- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

The attacks of September 11 were the most successful acts of terrorism in history, and terrorist groups will be motivated for decades to attempt to replay the horrendous script that so horrified our nation and gave the perpetrators unprecedented prestige. Our airline security system must cause would-be terrorists to judge that repeating such attacks is too risky. But as an airline captain, I believe that we are going down the wrong path in our attempts to thwart future attacks. I fear that the changes made to our airline security system have been mostly about feeling better instead of being safer, that we're getting back to normal and we want to forget what was done to us on September 11.
Each day, I go through security screening just as my passengers do. My bag is X-rayed to ensure that I left my tweezers and nail clippers at home; I pass through the magnetometer to be certain that I don't have a weapon. Meanwhile, the potential onlooking terrorist smiles to himself, having been reassured that when he breaks into my cockpit with murder on his mind, I will be defenseless. I pass the National Guardsman, with his M-16 at the ready, in case somebody tries to hijack the airport and fly it into a building. Having successfully navigated the security labyrinth and convinced everyone that I am completely incapable of defending my passengers, crew and airplane, I am given complete and unencumbered access to an incredibly dangerous weapon: a large passenger airliner filled with fuel.
Millions of passengers travel on airliners each day. Mechanics, baggage handlers, fuelers, caterers, trucks delivering goods to airport restaurants and shops, ticket agents, gate agents, and aircraft cleaners all have access to airliners without any security screening and each represents a potential avenue for a terrorist to smuggle a weapon on board. Screening can be improved with rational and pragmatic processes, but screening alone will never be enough to ensure that weapons will be kept off of airliners. Knives made of thick plexiglass and plastic firearms are just a couple of examples of weapons that can easily pass through security.
The cabin of an airliner is not a prison or a military base; it is a public accommodation. Even so, our current approach to security assumes that we can create a perfectly sterile and pristine environment on board each airliner. We are dreaming. Flight attendant unions, who are opposed to arming pilots because "we want our pilots concentrating on what they do best flying the airplane," are living in this dream world. Clearly, no pilot will be concentrating on his flying duties with a knife to his throat. Recent news accounts have unmistakably shown that security will never be perfect. Resolute terrorists will always be able to find a way to smuggle weapons aboard.
I have yet to see an air marshal on any of my flights and I have not spoken to another airline pilot (except those flying out of Reagan National Airport) who has. When I finally do meet my first air marshal, he'll take a seat in the passenger cabin where, in the event of a hijacking, he will face a well-trained team of suicidal attackers. These will not be dim-witted, unwashed lunatics operating alone that will be easily inundated by passengers fighting for their lives. These will be a well-coordinated and trained team of professional killers, seated throughout the cabin, that will simultaneously stand up and murder people sitting near them with the weapons they have smuggled aboard. They will overwhelm the air marshals and take their guns, to be used momentarily on my first officer and me when they break down our cockpit door.
The cockpit door has been improved and it will be even stronger in a matter of months. Aircraft manufacturers tell us, though, that we can never make the door impenetrable and that, given enough time, determined attackers will be able to break down any door that can reasonably be installed. FBI agents refer to this truism as "the law of doors."
In evaluating security, we have to ask ourselves: What are we trying to protect? The airport itself has not been the weapon of choice for the new-age terrorist. The passenger cabin is not of use to the terrorists either. The terrorists of today need to control the airplane itself and that can only be done from one place: the cockpit. If the terrorist judges that he will not be able to gain control of the cockpit, he will not even attempt September 11-style attacks. Airliners can't be flown from the ground and they can't be flown from another airplane. A military fighter escorting an airliner is not cause for relief; it is cause for deep concern.
All a fighter pilot can do is shoot down the airliner. Once the terrorists have gained control of that coveted place the cockpit no one can do anything to stop them from accomplishing their evil deed except by destroying the airliner, killing all on board.
Much has been said about stun guns or tasers to protect the cockpit. Nonlethal force sounds reasonable and feels good, but it is the wrong answer for the new hijacking threat. Those advocating tasers for cockpit protection have the right idea insofar as they acknowledge that the cockpit is the place that ultimately requires protection. However, law-enforcement officers tell us that the taser/stun gun is useless against multiple attackers and attackers armed with guns or knives. Recovery time from being stunned is virtually instantaneous and hand-to-hand combat will then be required. Not a good idea when facing multiple armed, trained and suicidal attackers.
Selecting the correct weapon for the final line of cockpit defense is crucial. The pilots, those charged with the ultimate responsibility for the lives of their passengers and those entrusted with the very airplane that can be used as a weapon against our country, need to be able to stop an attack on the airplane they command, with finality, at the cockpit door.
The Aviation Security Act, signed into law by President Bush, allows for airline pilots to carry firearms into the cockpit, but only after approval from the Department of Transportation. The FBI has already created an intensive training and screening program, ready to prepare pilots for the use of firearms to defend their cockpits. Ammunition has been selected that will minimize risk to the airplane and its occupants. Airlines have expressed concerns about liability and those concerns can be addressed by taking the airlines out of the selection process and allowing pilots to volunteer and be deputized as federal law-enforcement officers. Americans have shown in poll after poll that they are in favor of arming airline pilots with firearms. The Bush administration, and the Department of Transportation in particular, should move forward quickly with this rational, common sense, measure.

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