CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The pilot of a US Airways plane may have been mishandling a firearm when it went off in flight, piercing the cockpit wall before the jet landed safely, a federal air marshal said Tuesday.
Airline officials have said the accidental discharge did not endanger the 124 passengers and five crew members over the weekend. But air safety experts said the hole, visible in photos obtained by the Associated Press, could have caused the plane to rapidly depressurize had it been in a window at a higher altitude.
All people eligible to carry guns in the cockpit carry the same weapon, the .40-caliber semiautomatic H&K USP.
“This is an extremely safe and reliable weapon,” said Greg Alter of the Federal Air Marshal Service. “It’s not going to discharge on its own, is the bottom line.”
The pistol discharged shortly before noon Saturday aboard Flight 1536 from Denver to Charlotte, as the plane was at about 8,000 feet and was approaching to land. The photos show a small entry hole in the lower side of the cockpit wall and a small exit hole on the exterior below the cockpit window.
The AP described the photos and the bullet hole in the Airbus A319 to US Airways spokesman Phil Gee, who said “they sound authentic.”
“There are two issues: would they (the crew) have enough oxygen to remain alert,” said Earl Dowell, an aeronautical engineering professor at Duke University. “If the crew could no longer control the airplane, that would be a big deal. And the rapid loss of pressure might damage the structure itself.”
But both Dowell and Fu-Kuo Chang, a professor of aeronautical engineering at Stanford University, said airplane design emphasizes safety and that such a blast – even if it knocked out a window in mid-flight, isn’t likely to cause the kind of damage that would lead immediately to a crash.
“If not repaired, it may cause a problem. It could get bigger. For a single bullet, it would not be a factor for the safety of the airplane,” Chang said. “If it hit the window, it may be a problem for depressurization. I still don’t think it would cause a crash.”
The gunshot marked the first time a pilot’s weapon has been fired on a plane since the flight deck officer program was created following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Alter said. The Transportation Security Administration is investigating how the gun discharged, and Gee said the unidentified pilot has been taken off duty during the probe.