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Cargo pilots in training to be lethal enforcers | (KRT) ARTESIA, N.M. — The flight was proceeding normally when the first officer of the Boeing 727 cargo plane left the cockpit to use the lavatory. In a matter of seconds, however, everything changed as a knife-wielding stowaway rushed the cockpit and attacked the captain.

"My G-d, what are you doing?" the pilot yelled before the first officer emerged from the bathroom and shot the terrorist.

That scene was staged here last week as part of the Transportation Security Administration's first training program for cargo pilots who will be allowed to carry guns when they fly. Those who participated in the six-day course hope their new status will reduce the risk of a hijacking that they believe may be greater for them than for passenger pilots, who have been able to take the TSA training for a year.

"We don't have federal air marshals," said a former Navy pilot who flies for a cargo carrier. "We don't have cabin crews. We don't have large numbers of passengers in the back (to protect us)."

The cargo-pilot training is the latest wave in the federal effort to improve the security of aircraft and air travel in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The government's actions have included requiring that cockpit doors be reinforced and beefing up the preboarding screening process.

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In the coming months, air marshals will begin coordinating with the Secret Service to put federal officers on more flights. The TSA is planning self-defense classes for flight crews. And proposed legislation would enable foreign law-enforcement officers to go through air marshal training in the United States for posting on foreign carriers.

But the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program, which arms pilots and makes them deputized law-enforcement officers, has been one of the most controversial initiatives. The debate's focus shifted recently from the question of whether pilots should be armed to whether pilots are being trained quickly enough in the use of firearms.

"What would be a tragedy is if TSA was willing to accept another airplane hitting a building before we got our pilots armed," said David Mackett, a Boeing 737 pilot and president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, an organization of commercial pilots formed after the Sept. 11 attacks to address aviation security issues.

Initiated by Congress, the program began for commercial pilots a year ago and has trained thousands of pilots, according to the TSA. Though they won't release specific data because of security concerns, agency officials said that because of demand, the agency began offering two classes a week in January.

The program is voluntary, and pilots must take time off from their jobs and travel to Artesia in southeastern New Mexico for training.

About a mile from Main Street is a federal law-enforcement training center where 70 agencies, ranging from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Office of Inspector General, send personnel for training on two campuses that span about 2,500 acres and have street names such as Gunpowder Road.

Here the TSA instructs pilots on everything from firearms training and legal issues to defensive tactics designed for confined quarters. On three Boeing 727s, pilots go through "real life" scenarios in which they must fend off terrorists who storm the cockpit.

If they successfully complete the training, the pilots are deputized as federal law-enforcement officers and issued flex cuffs and a handgun, which they can carry with them in the cockpit.

The idea is to create a deterrent, and, if necessary, make pilots the last line of defense. Although only passenger pilots were allowed to participate until now, some believed pilots who transport cargo ranging from documents to hazardous materials could be more of a target.

"It sets up an asymmetric threat," said Jim Shilling, a cargo pilot. "If you leave one end open, the bad guys will go down the path of least resistance."

From the start, people have expressed concerns about arming any type of pilot. Although law-enforcement officers are allowed to carry weapons on airliners, some argued that arming aviators could distract them from flying the plane should an incident occur. Others wondered whether it was prudent to have a gun in the aircraft's nerve center.

"Quite frankly, we questioned the wisdom of arming pilots," said Doug Wills, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade organization for major U.S. air carriers, which favored expanding the air marshal program.

Even some pilots have doubts. Airline captains have balked when they learned that a member of their flight crew was a federal flight deck officer and would be carrying a gun, said John Moran, the TSA's deputy assistant administrator of training. Since the law favors the flight deck officer, the airline cannot remove the deputized pilot from the plane but instead must find another captain, he said.

Lately criticism has focused on administration of the program, with critics claiming the TSA, which opposed it initially, has made it difficult for pilots to become deputized. The Airline Pilots Security Alliance estimates that 3 percent of pilots, or about 3,000, have gone through the training but that many have not signed up because it's too much of a burden.

Part of the problem is the training center's remote location, a four-hour drive from Albuquerque. Another problem is the psychological evaluation, which includes a three-hour written examination and a meeting with a psychologist. Pilots must undergo such testing in order to fly for air carriers, so they see the additional tests as unnecessary. And they worry that if they flunk, the TSA could share the information with the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses pilots.

Such concerns prompted three members of Congress to introduce legislation last month that would create more training facilities and eliminate the psychological evaluation. The bill also would give the TSA 90 days to train any pilot who volunteers and require that pilots with law-enforcement or military backgrounds and recent firearms training be armed immediately and then undergo the training within six months.

"This is a very important issue, because to me the ultimate safeguard of deterring hijackers is indeed having armed pilots," said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a sponsor of the bill.

Not everyone thinks all of the fixes are necessary. Even some pilots who participated in the program last week questioned whether it made sense to remove the psychological evaluation. The TSA defended the testing, saying it's different from what pilots typically undergo because the agency is trying to judge whether someone should carry a gun.

"It's important to realize that we are taking a pilot that has one skill set to fly a plane and we are asking him to fly with a lethal weapon and become a law-enforcement person," said Andrea McCauley, a TSA spokeswoman. "We are putting a gun on a person and in their home and we want to make sure that we do a thorough job on the evaluation."

Because the TSA has a $25 million fixed annual budget for the program, creating more training facilities will leave fewer resources to run the classes, Moran said. And using private facilities is more expensive, costing as much as $3,500 per student for firearms training alone, compared with $1,600 per student for all training at the Artesia facility, he said.

Instead the government is offering buses from Albuquerque and hopes to secure shuttle flights to the airport in nearby Roswell to make it more convenient for pilots to get to the training center.

Meanwhile, the pilots who participate in the program are praising the instruction.

"I'll feel more comfortable," said the former Navy pilot who flies cargo planes. "I'll feel even better when I know there are more people on the line who are qualified through this program."


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© 2004, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services