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Monday, July 1, 2013

Guns, Gloves & Flight Suits

By Ernie Stephens

A few months ago, a former police friend of mine was accidentally shot and killed at a private gun range. As some of us talked about the accident, the conversation shifted to firearms safety in general, and a move my former police department made a dozen years back to make the range experience more safe and useful. The new policy said that officers were required to qualify wearing whatever attire he or she wore during their regular duties. The logic was simple: Drawing your weapon and getting on target while wearing jeans and a T-shirt can be very different from performing the same actions while wearing the issued uniform. One other aspect of that policy was that all officers had to be wearing their issued body armor while shooting, since the general orders technically required that all officers wear theirs whenever on duty, and did not list an exception for anyone below the rank of lieutenant. Oh, and none of that business of throwing your vest on over your shirt, because you had been in a specialty unit for so many years, it wouldn’t fit underneath it anymore, either! You had to dress as you would while on duty.

As I’m sure you’ve already realized, that rule created problems for those of us in the Aviation section. First, a bulletproof vest was not part of our standard work attire. After all, it kinda defeats the purpose of a Nomex flight suit if hot resin is melting all over you in a post-crash fire. Second, most of us wore horizontal shoulder holsters, which our range master used to hate because – understandably – he didn’t like the muzzle pointed backwards toward his line instructors when the gun was holstered, or “sweeping” the person in the next lane as it was being drawn and swung towards the target.

Being the sergeant in charge of the unit – and the acting commander at the time, if I recall correctly – it was my duty to make the case that my guys could not follow the mandate that had been laid down, since we did not wear body armor on duty, nor have flight suits that a vest would fit underneath properly. And, in spite of the range generally being against wearing shoulder holsters on the firing line, that’s what we wore.

As expected, my argument was met with resistance by an otherwise reasonable guy, who was tired of everyone applying to him for an exception. But concessions were made, and we were able to qualify without a whole lot of angst.

The “train-as-you-fight, and fight-as-you-train” axiom was still valid, and that was what our range master was trying to accomplish, albeit in a one-size-fits-all manner. But the more I think about it, the more I continue to wonder if police aviators are ever truly proficient in their use of firearms or the application of firearms retention techniques while wearing apparel and gun leather that isn’t practical for a cop anywhere outside of the cockpit.

Shoulder holsters don’t stay as secure when the tie-down strap doesn’t have a solid leather belt to attach to. But do we practice drawing our weapons quickly with that working against us? A well-fitting pair of Nomex gloves will allow the wearer to pick up a dime, but when they’re new, the leather can be very slippery. Would we be able to get a firm grip on our weapons if we had to draw them while wearing new gloves? The whole shoulder holster thing bothered me the most. I often found myself standing in line at a store or talking to a citizen with the grip of my gun exposed, and positioned perfectly for some nut facing me to make a grab for it. And since I couldn’t find a vertical shoulder holster anywhere, I was concerned that if the retention snap were to open during a struggle out in public, my weapon could fall out, as it had done in the aircraft a couple of times when my four-point harness inadvertently unsnapped it.

The solution I came up with for being comfortable with my own firearms/clothing combination was to reject the traditional shoulder holster used by many aviators, and order my flight suits with belt keepers. I then found a suitable belt and security holster for my weapon, and began wearing it around my waist. Doing so made me much more comfortable when around others, and eliminated the muscle-memory confusion I sometimes experienced due to carrying my gun under my left armpit 40 hours a week, but on my right hip the rest of the time.

Most police pilots are, and will always be, bound by the uniform regulations set down by their department. Many regulations will even dictate what kind of holster must be worn. And even if they don’t, there aren’t very many choices on the market for the law enforcement aviator. That leaves us with some decisions to make about weapon retention and accessibility.

Sure, the average aircraft crewmember isn’t going to be out in the general public for any significant amount of the day. We’re usually behind a chain link fence, or 500 feet in the air. But I think all flight crews should take a look at what they wear and how they pack their pistols, just to see if there is room for improvement. If there isn’t, or the perfect setup for them is already in play, great. It certainly didn’t hurt to look.

 

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