September 27, 2001
I'M TRYING to picture something here, and the more I picture it, the jumpier I get.
The first thing I picture is an airline pilot with a gun at the controls of a 747.
Then I picture a wild-eyed terrorist bursting through the cockpit door and announcing a hijacking.
Then I picture the pilot, one hand on the controls, turning around to shoot with his free hand, the way the stagecoach driver in the Old West used to hold the reins in one hand and shoot at the bad guys over his shoulder.
Meanwhile, the plane is dipping and rolling and passengers are screaming, including me, sitting back there in seat 18A with a spilled Coke puddling in my lap.
No, check that.
I wouldn't be screaming at this point.
Because I'd already be dead of a heart attack.
Anyway, I bring up this scenario because the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilot's union in the country, wants its members to be allowed to carry guns in the cockpit to ward off hijackers.
Look, I'm all for warding off hijackers.
Especially if they're trying to hijack any flight I'm on.
But the idea of gunplay at 35,000 feet makes a lot of fliers like me nervous. Me, I start gripping the armrests if someone just mentions turbulence, never mind if gunshots ring out.
So yesterday I called Roy Freundlich, a spokesman for the U.S. Airways unit of the pilots union, to discuss this whole business of guns in the cockpit.
Freundlich has been a pilot for 21 years, 14 with U.S. Airways. When I asked him right off the bat if he wanted to be armed in the cockpit, he didn't hesitate.
"Yes," he said. "The threat to airline pilots and passengers has changed. It isn't about hijackers coming on board to bargain [for something] anymore. It's about hijackers getting on an airplane ... to destroy the airplane and harm a lot of people."
So, in the wake of the horrible attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the pilot's union is proposing some radical changes.
For one thing, they want more secure cockpit doors.
"Right now," said Freundlich, "they keep out the old lady who mistakes the cockpit for the bathroom. But that's about it."
Any adult who wants to kick in the door, or ram it open with his shoulder, would have no problem, Freundlich added.
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.
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