The Shootist at 8,000 Feet
Heckler & Koch USP Compact
"Law Enforcement Modification"
The March 22 discharge of a semiautomatic pistol in the cockpit of US Airways Flight 1536 has put Conde Nast Traveler senior correspondent--and firearms enthusiast--Guy Martin on the story. Guy first reported on the Transportation Security Administration's firearms training program and the pilot's questionable weapons-handling skills in the Perrin Post. He's now taking his voluminous investigation to the Daily Traveler.
by Guy Martin
Just gotta love German engineering.
The warriors of finance pack their country house driveways with the fine products of Freddy Porsche and Gottfried Daimler; our space program and ballistic missile silos are crammed with the descendants of the crazy-cool rocket engines first developed by Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of supersmart Nazi scientists. So! It's only fitting that armies, special operations units, and SWAT teams worldwide consider themselves especially well-equipped with Helmut Weldle's excellent sidearms.
Herr Weldle is a designer with Heckler & Koch and one of the prime architects of Heckler & Koch's celebrated Universelle Selbstladepistole, the Universal Self-loading Pistol, or USP.
Selbstladepistole is the German for "semiautomatic," meaning a magazine-fed pistol that uses the power of its recoil to slide a fresh round into the chamber. It was introduced to the world in 1993, and, over the last 15 years, its adaptability and dependability have made it a favorite among law-enforcement and military shooters. This was the splendid German product that came into play aboard US Airways Flight 1536 on March 22, firing the shot that punched a hole through the port side of that aircraft's cockpit at a reported 8,000 feet about eight minutes out from its destination of Charlotte, North Carolina. The aircraft was commanded by Captain James Langenhahn, who also wielded the gun and caused the shot to be fired.
On April 18, the Congressional Quarterly published a report of Transportation Security Administration head Kip Hawley's testimony before Congress, in which he stated unequivocally that the shot was caused by human error, not by the TSA's mandated trigger lock or the agency's Federal Flight Deck Officer program, which arms and trains the gun-bearing pilots. The CQ also reported that US Airways has "begun" the process of firing Captain Langenhahn, an indication that the TSA's investigation has, so far, provided the airline with what the airline believes to be solid grounds to do so.
Captain Langenhahn certainly bears responsibility for the incident in that he was in control of the gun when it discharged. But Mr. Hawley is engaging in a bit of hyperbole before his taskmasters by bluntly claiming that the program, and the mandated trigger lock, bear no share of the blame. Captain Langenhahn's training (or lack of it), and the reasons he was trying to do what he did (whether or not he violated procedure) are the TSA's responsibility. Or more precisely, in this instance, that of Mr. Hawley.
So, today we're concentrating on the mechanics of the gun and the movements of the gun handler. Next week, we'll take a look at the TSA's rather more long-standing role as a bureaucratic "enabler."
It was a bad accident but most salubrious in effect, the gift that keeps on giving.
First, zero people were maimed or killed, a splendid outcome for an accidental firearm discharge in the tight architecture of a commercial airliner's cockpit.
Second, the accident threw a Klieg light on a corner of the security bureaucracy in dire need of illumination, namely, the TSA's Federal Flight Deck Officer program, under which commercial pilots are trained and deputized to carry pistols. It was partly in response to this blaze of unflattering exposure that Mr. Hawley testified. A reported 5,000 pilots have loyally volunteered for the program and, partly at their own expense, have been so trained. The idea--an immediately post-9/11 idea, it must be pointed out--was to give the pilots a means to defend the cockpit from hijackers, should the ground-based passenger screening measures fail and again allow a team of armed hijackers to board a commercial aircraft.
The government report on Captain Langenhahn's extraordinary discharge will make fine reading, when we get it. As will the TSA's rules and regulations for gun handling (more on that next week). It's worth noting, again, that there is a verbatim transcript of what transpired in Flight 1536's cockpit that has not yet been released.
Of the 36 pistols approved by the TSA for cockpit use by the deputized federal flight deck officers, there are just two Heckler & Koch models. Both are .40 calibers. One is the Heckler & Koch P2000, and the other is the Heckler & Koch USP Compact "Law Enforcement Modification" (LEM) model. Captain Langenhahn shot the hole in the portside cockpit wall of Flight 1536 with the latter.
The .40-caliber Compact used by Captain Langenhahn was taken into custody by the Charlotte Mecklenburg airport police--specifically, by Airport Police Department officers Brown and Strickland, according to their released incident report. They turned the gun over to the an unidentified Federal Air Marshal--a TSA employee --with one spent cartridge and 12 remaining live rounds.
The .40-caliber Heckler & Koch Compact LEM has a 12-round-capacity magazine.
Ergo: Captain Langenhahn was carrying his pistol with an extra, thirteenth, chambered round. He had to do a lot to put 13 rounds in his .40 caliber Compact. First he had to fill the magazine with 12 rounds and insert it into its bay in the pistol's grip. Then he had to pull back the slide, or top of the pistol, in order to chamber the first round in the magazine. This reduced the contents of the magazine to 11 rounds. Finally, he had to remove the magazine from the gun, fill it with a new "12th" round, and re-insert the magazine into the grip.
This is often done by law-enforcement and/or military shooters who expect to use a lot of ammunition in an impending gunfight. The chambered thirteenth round does two things: It gives the officer a second more of shooting time by eliminating the need for him or her to chamber a round, and it provides an extra round in a heavy gunfight, and thus a little more time to shoot, before having to change the magazine. It is, in short, a "cowboy" move made by our best cowboys who know they are about to enter combat.
Commercial airline pilots behind hardened cockpit doors on domestic flights do not in any way fit this profile. Chambering a thirteenth round was a personal decision made by Captain Langenhahn. It reveals character. The shooter who does this in a non-threatening environment is uncool, unconsidered, and unsafe.
In this post, we're leaving aside the question of whether a Federal Flight Deck Officer should be carrying a gun as if he or she is going to be using 13 rounds defending the cockpit from assault. (We will address this and other in-flight gunplay issues in a subsequent post.) For now, all we need to know is that Captain Langenhahn had a round chambered.
Let's quickly add that Captain Langenhahn's gun will have been tested by the investigators for malfunction. In the weeks since the shooting on March 22, Heckler & Koch, the manufacturer, has not been contacted for any forensic work or any questions about this pistol by the Federal Air Marshals or the TSA (or by any other federal investigating agency). Had there been a problem with the pistol, the manufacturer would have been asked in.
Another way of saying this: As of now, there is no meaningful mechanical error that caused this gun to discharge.
The triggering of Captain Langenhahn's USP Compact LEM tells us more about what he did. Although some Heckler & Koch variants can be configured with light trigger pulls--between 4.5 and 5.5 pounds of pressure--the TSA's law enforcement model requires between 7 and 8.5 pounds of pressure, according to the manufacturer's Ashburn, Virginia, office. (This is the Heckler & Koch office that deals with gun requirements for federal, state, and municipal agencies, including the military and the TSA.)
That heavier pressure required by the trigger is an integral part of the law enforcement modification. This is defined by Heckler & Koch as an enhanced version of double-action-only triggering. (A double-action trigger can cock and fire the gun with a single continuous trigger pull. A single-action trigger cannot cock the gun.) On some Heckler & Koch variants both forms of triggering are possible. But all of the TSA's Heckler & Koch Compact LEMs--including Captain Langenhahn's gun--are double-action-only.
The idea behind this form of heavier, double-action-only triggering was to make firing the gun a more decisive action in order to reduce accidental discharges. Heckler & Koch representatives say that accidental discharges from the LEM model are "virtually impossible." The amount of force required on the trigger means that the shooter must really mean to make that shot. The LEM triggering also reduces the need for an external safety lever. None of the TSA's Heckler & Koch USP Compacts have an external safety lever. The heavy trigger pull is the safety.
Captain Langenhahn fired his gun before landing at Charlotte because he satisfied every requirement for doing so. The point is that, because of the configuration of the gun, he had active, if accidental, participation. He had a round in the chamber, he inserted his finger, or another object, into the trigger guard, and he exerted the required pressure on the trigger.
In the excruciatingly clear Heckler & Koch manual for the USP--downloadable pdf here--the text is studded with repeated warnings about--absolutely, always--clearing the gun of rounds in the chamber before touching the trigger in any way during cleaning or stowing. Whether there is a manual, external safety on the gun, or not.
Captain Langenhahn said in his police statement that he was attempting to "stow" the gun. This procedure, as mandated by the TSA, involves affixing a trigger-lock, an actual padlock that fits through a special holster also mandated by the TSA. The lock is supposed to fit behind the trigger.
Many of our most excellently schooled shooters, those in the law enforcement community, very much do not like this holster-and-padlock thing because it's occasionally easier to put the lock in front of a trigger.
But whether his actions in chambering the thirteenth round comply with TSA procedure or not (although it is likely that they do not), Captain Langenhahn was aggressively violating the most elementary gun-handling procedure by not removing the round from the chamber before inserting the arm of the lock through the trigger guard.
For the sake of the Transportation Security Administration and its rule-making arm, we hope that what happened in the cockpit of Flight 1536 will be made subject to our oversight and debate. We are, in fact, the fliers here, paying both Captain Langenhahn's salary and that of every single employee of the TSA. We know from the anatomy of the gun that Captain Langenhahn violated both the letter and the spirit of proper gun-handling procedure. But the blame is not his alone.
More on the TSA's gun-handling rules and regs--and what the pilots think about them--in my next post.