Federal Flight Deck Officer
Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDOs) are Federal law enforcement officers commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security. FFDOs act under the umbrella of Transportation Security Administration Office of Law Enforcement branch - the Federal Air Marshal Service.
The Federal Flight Deck Officer program is run by the Federal Air Marshal Service with the aim of training active and licensed airline pilots to carry weapons and defend commercial aircraft against criminal activity and terrorism. Upon completion of government training selected pilots enter a covert law enforcement and counter-terrorism service. Their jurisdiction is normally limited to a flight deck or a cabin of a commercial airliner or a cargo aircraft, while on duty.
Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act, part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, directed the Transportation Security Administration to develop the Federal Flight Deck Officer program as an additional layer of security. Under this program, flight crew members are deputized Federal Law Enforcement Officers authorized by the Transportation Security Administration to use firearms to defend against acts of criminal violence or air piracy undertaken to gain control of their aircraft. The first flight crew members that volunteered were pilots and flight engineer assigned to fly scheduled passenger air service under the FAR 121 (Domestic and Flag Air Carrier Operations). Participants in the program were meant to remain anonymous, and while armed, were prohibited from sharing their participation except with select personnel on a need-to-know basis.
All applicants must be active FAA Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) and FAA class-1 medical certificate holders. At the time of application for the FFDO position the pilots must be in an active, non-furloughed airline employment, operating under FAR part 121 "Domestic and Flag Air Carrier Operation". Charter pilots, business aviation pilots, flight instructors, etc. who are not operating under FAR part 121, are not eligible to participate. Applicants must be U.S. citizens and have the ability to pass extensive background checks and psychological evaluations. Candidate selection preference is given to airline pilots who underwent prior government weapons training including former military and law enforcement experience.
Akin to FAM Service, the specifics of FFDO training program are classified under 49 USC § 44939(e). The initial program is conducted at a classified Federal law enforcement training facility by the Federal Air Marshal Service instructors in New Mexico. Their training is tailored to the role that the FFDOs will perform while on duty. Some of the specific areas covered in this training include constitutional law, marksmanship, physical fitness, behavioral observation, defensive tactics, emergency medical assistance, and other law enforcement techniques. State of the art facilities and simulators are used in the training program. FFDOs have to pass the established by the Federal Air Marshal Service service standards before being allowed to graduate and sworn in as federal law enforcement officers.
FFDOs are required to undergo frequent weapons re-qualification training and testing throughout their active service. Due to the tight confines of an aircraft, as well as the number of bystanders, FFDOs have to comply with some of the strictest marksmanship standards among the local and federal law enforcement agencies.
Candidates who successfully complete this training will be assigned to one of 21 field offices, which will be responsible for FFDO mission control.
FFDOs are Federal Law Enforcement Officers who can exercise their authority within a specific jurisdiction. In most cases, their jurisdiction is limited to defending the flight deck of a commercial passenger or cargo airliner. FFDOs are authorized by the Department of Homeland Security to transport their government-issued firearms freely within the United States and some foreign countries that have reciprocating agreements with the DHS. The Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act of 2002 gives FFDOs the authority to carry firearms in, to and from any state regardless of state or local laws.
FFDOs are issued firearms and other support equipment (handcuffs, holsters, etc.) by the Department of Homeland Security. The firearm types and their specifics are classified under 49 U.S. Code § 44921
Participation and deployment
The exact number of active FFDOs and their distribution among airlines and flight routes is classified under 49 U.S. Code § 44921(d). Just like FAMs, FFDOs are not allowed to disclose their participation in the program to passengers or general population and required to observe secrecy concerning their status and details of their flight missions. FFDOs status is always considered to be SSI (sensitive security information) and may be disclosed only to local and federal law enforcement, TSA personnel, specific airline personnel or anyone whom it may concern (only) on the need-to-know basis.
Despite predictions by opponents of the program of widespread accidents and incidents resulting from very large numbers of pilots carrying firearms in the cockpit, the only serious incidents have been caused by TSA protocols that have since been abandoned.
On March 24, 2008, a US Airways FFDO's gun went off on Flight 1536 from Denver to Charlotte, North Carolina. No one was injured and the aircraft landed safely. According to the FFDO, the gun fired while he was trying to stow it. The bullet went through the side of the cockpit and tore a small hole in the exterior of the plane. The plane was pulled from service for repairs.
On January 13, 2011, a JetBlue FFDO's bag carrying his gun was accidentally picked up by a passenger flying to West Palm Beach, Florida. When the passenger realized the bag wasn't hers, she notified a flight attendant. The FFDO's firearm was appropriately locked and secured and could not have been accessed or fired even if found.
- "TSA:Federal Flight Deck Officers". Archived from the original on 2006-12-15.
- Mooney, Kevin (2007-03-28). "More Armed Pilots Needed, Aviation Experts Say". Cybercast News Service. Archived from the original on 2008-04-17. Retrieved 2008-05-15.
- "APSA's Testimony to the DHS Inspector General". Airline Pilots Security Alliance. Archived from the original on 2007-08-06.
- The discharge was the result of the TSA mandated weapons carriage protocol in place at that time. There were no similar incidents before the protocol was mandated or since it has been eliminated. "US Air pilot's gun accidentally goes off on plane," Reuters
- "Gun was being stowed, pilot tells police," Associated Press