- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2001

Twenty-five years of flying the past 15 as an airline pilot did little to prepare me for the atrocities of Sept. 11. The shock of seeing those beautiful machines, filled with people, purposefully flown into New York skyscrapers has not worn off, and I hope it never will. Now, our work is clear: We must move forward with determination to prevent future terrorist attacks. My experience as an airline captain gives me a special interest in, and expertise regarding, the airline facet of the terrorism problem.
Airliners offer a very "soft" target to potential terrorists. Since the 1970s, all passengers have been screened to ensure that weapons were not carried aboard an aircraft. Since late 1987, pilots have undergone the same screening. The result is a virtual guarantee to a terrorist that if he can bring any kind of weapon on board, he will be the only armed person on board and he will be, in fact, in command of the aircraft. As we have seen, the weapon can be small, easily concealable and seemingly innocuous. On Sept. 11, terrorists used box cutters and small knives. Screwdrivers, hammers, sharpened toothbrushes, sharp ink pens, hair accessories and shaving razors are a few examples of everyday items that could be used to hijack an airliner.
Security can and should be improved, but we should recognize that even the best security is limited and imperfect. Airline travel is a public accommodation; it is in fact mass transit. Gaining access to an airliner is never going to be as difficult as gaining access to a sensitive building on a military installation and any security system we build will have to recognize the public nature of airline travel. Even security systems on military bases have been breached and clearly any system at our nation's airports will not be impenetrable. I propose that providing the pilots of large commercial airliners with firearms and firearms training would be a simple, effective, inexpensive and sensible way to harden the airliner target. Carefully selected guns and ammunition would provide airline pilots with a final line of defense to keep hijackers out of the cockpit.
Airline pilots are among the most highly trained and carefully screened professionals in the world. They are routine and procedure oriented, and the majority are military trained with previous firearms experience. Airline pilots are level-headed and stable. The nature of our job requires us to make critical decisions in extremely time-compressed environments, and airline pilots perform very well, day after day, in stressful and sometimes life and death circumstances.
Each pilot authorized to carry firearms in the cockpit would be a volunteer and would have to pass a rigorous training program. The firearms and ammunition would be carefully selected by aviation and firearms experts to minimize the possibility of damage to the aircraft or injury to an innocent passenger. The sole purpose of the weapons would be to deny cockpit access to hijackers, and they would be used only in the most extreme cases where the cockpit door has been broken down and a killer is entering the cockpit.
Some have argued that arming pilots could make hijacking situations worse. I disagree. If a terrorist boards an aircraft with a weapon, and he is the only armed person on the aircraft, he is in charge. By arming airline pilots we put them in a position to prevent a terrorist from taking control of the aircraft. By simply publicizing the fact that airline pilots are armed, the likelihood that attacks similar to the Sept. 11 attacks would ever be attempted again is drastically reduced.
Others have said that carrying guns aboard airliners should be left to the trained professionals, the air marshals. However, it has been estimated that in order to place an air marshal on each flight, up to 50,000 air marshals would be required. Obviously, that is not going to happen. Even if terrorists are unlucky enough to attempt to hijack a flight with an air marshal on board, there will only be one air marshal. Taking a gun away from an air marshal in the passenger cabin will be much easier than getting firearms from well-trained pilots who are locked in the cockpit. Only by gaining access to the cockpit can terrorists use the airplane as a weapon.
Finally, some have suggested that strengthening the cockpit door will solve this problem. I agree that the cockpit door needs to be stronger, but that alone will not be enough to prevent future attacks. There are limits on how strong and heavy the cockpit door can be due to serious technical issues brought forth by aircraft manufacturers. Determined attackers will be able to defeat even the strongest of cockpit doors, but a substantially strengthened cockpit door will work in concert with an armed cockpit crew providing the pilots with a clear, advanced warning that a serious threat is imminent.
As an airline pilot, I am entrusted with an aircraft valued at many millions of dollars, thousands of gallons of jet fuel and the priceless value of the lives of my passengers. Please give me the tools that I need to offer a final line of defense of my passengers, crew and airplane; and to prevent my airplane from being used as a weapon against my country.

Tracy W. Price is a Boeing 737 captain based at the BWI airport for a major U.S. airline.

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