Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
A New Hampshire senator is urging the Department of Transportation to develop and implement a program to train commercial airline pilots in the handling and use of firearms to protect the cockpit and defend against possible terrorist incursions.
“My amendment to allow pilots to be armed was included in the final Aviation and Transportation Security bill,” said Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H.
“The legislation was a first step in training pilots in the proper use of a firearm to protect the cockpit from terrorism,” he said last week. “The Department of Transportation should begin immediately developing a curriculum to train pilots in the proper and responsible use of firearms for the defense of an aircraft.”
Smith and other lawmakers have again expressed support for arming pilots after Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge was quoted earlier this month as saying he felt it “didn’t make sense” to arm pilots.
“I don’t think we want to equip our pilots with firearms,” Ridge told USA Today in a March 4 interview. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
But Smith counters that it may not make much sense not to allow pilots to be armed.
“Commercial pilots are entrusted every day with the lives of thousands of Americans,” he said, adding that “with proper training, these pilots can be an additional asset to protect our skies from future acts of terrorism.”
“The overwhelming support from pilots and concerned citizens, and their vigilance in working to pass my measure and restore passenger confidence in flying, is what made this possible,” Smith added.
Last month, a Federal Aviation Administration official told WorldNetDaily that most people who answered a recent FAA request for comment said they preferred pilots be armed.
Smith, who has met with New Hampshire pilots and concerned citizens on the issue of armed commercial pilots, said he successfully amended the Aviation and Transportation Security Bill to allow pilots to be armed, “with the support of the airline pilots unions and the unanimous support of the United States Senate. …”
“We must now make sure that this legislation – the first line of deterrence and the last line of defense in airline safety – is implemented in a reasonable and timely manner,” he said, noting the administration should “adopt a reasonable and timely policy to start the training of commercial pilots. …”
Ridge’s sentiments, which are also reportedly shared by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and possibly President Bush, don’t necessarily mean that all hope for arming pilots is lost.
“We don’t think that the door is closed with the administration,” said Capt. Tracy Price, co-founder and chairman of the Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance, an advocacy group that supports arming pilots. “Ridge’s comments were not new and have been refuted by the Transportation Security Administration,” the agency responsible for adopting and implementing any armed pilot initiative.
Also, Price said, “Mineta made it very clear that he was expressing a personal opinion, not administration policy.”
He said his group has briefed White House domestic policy officials. “And they continue to assist us by getting us access all over the executive branch. The jury is still out on the final administration policy on arming pilots, but we are far from convinced that the door is closed,” Price said.
Other airline security experts say new technology is available that they say is safer for pilots to use than traditional firearms.
“There is an alternative weapon the pilots can utilize” besides a standard firearm – “it’s called a PepperBall Pistol,” said Kenneth Gladstone, a spokesman for Jaycor Tactical Systems, the company that makes the pistols.
“We did a demonstration for the FAA and Northwest [Airlines] and received high praise,” Gladstone said. “This is a non-lethal solution which will not break the skin of the aircraft, can be used from 0 to 100 feet, will not injure innocent bystanders and will ultimately do the job it was intended to do – stop aggressive individuals within an airplane.”
He said more than 600 law enforcement agencies now use the PepperBall guns, and based on the company’s projections, they “save at least two lives a month.”
Others say pilots aren’t trying to corner the market on protecting their airplanes.
“We don’t just want pilots to be armed,” said commercial pilot Capt. Bob Lambert, another APSA spokesman.
“We are all for other law enforcement folks to be armed in the [passenger] cabin,” he said. “We have made that very clear.”
Some federal officials have said it’s possible that federal law enforcement agencies might not want anyone aboard airliners to be armed except them.
But that “is perplexing,” Lambert said, adding he didn’t know “how they could get that impression – unless that is just a contrived reason that they do not want us armed.”
The Air Line Pilots Association, the nation’s largest pilot’s union, also supports armed crewmen.
And Price says there is no waning of support from Congress.
“We’ve had no problem at all convincing Congress. We have solid support among lawmakers and I don’t see it waning at all,” he said.
“People are staying off airliners because they are afraid to fly,” Price said. “Arming pilots will bring them back, because the American people will see it for what it is: a common sense measure that will truly make a difference, unlike taking tweezers from elderly women.”