Pilots signing up for gun classes

October 13, 2001

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (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 in New York and Washington, D.C., prompted the Air Line Pilots Association to suggest arming pilots in the cockpit.

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

Worley, now 75, was one of the first airline pilots in the country 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, California. Forty-four people died.

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

But the program only lasted about a year, mostly because international destinations did not have the same regulations for armed pilots.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many pilots and their union have been advocating for the arming of pilots as a last resort to prevent hijackers from taking over planes. The hijackers in the New York and Washington 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 ALPA, 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 pilots would make the decision whether to put weapons in the cockpit.

Mazor says the union was hopeful the proposal would be approved, but U.S. President George W. Bush has said there may be better ways to provide security.

United Airlines pilot Bob Giuda, also a New Hampshire state representative, is circulating a resolution this month among the various union councils that calls for the government to let pilots have guns.

If legislation isn't enacted, Giuda wants the pilots to suspend air service.

"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."

Guns a 'last resort'

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

Bush has already announced that 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 was incapacitated.

Ignatius Piazza, founder of Front Sight Firearms Training outside Las Vegas, is offering pilots free training if airlines authorize it.

Guns could be distracting, destructive

But not all pilots support guns in the cockpit — fearing they could be distracting.

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

A major concern is the impact of onboard gunfire. 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 jet.

Proponents say special ammunition now available could lessen the odds of puncturing the fuselage in a shootout.

For Don 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."

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.