Conde Nast Traveler

« Welcome to Catch of the...Day | Main | (More than) 5-Link Friday »

April 24, 2008

The Shootist at 8,000 Feet

Heckler and Koch
Heckler & Koch USP Compact
"Law Enforcement Modification"
(LEM) model

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.


"Chambering a thirteenth round was a personal decision made by Captain Langenhahn."


It is mandatory TSA procedure.

Whose son in law are you?

Obviously such journalistic precepts such as "fact checking" are unknown to you.

My God you are a jackass.

At least you now admit you are a gun "enthusiast" (whatever the F that is.) not an expert.

Mr. seventhree, so glad you came on over, buddy! Happy to be corrected, if in fact it's policy -- the pilots and (unidentified) Air Marshals who blog on this stuff are fabulous on this stuff (and we love 'em), but official news from the TSA is in rather short supply. We'll get a spokesman on the horn for you in the next post. The air marshals do, I'm sure, and many of the flight deck officers rules and regs were adapted/adopted from them.

Whom to trust? The professional bloggers, obviously, but as you know that's a sticky wicket, since folks on blogs don't like to ID themselves.

The manufacturer of Heckler and Koch's Compact .40 cal USP strongly suggests that chambering a 13th round is not -- repeat NOT -- a great idea in a cockpit environment, but I look forward to debating that with you in the upcoming TSA post.

Anyway, whether it's the TSA that's at fault for mandating it or Captain Langenhahn's personal decision (for it is a personal decision, no matter whose policy it is), Captain Langenhahn's violation of basic gun handling remains. That's the point.

Do please keep that fine righteous anger honed and keep the love notes rolling. All good!

all best,


It's why they're firing him, dude.

The saddest thing is that your defense is that the TSA is uncooperative and your information was the best that you could glean from other bloggers. No real research. High journalistic standards indeed.

I guess that is good enough and licenses you to make things up and present them as facts. Apparently Conde Nast has equally low standards.

No-one should trust any of their stories as your publication seems comfortable with making things up when they can't easily find answers on the web.

Yes you believe he is being fired. More excellent research on your part. No doubt he will still be flying a year from now.

Mr. Seven three, welcome. In re methodology: TSA public releases we've seen to date reveal little or nothing about the cockpit carry rules. Funnily enough, there's some reporting on official gun handling and training rules from years back, as the program was being debated and created, that might be interesting for you.

(They first mandated 48 hrs of training, then increased that to the current 7 days -- I'll put the link in the next post for you). You know as well as we do that what the TSA deems 'security sensitive' information, such as they carry rules, they withhold. Period.

But, as stated, we promise to have more fun with their spokespeople in the next post, so do please stick around!

We actually hope you're right that the 13th (chambered) round is mandated by the TSA, because it seems strongly to contradict what the manufacturers are telling us about gun handling in that situation.

Unfortunately, part of the problem with the (unidentified, as you are) federal flight deck officers and air marshals blogging on the web is that there's not much confirmation that they're who they say they are. Journalism 101, man. So, sadly, as much as we might want to trust their trenchant observations about TSA policy (and we would like to trust them, since they're the people who live the policy, so to speak), we have to distance ourselves factually from them until, say, we're lucky enough to meet some of them face to face and everybody exchanges bona fides.

That said, many of the blogging pilots and air marshals do seem to know a lot. But more on that in the next post, okay?

By the way, don't worry about the Congressional Quarterly. We assume that their report on the airline having begun the process to fire Captain Langenhahn, is accurate, since it came up in congressional testimony. We also assume that it'll be outdated when Captain Langenhahn finds a new job, whether it's as a finca pilot in South America or a Sam's Club sales associate in Des Moines. That's not our reporting, or that of the CQ. That's just plain old life. How does it go, the old saw? The more things change....

Seems to us that you're grasping a bit there when you don't need to. Relax, man. We'll give you all the ammo you need for a meaty comment.

all best,

Guy Martin

There's no "smoking gun" (pardon the pun) aspect to the 13th bullet you keep harping on.

I'll keep the Super Secret Information to myself specifically, but think about enforcment types are generally "REQUIRED" to carry thier weapons CHARGED. Whether a LEO tops off the magazine after that is a personal decision that has absolutly nothing to do with an accidental discharge.

Going on and on about the 13th bullet makes you look like the idoit that you must be.


Get over yourself a bit - I mean you write for a travel blog - but nice to see you weigh in on it but maybe you can appreciate the whole story from the perspective of the people who sit on the outside of the cabin door, which after all is your audience and not the law enforcement or pilots.

AA 11 & 77 and UA 93 were taken over by cockpit breaches, and after that most anything 'known' is closed to supposition than fact.

What the FFDO is armed and trained to do is react as fast as possible to the sudden unexpected presence of one or more highly motivated killers in the cockpit.

I suggest you place two chairs side by side and have two persons occupy them, say about 18 inches apart.

Give these people both something to do with at least one hand, give them a manual task of some sort.

Place a television playing something very interesting and engrossing in front of them.

Now make one person speak on a telephone of some sort, and rapidly read off statistics of some sort (for baseball fans use standings or batting averages for example) similare to altitudes and headings, and do it accurately, perhaps say, every 20 - 30 seconds apart, while still paying close attention to the movie and the manual tasks.

Test 1:

Have the intruder(s) step into this situation making an unexpected loud noise and see how quickly they can place one or more of the seated persons in a choke hold and draw a simulated knife across the neck of one and then the other seated person.

Allow the 'intruders' to practice this over and over. See if it takes more than, oh say maybe 3 seconds.

Now, see how long either seated person has to react to the presence, fend off the intriding killer, draw the weapon, draw back the slide, chamber a round and fire and strike an intruder.

Now go home and get your shine box asshole.


Unfortunately, you have done both your readers and your employer a great disservice. You have applied a little ignorance to a Law Enforcement situation with which you have no information, or experience to draw from. Your conclusions are faulty and your logic is spotty and indefensible given the few facts that have made the light of day on this incident.

Most of all, you have done the pilots a great disservice. Those who have stepped up to the plate after 9-11 and volunteered considerable time, money, and energy to protect their passengers,and those who live under their flight paths, have been disparaged by your ignorant conclusions. Unfortunately, due to the sensitive nature of this program, facts may never be made public to fully make you aware of your error.

Suffice to say, virtually NO law enforcement organizations in the US allow ANYTHING in the trigger guard of a loaded weapon, except the finger of the officer when it is time to fire the weapon. The TSA suspends this logic solely for this program, despite the habits and training of the rest of the LEO world.

You considerable diatribe about the workings of the HK and automatic weapons omits one absolutely crucial bit of information, something your readers are depending on you, as the Conde Nast "de facto weapons expert" to provide.

And that is simply this: An automatic weapon will not operate without one bullet in the chamber to make the weapon cycle when fired. A fully loaded magazine is incapable of making the semi-automatic weapon cycle when the trigger is pulled without the requisite gas charge from the chambered round. If you know anything at all about the operation of weapons, you should know this. Failure to have a round chambered means the weapon must first be "cycled" or "racked" to install that essential round. Given the 2-3 second that it takes for a hijacker to enter the cockpit, there is simply no time to be playing "rack-a-round."

Failure to explain this to your readers not only undermines your conclusion, but shreds any future credibility by you on subjects of handgun employment or operation.

Your ego was surely pumped after the words you typed. But now reality has reared it's ugly head again. You owe your readers a sincere apology sir.




I think should go over to American Airlines and ask to see their Security video about Cockpit breaches. This will show you how fast (less then 3 seconds) intruders who are well trained can access the one area you do not want intruders taking over. Then follow the advise others have given you.

I am sure you are doing research on this issue to better inform your readers. I hope that, once you are truly prepared (and educated), that you will apologize for your grossly ignorant initial post and tell the readers the facts about this story you have written.

Standing by...


HELLO CONDE NAST!!! DOes anyone really read this stuff or can someone type absolute tripe and let it stand for months for all to see?


Conde Nast must not care about the truth. They'll probably just pull this whole thread as if it never happened.




This author has abandoned the readers because he knows he is wrong. Conde Nast doesn't have a clue or they would call him back and make him fix the lies and innuendos published in the initial story. Even the Author said he would come back as more info became available.

This guy ain't coming back. He doesn't have the backbone or integrity to answer to his untruths.


From the DHS final report.

"We examined the holster and observed that its design renders the weapon vulnerable to accidental discharges if improperly handled. In a darkened cockpit, under the stress of meeting the operational needs of the aircraft, a pilot could inadvertently discharge the weapon by failing to ensure it is properly seated in the holster, securing the trigger lock, and then pushing the weapon inward to secure the holster snap." The report also found that it was possible to fire the gun while inserting the hasp, or trigger lock, into an "incorrectly seated" weapon. "Using a scale, we determined that only 6-7lb [2.7-3.2kg] of lateral pressure on the padlock was sufficient to induce a discharge," the DHS said.

You are an idiot Guy.

click to post a comment >

About this blog
The editors at Conde Nast Traveler answer questions and share travel secrets, tips, and dispatches

Twitter: CNTraveler
Email: Daily updates



Featured in Alltop

Prices and other information were accurate at press time, but are subject to change. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.

EXPRESS SIGN-UP Sign up for one of our exciting panels and receive the latest news, travel offers, and event invitations from Condé Nast Traveler and our valued advertising partners.
Traveler Magazine




I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its User Agreement, Privacy Policy, and Mobile Terms and Conditions.

iPhone App:

Create personalized postcards out of your favorite travel photos!

Learn More ›
Subscribe to our free RSS feeds:

Get the latest destinations picks, hot hotel lists, travel deals and blog posts automatically added to your newsreader or your personalized homepage.

Learn More ›

Special Advertisement

Contests, Sweepstakes & Promotions