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Pilots union wants guns

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WASHINGTON — The largest union of airline pilots will propose on Tuesday that cockpit crew members be permitted to carry handguns to foil hijackers, a union spokesman said. The chief of the Federal Aviation Administration says she is open to the idea but that it poses practical problems.

Officials of the 67,000-member union, the Air Line Pilots Association, said its president, Duane Woerth, would recommend to a House subcommittee that pilots be allowed but not required to carry weapons.

Current FAA policy forbids airline crews to carry guns on board. But John Mazor, a spokesman for the union, said that although the arming of pilots would be a "radical step," it had overwhelming support from the membership.

"This is a reflection on how much the attack on Sept. 11 has changed everything we thought about hijackings and terrorism," Mazor said.

Mazor said that under the legislative proposal by the union, pilots who wanted to participate would be required to undertake extensive training and psychological testing and be subjected to detailed background checks.

Asked about guns in the cockpit, Jane F. Garvey, the FAA administrator, said: "That's an idea that probably, two weeks ago, I would not even have considered. Now we are challenging every assumption."

But Garvey said there were several practical problems. One is that pilots held in place by their over-the-shoulder harnesses, as required during takeoff and landing, might not be able to turn far enough around to use a gun. A second problem, she said, would be what to do if one pilot wanted a gun in the cockpit and the other did not.

Utah pilots contacted Tuesday said they had been asked by their airlines and the Air Line Pilots Association not to comment.

The idea is a stark departure from the traditional approach to airline safety, which seeks to keep weapons off aircraft. That concept has been emphasized all the more since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even cockpit crew members, who customarily keep their luggage with them on trips, have been subjected to close searches of carry-on baggage. Pilots have complained that nail files and manicure scissors have been confiscated.

The proposal is even a reversal for Woerth, who told the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday that pilots could not be "Sky King and Wyatt Earp at the same time."

Some government aviation officials said introducing a firearm in the cockpit, even in the hands of a seasoned pilot, could create as many risks as it eliminates.

"You'd have to have a tremendous amount of screening and training before I'd ever want to ride as a passenger on an airplane where the pilot was armed," said a senior crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The investigator, a former commercial airline pilot, added, "Some of these guys are the type that'd be quick to anger without a good basis for it."

But many pilots were adamant that they could be entrusted with a weapon, particularly when they have already been entrusted with the controls of the aircraft itself.

Despite the popular conception that firing a gun in an airplane poses a strong risk of making the plane crash, aviation experts say that with special bullets, serious damage to the airplane is unlikely.

The government already covertly places armed guards on select commercial flights. These sky marshals carry ammunition with a smaller charge, so the bullet travels with less force, and with "frangible" bullets, which break up on impact, according to experts. Such bullets will break the skin and could kill a person hit, say, in the eye, but will not penetrate the skull, according to experts.

In addition, some bullets could penetrate the aluminum skin of a plane, but most airplanes are designed to prevent such a hole from developing into a tear. And the hole made by a large-caliber bullet is not big enough to cause decompression; the engines repressurize the cabin faster than a hole could let air out. Even windows will withstand bullet impacts, experts say.

"Those windows can take the pointy end of a fire ax, swung by a beefy fireman with all his might," one aviation structures expert said.

However, part of the training for air marshals is to show what parts of a plane are sensitive and should not be hit.