Pilots’ group decries missile deployment

By Jon Dougherty

The head of an airline pilots’ organization pressing for legislation to allow guns in the cockpits of commercial airliners has criticized the Bush administration’s decision to deploy air-defense missiles and fighters over Washington, D.C., during the Sept. 11 commemoration – ready to shoot down any passenger jets that were hijacked.

“On the one-year anniversary of the (9-11) attacks, the U.S. government aimed surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at the skies” over the nation’s capital “and launched armed fighters to patrol the skies over our largest cities,” said Capt. Tracy Price, chairman of the Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance. “The decision to ‘defend’ our citizens in this manner speaks volumes about the administration’s confidence in their progress toward improving airline security after a full year’s effort.”

APSA and other groups, including some pilots’ unions, have said that arming pilots against potential terrorist hijackers is a quicker, cheaper and more efficient way to ensure air safety.

Administration officials have said they want pilots flying the aircraft and are fearful that an errant shot inside a crowded jetliner could lead to injury or death of innocent passengers.

But Price and others also say even if a passenger is injured or killed in an exchange with terrorists – unlikely with the right training and ammunition, experts say – better to risk a few passengers rather than everyone aboard, who would assuredly be killed if a plane were to be shot down by a fighter jet or surface-launched air-defense missile.

“The administration policy to destroy a hijacked airliner while denying the pilots firearms with which to defend the airliner needs a closer look,” Price said. “Missiles can only be used to destroy an airliner that has been hijacked by terrorists, and all on board will most certainly die.

“The concept of arming pilots with firearms to prevent or stop a hijacking is viewed by some as an extreme and intrusive measure, but we think they’ve got it exactly backwards,” he continued. “The policy of sacrificing a civilian airliner with innocent Americans on board to keep terrorists from using it as a weapon – while at the same time refusing to allow the pilots an opportunity to offer a last resort, final line of defense – is the extremist view that should be ridiculed and dismissed.”

Pentagon officials announced Tuesday that the deployment of mobile Avenger SAM units mounted atop military Humvees, along with individual units armed with hand-held Stinger missiles, was incorporated as part of an existing exercise known as “Clear Skies II.”

Initially, these troops were not armed, but they were given live weapons after Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge announced Sept. 10 that they had increased the nation’s terrorist threat level from “yellow,” or “elevated,” to “orange” – the next to highest warning level.

“The decision to change the threat level is a result of the fusion … of all intelligence available through our own means and that other nations have provided,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Tuesday.

“Clear Skies II” runs through Sept 14, officials said. It is designed to test an air-ground, multi-layered air-defense system. It was combined into the Pentagon’s ongoing “Operation Noble Eagle,” the military’s homeland defense operation.

But Price said despite the stepped-up military measures, the best solution was still to allow pilots to protect their planes with guns.

“Terrorists want to strike fear into our hearts by attacking us in unthinkable ways,” he said. “They expect to die in the process. It is hard to imagine a more enticing scenario to a terrorist group than the prospect of forcing the United States to unceremoniously kill its own innocent citizens.”

Alternately, he reasoned, “it would be nearly impossible to gain control of an airliner with armed pilots locked behind a reinforced cockpit door.”

Other airline industry groups, such as flight attendants’ unions, as well as most airlines, oppose arming pilots. Flight crew personnel oppose it because they say they will be left alone – and unarmed – in the cabin to deal with terrorists.

But Price, himself a commercial pilot, said arming the flight deck would serve as the best deterrent to future hijackings.

“Arming pilots with firearms promises deterrence and makes the successful execution of the hijacking nearly impossible,” he said.

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