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Jewish World Review May 30, 2002 / 19 Sivan, 5762

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Armed (and dangerous) pilots | HOUSTON Three pilots of a major airline recently gathered here at George Bush Intercontinental Airport to discuss whether, as an anti-terrorism measure, pilots should be armed. The Transportation Department says guns will not be permitted in cockpits. Some in Congress will try to overturn this ban. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents 62,000 pilots working for 42 airlines, adamantly favors arming them.

These three pilots -- two trained in the military, one in civilian life -- are ALPA members. They have a cumulative 75 years of experience flying for commercial airlines. None has an aversion to guns. Says one, "I was raised around guns all my life." Says another, "I've not got any affinity for gun control." Says the third, "I love guns. Been a hunter all my life. I'm adamantly against gun control."

All three oppose arming pilots. Here is why.

They note that Sept. 11 triggered a reversal of assumptions. The policy for pilots regarding a hijacking had been: Don't deal with it. Before suicidal hijackers took over four planes, the procedure was for pilots to fly their aircraft to the destination the hijacker demanded.

Now, these three pilots say, the overriding priority must be to guarantee that cockpits are sealed behind bulletproof doors, protecting the flight deck from intrusion while pilots get the plane on the ground as quickly as possible. Which can be 10 minutes -- as pilots know from training to deal with the problem of sudden decompression of an aircraft.

Prior to Sept. 11, if a passenger became unruly, the pilot might come back into the cabin to assert authority. No more. Says one of these three, "The flight attendants know they are on their own."

"You cannot fly an airplane and look over your shoulder, firing down the cabin," says one of these pilots. What you could do, he says, is look down the cabin by means of a closed-circuit television camera that would warn the flight deck of cabin disturbances requiring quick action to take the plane to the ground. Flight plans should show the nearest alternative airport at every stage of every flight.

Another potential problem with arming America's 120,000 commercial airline pilots is what one of the three pilots here calls, with no demurral from the other two, "cowboys or renegade pilots." Many commercial pilots began their flying careers as fighter pilots. Two of the three speaking here this day did. One of them says: There is some truth to the profile of fighter pilots as, well, live wires and risk-takers. Arming them might incite them to imprudent bravery. Armed pilots would be more inclined to go out into the cabin, whereas the primary goal should be getting the plane to the ground.

"The popularity of an idea does not make it a good idea," says one of these pilots, and all three, although members of ALPA, question whether the idea of arming pilots is as popular with pilots as ALPA suggests. One of these pilots was polled by phone by ALPA and considered the questions written so as to produce an expression of support for arming pilots.

There is in the airline industry the suspicion that the drive to arm pilots, to equip them for potential action back in the cabin, is for ALPA a new front in the organization's long-standing campaign to revive the requirement for a third pilot in the cockpit. The three pilots gathered here would prefer that ALPA concentrate on protecting existing jobs rather than creating new ones.

Many thoughtful pilots do favor guns as an additional layer of deterrence, and a last resort to restoring control over an aircraft before F-16s are scrambled to shoot it from the sky. Had armed pilots been flying the four planes hijacked on Sept. 11, box cutters would not have sufficed. And you do not want to know how many dangerous implements escape the detection of airport screeners while they are X-raying your shoes and frisking grandmothers to demonstrate innocence of racial or ethnic profiling.

However, the pilots of El Al, Israel's airline, are not armed, and the airline has not had a hijacking in 34 years. The three pilots consider this evidence for the argument that the deterrence effect of armed pilots is not essential. Furthermore, gunfire in the cockpit could easily shatter the windshield. In which case, says one of these pilots, "someone is going to be sucked out -- the terrorist, if he's not strapped in."

"There are," says one of the three, "a lot of what-ifs and don't knows" when you decide to arm pilots. These pilots know they are against that.

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