A decision to use a handgun would be a pilot's last recourse, not the first. But in the extremity of terrorism, shouldn't we give the professional pilots, who form one of the last layers of defense against terrorist attacks, the best tools possible?

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