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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2001 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

John H. Fund

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Consumer Reports

Cocked Pit: Armed pilots would mean polite skies -- UNTIL the 1950s, federal regulations required commercial pilots to be armed if they were flying planes carrying mail, a holdover from the days when airmail shipments were flown by military pilots. Some 75% of the traveling public supports allowing pilots to carry arms, no doubt with self-fragmenting ammunition than can't pierce a plane's fuselage. But Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration are dragging their feet--and it isn't the first time.

Washington was slow to ban passengers from carrying concealed firearms; that wasn't done until the 1960s. But then the FAA also banned pilots--though not federal law-enforcement officers--from packing heat in the sky.

Don Worley, who flew for the now-defunct Bonanza Airlines in the 1960s, recalls that his airline started a voluntary training program in 1965 to arm its pilots after a man shot and killed the pilot and co-pilot on another airline and caused the plane to crash, killing 44. The training was initially given in Las Vegas. After completing the course of training and certification in the use of firearms, pilots were allowed to carry .38-caliber pistols. The program ended when other countries wouldn't allow armed pilots to land. Then the FAA ended the right of any pilot to carry a firearm in favor of a program of ground security and screening aimed at disarming hijackers before they board flights.

The current arrangement makes no sense to most pilots. "There are now 73,000 federal employees who are allowed to carry firearms onto commercial flights," one pilot told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "The person in charge of the plane is not. But who would know better than the captain when an emergency situation is so dangerous that it justifies deploying a firearm?" Indeed, Bob Guida, a United Airlines pilot and New Hampshire state representative, says that if pilots on the hijacked Sept. 11 flights had been armed, "I would put the odds at nine-and-a-half to one that those events wouldn't have taken place."

One reason for Mr. Guida's confidence is that some 50% of commercial aviation pilots flying today formerly served in the military, and are therefore already trained in the use of firearms and have passed psychological tests. Such test screen out unstable people--people who shouldn't carry a gun.

Phillip Beall, an American Airlines pilot and head of the Dallas chapter of the Allied Pilots Association, doesn't see any reason why he shouldn't be armed. "I have 17 years experience as a certified law-enforcement officer, and waiting for reforms like fortifying cockpit doors will take up to two years to finish doing every plane," he told me. He also says that with 35,000 flights a day under normal conditions, it would be impossible to put armed sky marshals on more than a fraction of flights.

Polls show support for a return to arming pilots. The Winston Group conducted a national survey on the issue for the Allied Pilots Association on Oct. 9 and 10, interviewing 800 registered voters. The questions were quite balanced and even-handed. An overwhelming 75% of Americans, including 78% of married women with children, favored arming pilots. An astonishing 49% of those surveyed would switch their business to an airline that armed pilots, and 51% would pay up to $25 more for a ticket to pay for new security measures.

In spite of such sentiment, the FAA is cracking down on the efforts to protect passengers. After Phoenix-based Mesa Airlines announced this month that it would train its pilots in the use of nonlethal electric stun guns, the FAA rebuked it by citing a prohibition on stun guns. Both the Senate and House versions of antiterrorism legislation include a provision allowing the FAA to permit pilots and flight engineers to carry guns, as long as they undergo proper training. When the measure passed the Senate it won the support of even such staunch antigun liberals as California's Barbara Boxer, who said, "We need to do everything we can to prevent more hijackings from occurring."

Advocates of arming pilots say both versions of the legislation won't help much if they don't indemnify pilots from liability claims should a pilot be forced to use a weapon. "I doubt pilots or airlines would take the chance of being sued unless they had the same kind of indemnification against lawsuits that the 73,000 federal agents who can carry guns now have," says Mr. Beall, the American Airlines pilot.

Critics of changing the prohibition against guns in the cockpit conjure up nightmare scenarios of Wild West shoot-outs at 35,000 feet. What's more likely is that potential terrorists would think several dozen times before even attempting to commandeer an airplane if faced with a good chance that at least one of the pilots was packing heat. It might also relieve the problem of "air rage" about which we heard so much before Sept. 11. To paraphrase the late science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, a plane with well-armed pilots would be a polite place indeed.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund