Arming pilots both concerns and comforts

Which is why aviation experts are toying with the idea of everything from steel-reinforced cockpit doors to double-doors with a safety chamber in-between, so that anyone entering the cockpit could be scrutinized and denied access if deemed to be a threat.

But "if that zone of safety is penetrated," says Freundlich, at least some pilots want to be able to blast the hijacker to kingdom come.

"It would be both a deterrence and a real means of defense," he said of an armed cockpit crew.

Freundlich, speaking on his cell phone from a stop in Pittsburgh, sounded thoughtful and measured on the subject, not like some sort of cockpit Rambo.

He stressed that it's the union's position that only pilots who want to carry handguns in the cockpit would carry handguns. And that each pilot who wanted to carry a gun would need to undergo highly specialized training in its use, possibly from the FBI, along with close-combat training.

(Close combat. Maybe it's me, but there's another thing I don't want to see in the cockpit at 35,000 feet.)

At this point in the conversation, I felt compelled to share with Freundlich my vision of the pilot steering the plane with one hand and turning around and shooting the would-be hijacker, cowboy-style, with the other.

Is this a realistic scenario? I asked.

Could a pilot actually do that and not send the plane rolling hither and yon through the skies?

"Well," he said, "there are two pilots in the cockpit. Both are equally equipped to fly the plane."

So one shoots and one flies, is that it?

"One could do it while the other flew the plane," Freundlich agreed. "What's the choice? Try to fight and save the airplane or be slaughtered in our seats and allow the airplane to go down."

This, I must confess, did not exactly make me feel better about the whole subject, even though it was understandable why the pilots themselves would feel safer if armed.

Then, when we got into the subject of ammo, my anxiety levels spiked again.

Freundlich said that armed pilots would most likely use so-called "frangible" bullets that travel more slowly and break apart after striking someone.

This would minimize the risk that an errant bullet from a shootout - say, there's another term you don't want to ... never mind - could pierce the fuselage and put the aircraft at risk.

"Any plan that's developed will have to include weapons that don't end one crisis and start another," Freundlich said delicately.

The whole conversation - about guns in the cockpit and mid-air shootouts and bullets James Bond might use - seemed so surreal.

From the tone of Freundlich's voice, I could tell he found it surreal, too.

Right now, the Bush administration and Congress are mulling over the various proposals made by the pilots union to improve air safety.

But whatever they decide, we've entered a whole new world of air travel, Freundlich said. The hijackers on Sept. 11 saw to that.

"As pilots," he said, "we were trained before not to escalate the [hijacking] situation ... and to do [everything] we could to get the plane on the ground. Now there's a whole new threat. We have to defend the cockpit."

The friendly skies, it seems, aren't so friendly anymore.