Believe it or not, there was a time in the not-so-distant history of commercial aviation when the possibility of a polar bear attack was considered among the more likely threats to passenger security. KLM even required a loaded AR-10 infantry rifle be kept onboard Anchorage, Alaska-bound flights in case crew members ever needed to fend off a hypercarnivorous beast.
Before the advent of today’s ultra-long range jetliners, flying from Amsterdam to Tokyo offered a unique set of challenges – not the least of which was finding a suitable refueling stop. There was even a time when KLM was so concerned about the possibility of polar bears attacking stranded passengers, the airline required onboard Arctic survival kits to include a semi-automatic AR-10 “Polar Survival” rifle.
KLM’s impressive Amsterdam/Anchorage/Tokyo “Polar Route” route was served by long-range (at the time) Douglas DC-7C piston planes. The route, first launched in 1958, employed a flight plan which took passengers and crew very near the North Pole. Because of the isolated and unforgiving terrain between Anchorage and Amsterdam, airline officials created an Arctic survival kit for use in the event of an emergency landing somewhere along the journey. The possibility of polar bears attacking survivors of a crash led KLM to include the assault rifle among the potentially lifesaving tools included in the emergency kit.
Other emergency supplies found in the Arctic survival kit included maps, tissues, sleeping bags, tents, a raft, a shovel, snow shoes, a small camp stove, candles, cold weather clothes, a hatchet and a saw. Crew members assigned to the route were required to be certified in wilderness survival and received training on the assault rifle. According to Historical Firearms, however, the training didn’t actually involve firing the polar bear stopping weapon. Instead, crew members were told to “simply aim between an attacking polar bear’s shoulder blades.”
In a January 1984 letter from KLM to a gun collector tracing the provenance of the weapons purchased by the airline, a company official confirms that the airline purchased between five and six of the AR-10 rifles for use on the Polar Route flights. The airline noted that the guns were eventually sold to a Chicago gun dealer in the early 1970s.
As DC-7 piston planes made way for newer DC-8 jet planes and the DC-8 made way for the modern Boeing 747 jumbo jet and eventual non-stop service between Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) and Tokyo Narita International Airport (NRT), the need for Arctic survival kits and onboard polar bear guns became less of a necessity and were phased out altogether along with a required fuel stop in Alaska.
The idea of keeping a high power rifle handy for use in the unlikely event of a polar bear attack may seem a bit quaint from the perspective of today’s air traveler, given the focus on manmade threats to passenger security in recent years. It may be worth noting, however, that there are still places on the earth much less isolated than below the onetime flight path of the Polar Route service to Japan, where the threat of polar bear attack is a big enough concern that traveling without a weapon capable of stopping a polar bear is considered both irresponsible and illegal.