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Fear of Flying

By Captain Tracy W. Price

Transportation Undersecretary John Magaw has announced that he will not permit pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit. For decades, however, airline pilots were armed with firearms without accident or incident. From the dawn of commercial aviation until 1987, airline pilots carried firearms in the cockpit.

Prior to 1987, airline pilots were not required to go through screening checkpoints at airports, and an estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of them carried handguns for cockpit defense in their flight bags. In a bizarre response to a 1987 cockpit takeover, in which the pilots were murdered and the killer crashed the airplane killing all on board, the Federal Aviation Administration began requiring pilots to go through screening checkpoints to ensure that they were not carrying any defensive weapons.

The September 11 attacks were the inevitable outcome of this indefensible policy. We offered an ironclad promise to the terrorists that the pilots were defenseless, and they gladly took advantage of our foolishness.

Since September 11, we have seen the frustrating, illogical and ineffective results of reliance on our ability to keep weapons off of airliners. Airline travel has become a maddening, degrading and humiliating experience for many. Everyone knows that there are still hundreds of ways to get deadly weapons on airliners. Just as we did in 1987, we want to do everything except for that which is simple, safe, logical and obvious. Defend the cockpit from within by arming pilots with firearms.

The Transportation Security Administration has wasted no time in becoming a bloated government bureaucracy. The billions allocated to TSA by Congress are nearly gone and what do we have to show for it? Well, plenty of elderly ladies and small children are being searched at airports, federal air marshals are on a tiny fraction of domestic flights, airport concourses are regularly evacuated when the magnetometers are found to be unplugged, and the airline industry is in an economic shambles.

In a recent report, we learned that qualifying standards for federal air marshals have been reduced. Mr. Magaw responded that any law enforcement is better than none. That may be true if you're trying to increase the size of your taxpayer-funded boondoggle. Mr. Magaw dreams of having the world's largest police force. Airline pilots want real results and real security, and another unaccountable government behemoth is not going to get us there.

Every airline pilot association in the country agrees on arming airline pilots. The Airline Pilots' Security Alliance and other pilot groups have developed detailed programs for screening, training and arming volunteer airline pilots with firearms. We have briefed countless executive branch groups on our program. Each program includes screening and training in the safe handling and use of firearms for cockpit defense. Each program states that no pilot would expect additional compensation for participation in the program.

Frustrated with the total lack of movement from the administration on this common sense measure, all major pilot groups sent a letter to President Bush on April 3 asking him to light a fire under the people in his administration and get this done. Our response came last week when Mr. Magaw cited 40 years of law-enforcement experience and decided that pilots don't need guns to defend their passengers and crew. Mr. Magaw, who is clueless about what is involved in flying an airliner, is concerned that the pilots will become distracted from flying if they are armed. Well!

Unlike Mr. Magaw, I have been flying airliners for years, and I can tell him with certainty that I will not be able to concentrate on flying after terrorists break into my cockpit, kill me and use my airplane and its passengers as a guided bomb. Mr. Magaw's arrogant assertions are ridiculous and would be laughable if the lives of my passengers did not hang in the balance.

For years, airline pilots begged for stun guns to defend against drunken passengers overcome with "air rage." A stun guns is a great weapon if you're trying to defend your cockpit against an angry drunk. Now, the angry drunk seems like a trip down nostalgia lane - compared to the teams of trained, suicidal killers threatening our airliners - but the airlines and the Department of Transportation seem to be poised to give us stun guns to defend against yesterday's threat. Every law-enforcement agency in the country (including the federal air marshals who carry firearms on board) knows that stun guns will never work against the multiple-attacker terrorist scenario of September 11.

The horrific attacks of September 11 were insufficient motivation to move the administration away from the timid politics of moderation and restraint. There is only one way into the cockpit and that is through a narrow door, and therefore, taking control of the cockpit of an airliner manned by trained pilots armed with handguns would be virtually impossible. In short, if airline pilots are armed, the chances of future attempts at a September 11-style attacks are virtually nil. If pilots are not armed, terrorists will probably (correctly) judge that they could again succeed in using airliners as a weapon.

A bipartisan group of senators and congressmen are moving forward with legislation that would take the issue of arming pilots out of the hands of the administration. Pray that these good men are able to complete their work faster than the terrorists who prepare to repeat their efforts.

Capt. Tracy W. Price is a BWI-based pilot for a major U.S. airline. He is the chairman of the Airline Pilots' Security Alliance ( This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the Washington Times on June 4, 2002.

[Posted June 27, 2002]

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