Pilots sign up for gun classes; some leery about arms proposal

Las Vegas Sun

Pilots sign up for gun classes; some leery about arms proposal

Las Vegas SUN

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Slid into a holster and nestled between manuals and maps, the .38 special was packed into pilot Don Worley’s flight bag before every trip. Once inside the cockpit, Worley strapped the gun to his belt. He never had to use it, but he was ready.

That was 1965, decades before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted the Air Line Pilots Association to suggest arming pilots in the cockpit.

"If anything, it was a comfort," Worley said of his revolver.

Worley, now 75, was one of the first airline pilots in the nation trained to use a gun. He worked for Bonanza Airlines, a company shaken by a 1964 Pacific Airlines flight from Reno to San Francisco in which a suicidal man shot and killed the pilot and co-pilot. The plane crashed near Dublin, Calif., killing 44 people.

Bonanza began a voluntary training program in Las Vegas to arm its pilots, and Worley was among the first to sign up.

But the program only lasted about a year, mostly because other countries the airline flew to did not have the same regulations for armed pilots.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, many pilots and their union have been advocating arming pilots as a last resort to preventing hijackers from taking over planes. The hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were armed with box-cutters and knives.

"Guns would be used as a defensive measure if and only if the entire system ahead of that has failed us," John Mazor, spokesman for the Herndon, Va.-based union, said Friday.

On Thursday, the Senate approved an amendment that authorizes the Federal Aviation Administration to permit pilots to carry guns. Under the measure, airlines and their pilots would make the decision whether to put weapons in the cockpit.

Mazor says the union is hopeful the proposal will be approved, but President Bush has said there might be better ways to provide air security.

United Airlines pilot Bob Giuda, also a New Hampshire state representative, is taking the proposal a step further. He’s circulating a resolution among union members that encourages pilots not to fly their planes if the government doesn't let them have guns.

The union represents more than 67,000 pilots at 47 airlines in the United States and Canada.

"I knew the two captains of the United aircraft that were commandeered," Giuda said Friday. "We are a band of brothers. We deal with the same issues. We deal with the same fears.

"Had those cockpits been armed, I would put the odds at 9½-to-1 that these events wouldn't have taken place."

The union stresses that the program would be voluntary and guns would be a last resort. The union also is suggesting stun guns be kept in the cockpit.

Already, Bush has announced that more in-flight air marshals will be trained. He has authorized $500 million in grants to the airlines to strengthen cockpit doors and study technology that would allow air traffic controllers to take control of a plane if the pilot were to incapacitated.

Giuda, a pilot for 33 years, says all that isn't enough.

Pilot Matt Ragan of Boulder City, Nev., isn't waiting on the issue to be decided. The day after the attacks, he called the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute outside Las Vegas to sign up for a class.

"It’s the only way I can protect myself," said Ragan, who works for one of the airlines whose planes were hijacked - United or American. Ragan did not want to say which airline.

If guns were allowed in the cockpit, the union wants the FBI to handle the program and training even though some gun schools say they could do it faster and without taxpayer money.

Ignatius Piazza, founder of Front Sight, is offering pilots free training if airlines authorize it. The school also has begun airing television commercials in Florida and Chicago advocating letting pilots carry guns.

Another pilot, Las Vegan Greg Amussen with Atlas Air Cargo, decided to take a four-day handgun training class at the school the weekend after the attacks. "I want to beat the rush," he said.

But not all pilots support guns in the cockpit. Some fear they could be distracting.

"I think we should focus on them not getting on board," Horizon Airlines pilot Geoff Rowe said from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. "I think the pilot has enough to do."

His colleague, Horizon pilot Levi Breidenbach, agreed.

"I don't think it’s a good idea. All the training they'd have to go through … I'm sure there are people in there (cockpit crews) who've never shot a gun in their life."

But how far would the program go? Still to be worked out is whether off-duty pilots would be allowed to bring guns onto planes. And what effect onboard gunfire would have is still uncertain.

Aviation experts say a stray bullet could rupture a fuel line, wrench a hole in a fuselage weakened by corrosion or spark a fire. Any of those could bring down a plane.

Proponents say special ammunition now available can lessen the odds of puncturing a plane’s fuselage in a shootout.

"I think it’s a very complicated question," Delta pilot Peter Tseronis said from Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. "There’s pluses and minuses. We'll have to work through the details about whether it will be appropriate."

For Worley, who flew as an armed pilot for a year and still carries a concealed weapon, guns in the cockpit are the only answer.

"When you take on that kind of responsibility, you are the only authority onboard that aircraft," he said. "You can't call 911. There’s no policemen or sheriff.

"They've got razor blades and if the pilots have guns, no contest."

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