Are We Ready for Pilots Packing Heat?

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CHRIS USHER/APIX FOR TIME FOR TIME

CONVINCING: In Washington former pilot Luckey is making a persuasive case

For nearly a year, Washington's mushrooming aviation-security apparatus has concentrated on keeping anything that looks remotely like a weapon off airplanes. A G.I. Joe's toy gun. A granny's knitting needle. Everyone's nail clippers. Yet now the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is on the verge of a curious reversal. Next month the U.S. Senate is expected to pass legislation authorizing pilots to carry guns on planes.

A combination of government bungling, rare cohesion among airline unions, a push from the enthusiastic National Rifle Association and a little-known historical precedent for cockpit guns has turned an idea few thought would pass into a virtually done deal. Although Bush Administration officials and air-safety experts strongly opposed arming pilots, their resistance has been overwhelmed by a bipartisan wave of support. In July the Republican-led House approved, by a 197-vote margin, a plan that would give a gun to any pilot who volunteered for and could pass weapons training. Now that the bill has locked up backing from anti-gun Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts, the upper chamber will probably send it to the President for his signature. "All sides of the political spectrum recognize that pilots need to be able to defend the cockpit with lethal force," says Stephen Luckey, a former 747 captain who is the security chief for the Air Line Pilots Association.


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As confidence has waned in other efforts to enhance airline security, initial critics of cockpit guns are embracing them. A key reason may have come last February. The airlines and the TSA had claimed reinforced doors would keep out hijackers. Then an apparently disturbed man took only minutes to burst through the entry to the cockpit of a United Air Lines plane. The pilot had to wield an emergency-crash ax to stop him.

Arming pilots is hardly a new idea. For decades, up through the 1980s, some pilots carried guns on board — at first to protect the U.S. mail and then to combat hijackings. Although the practice petered out, the government did not formally ban it until July 2001. But after Sept. 11, flight crews realized that talking down hijackers was no longer the right response and revived the idea. The most influential unions joined the campaign of the new Airline Pilots' Security Alliance, whose main goal is to give pilots guns.

The pilots' lobby complains that current security measures are unreliable and contends that pilots are the last line of defense against hijackers' turning planes into guided missiles. In Luckey they found a prominent and credible advocate. The barrel-chested special-operations Vietnam veteran was one of the first civilian pilots selected for the U.S. armed antihijacking corps, in 1974. Since 9/11 he has devoted hundreds of hours to lobbying Congress and talking to the media. He has persuaded reluctant Washington bureaucrats that pilots have a unique case: "We're the ones who strap our asses to the target every day."

Luckey argues that aircraft are designed to withstand the minor decompression that might result from bullet holes in the fuselage. According to airplane maker Boeing, even onboard explosions have not caused planes to crash. Luckey says pilots would be physically, psychologically and financially screened before being authorized to pack heat, then trained by the fbi and closely monitored on and off duty. "There isn't a pilot out there who wants to carry a gun," says Luckey. "But a weapon is another piece of emergency equipment."

The powerful national gun lobby, which says "thousands" of pilots are members, has pressed Congress hard, calling the issue "one of our top priorities." Boxer's decision to throw in her support because she was dissatisfied with the federal air-marshal program triggered bipartisan momentum.

Critics, however, believe even the best arguments for guns are not good enough. "Pilots should concentrate on flying the plane," says an airline executive. Safety experts have questioned whether marksmanship standards will be stringent enough. Says Michael Wascom, an industry spokesman: "There are just too many questions to be answered before we rush to put deadly weapons into pilots' hands." Many rank-and-file pilots agree, contending that other changes, such as improving the passenger-profiling system, would do more to boost security. But given the political head of steam, such arguments may already be moot.