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Armed pilots offer added protection, new danger

Attending Tuesday's hearing were, from left: Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association; David Plavin, president of Airports Council International; and John Douglass, Aerospace Industries Association.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Should commercial pilots pack pistols in case hijackers try to take control? The once unthinkable proposition has become a matter of serious discussion since the deadly hijacking attack on America two weeks ago. While offering added protection, the policy would carry with it numerous risks.

The president of the airline pilots association suggested on Tuesday that Congress consider legislation granting airline pilots explicit authority to possess weapons. An obscure federal regulation seems to grant as such, but no airlines have invoked it and it is set to expire in weeks.

"Before [September 11], we could scarcely have envisioned calling for cockpit protection in the form of weapons carried in the cockpit. However, the world has changed and we must change with it," Capt. Duane Woerth told the House subcommittee on aviation.

Among the suggestions: Keep stun guns in the cockpit. And more controversially, allow pilots to volunteer to become sworn federal law enforcement officers. After meeting strict qualifications and training standards, they could carry weapons and have the power to arrest lawbreakers.

"I think it's a good idea. If anyone barges into the cockpit with ill intent, my personal choice would be a gun, not a stun gun. My intent would be to kill them, not stun them," said John Wiley, an aviation instructor with a major airline.

'Gunfights at 31,000 feet'

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CNN's Patty Davis has more on the proposal to arm airline pilots (September 25)

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 Could a bullet damage the airplane or bystanders?
Certain ammunition, known as prefragmented or frangible bullets, contain many tiny pellets and are designed to break up after hitting a hard surface, potentially minimizing the risk of ricochet or damage to the plane's fuselage.

If a bullet went through an airplane's window at high altitude, it could cause rapid decompression and possibly suck the air out of the plane.

"Pilots have a real understanding and knowledge of risks and I think they would be more than willing to take on this role. Of course, primarily as a deterrent. I don't think the pilots want to get into a gunfight at 31,000 feet," he said.

One reason would be the risk a stray bullet going through a passenger window.

"That could lead to rapid decompression, which could create a situation worse than a hijacking," said Todd Curtis, an aviation engineer and founder of, a Web site for airline passengers and professionals.

Airplanes often cruise at 30,000 or more feet, much higher than Mount Everest. Should something pierce the cabin at that altitude, the interior air would rush out through the hole to equalize the pressure with the extremely thin atmosphere outside. Within minutes, people inside such a plane would become unconscious without an artificial source of oxygen.

Shootings could delay descent

Airline oxygen masks are designed to last for 10 or 15 minutes or so. But if pilots are fighting hijackers, they might be hard-pressed to return to their control chairs and descend to an altitude where they and others onboard can breathe natural air.

"Rapid decompression is supposed to be followed by rapid descent. If there's shooting, that could delay the time to do that," Curtis said.

Wiley suggested, however, that popular notions about the risk of bullet holes in an airplane were overblown.

"In fiction, airplanes explode when a bullet hits a window. But it's just that, fiction," Wiley said. "There might be lost pressure, but one bullet hole wouldn't cause an explosive depressurization. It would just cause a loud whistling through which the air would pass."

Curtis agreed, but added that arming pilots could result in a host of other unknown and dangerous scenarios. What if a handgun accidentally discharges in the cockpit. What if the hijackers themselves have guns and a shootout ensues, with passengers caught in the middle?

"It introduces a whole new set of risks," which would require a whole new set of procedures for pilots, he said.

Woerth, in his congressional testimony, emphasized that extensive training would be mandatory before pilots could carry guns. In the meantime, there are options under consideration. Cockpits already come equipped with crash axes, which could be used as weapons, the pilots union suggested. Or pilots could use stun guns or guns equipped with specialized bullets.

The projectiles would "disintegrate on impact" to ensure the safety of aircraft, he said. But they could do serious damage to the human body, which is fine with the pilots union in the case of hijackers.

"The pilot must be prepared to kill a cockpit intruder," their new guidelines read after suicide hijackers killed thousands in New York and Washington.


• Pilots' union wants pilots armed
September 24, 2001


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