FEDERAL FLIGHT DECK OFFICERS: THE AIRLINE PILOTS TRAINED TO SHOOT HIJACKERS
Hundreds of American pilots head to Artesia, New Mexico, annually to learn new skills. The training which lasts 56 hours, spread across five days. Up to 48 people are in each class. They are pilots, working for airlines: Delta, for example, or United, or Southwest. The main purpose of the training is to learn how to shoot hijackers. This was established because of what transpired on 11 September 2001, exactly Seventeen years ago, in the space of 74 minutes, four American planes were hijacked. A year later, the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act was passed, allowing US pilots - working for US airlines - to carry guns in the cockpit.
The first class of Federal Flight Deck Officers, as the gun-carrying pilots are known, graduated in April 2003.Despite that, the program isn’t widely-known. President Trump when talking about teachers having guns, said "a lot of people don't understand" that some pilots are armed.
The US government does not reveal how many pilots are armed, only saying "thousands" have been trained. The names of those involved are kept secret. The program is voluntary. Training is free - as is the gun - but armed pilots aren't paid extra. Most people in Artesia take annual leave to be there. "I've met hundreds of them," says Eric Sarandrea, deputy director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, who oversees the program. "The first words out of my mouth are thank you."Sarandrea - who was working across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11 - says the majority of FFDOs are, like him, ex-military (he spent four years as a US army paratrooper).
"They are patriots," he says. "They're concerned about the safety and security of their passengers. They really take it to heart."
Training begins in the classroom, before the shooting range. Students learn to shoot from seating and standing positions, and prepare for hijackers trying to steal their gun. The pilots are trained not to be drawn out of the cockpit - "They want that door bolted shut, get the aircraft on the ground," says Sarandrea - and they also learn the rules on storing the guns.
Inside the cockpit, pilots carry the guns in a hip holster. Outside, they must be transported in locked boxes. "Their authority lies within the flight deck," says the deputy director. "They can't be walking around to the stores or the malls with the firearm on their person.”Armed pilots must be in it for the long-haul. After graduating in New Mexico, the FFDOs have training every six months. And, every five years, there's a two-day refresher.
No other countries arm their pilots, as far as Sarandrea knows, and some countries don't accept armed pilots on their territory. But most do. "If you want to be on the visa waiver program [allowing easier access to the US] you need an air marshal agreement in place," he says. "For the most part, we don't have a challenge."
But what about passengers who object? People who don't want guns in the cockpit? Travellers who worry about an armed pilot with mental health problems, or worse?
The pilots' unions support the program - the main one, Alpa, wants the government to increase funding from around $20m to $25m a year - and the courses are over-subscribed.
Bill Cason has been a pilot for more than 20 years, and is president of the Federal Flight Deck Officers Association - although, because of the program's rules, cannot say whether he is an FFDO himself.