- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

Witnesses at a congressional hearing yesterday said the risk that a stray bullet fired by a pilot would bring down an airliner was minimal.

Opinions among congressmen on the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee seemed evenly split on whether to support a bill that would authorize pilots to carry guns. Some of them said the risks outweigh the anti-terrorism security benefits.

Armed pilots "gives new meaning to the phrase 'riding shotgun in the Wild West,'" said Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said proposals for training and background checks on pilots who volunteer to carry guns were inadequate to prevent possible illicit use of the guns.

"None of them is sufficient," said Mrs. Norton, the District's nonvoting representative in Congress.

Other congressmen expressed concern terrorists could grab guns from pilots and use them for their own purposes.

Supporters of arming the pilots said the current security arrangements were not enough. They include using reinforced cockpit doors, screening passengers at airports and assigning federal marshals to flights. As a last resort, the Air Force could shoot down a hijacked plane.

"The risks of not arming our pilots are far worse," said Rep. Timothy V. Johnson, an Illinois Republican. He called armed pilots "a last line of defense" against terrorists.

Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and sponsor of the bill authorizing armed pilots, said, "Nothing else can provide the deterrence or effectiveness of a weapon wielded by a highly trained individual."

Four senators are writing their own bill to arm pilots.

A Boeing Co. aviation safety specialist said although the fuselage of airplanes could be punctured by a stray bullet, the damage probably would not be enough to cause a crash.

A Justice Department official said stun guns were a better alternative to firearms. Stun guns fire darts that can administer an immobilizing electrical shock.

"These weapons have the potential to interrupt an attack, control the aggressor or delay an attack while the flight crew safely lands the plane," said Sarah Hart, director of the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department's criminal research unit.

She also said stun guns would be more appropriate in an airplane cabin, where the limited range of the nonlethal weapons would still be effective but avoid the risk of damaging important flight equipment.

A representative of a pilots union said ongoing risks of terrorism since September 11 demonstrated the need for qualified pilots to be armed.

Opponents of firearms for pilots include Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

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