A New Flying Force

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In his state of the union address, President Bush singled out federal air marshals—undercover armed agents who fly on U.S. airlines—for helping make "our homeland safer." But he neglected to mention a flying security force that has quietly grown even larger than the marshals: the nation's pilots.

Two years ago, the Federal Flight Deck Officer program began training pilots who wanted to carry guns on flights to protect the cockpit.

Aviation sources tell Time that more than 4,000 pilots are authorized to carry guns, and each day they fly armed on more flights than do air marshals. The gun-toting pilots, who fly unidentified, now constitute the fourth-largest federal law-enforcement group in the U.S. Pilots in the program, as well as the Transportation Security Administration (tsa), which runs it, claim it has been a big success.

Except for an arrest last month of an armed pilot who allegedly arrived at work drunk, there have been no problems like inadvertent discharges or illegal use of weapons, which often occur among new officer groups. But some pilots complain that the tsa has never embraced the idea, providing little follow-up after training and denying them basic intelligence data like the weekly suspicious-incident reports. "The government wants it both ways," says one pilot. "They want us to protect aircraft, but they don't want to pay much for it, cover us for injuries or even really treat us as law-enforcement officers." tsa officials insist they are proud of the program and are reviewing how to offer more assistance and training.

The aviation-security community was alarmed recently when the tsa put a pilot on a special watch list for having government-issued ammunition in his bag when he tried to board a plane while off duty. The pilot, who had passed rigorous background checks in order to carry a gun, was subject to being pulled aside for searches and not allowed to work as a pilot. He was taken off the list last week, given a letter of censure and allowed to return to work. Said tsa spokesman Mark Hatfield: "We have a thorough review process, and we came to a reasonable result."