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Pilots adopt new strategies to fight back

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David Butterfield, a US Airways pilot for 23 years, does not want a gun.

He is confident about the defensive arsenal already at his disposal: depressurizing the aircraft, so everyone on board passes out. Brandishing the ax normally reserved to clear debris in case of a crash against an attacker. Or just manipulating the controls.

"If I have an armed hijacker on board, whether he has a gun or a knife or he threatens he has a bomb, I'm going to maneuver the airplane to keep him or her or them off balance," said Butterfield, a Navy veteran who flies A-320 Airbuses out of Charlotte, N.C. "I was a fighter pilot for 16 years. I can bounce them off the ceiling like a yo-yo."

In the two weeks since the four hijackings that became the world's worst terrorist attack, commercial airline pilots have begun to plot new strategies for fighting back.

After decades of training to respond passively to hijackers' demands, pilots and their employers are now adopting a more aggressive stance as potential soldiers in the United States' new war.

As federal lawmakers consider a proposal by the largest pilots' union to allow pilots to carry guns, along with ways to screen airport workers more carefully and make cockpit doors impenetrable, individual pilots have already adopted their own security measures.

They are standing at the door eyeballing passengers personally, creating new code words to communicate with crews in emergencies, blocking entry to the cockpit with jump seats or snack carts, and telling passengers how they might protect themselves or disarm the enemy if the once- inconceivable were to happen again.

Many pilots have ousted suspicious passengers, refused to fly out of concern for who or what is on board or diverted for emergency landings.

Since the attacks, pilots say they have seen a renewed confirmation of their ultimate responsibility for the aircraft, an authority that many felt had been eroded in recent years by the commercial interests of their employers.

Federal regulations explicitly state that an airline captain has control of craft and crew "without limitation," but some airlines, seeking to improve on-time performance, have tried to keep airport gate agents in charge until a plane leaves the terminal.

"The pilot has absolute command of that airplane just like any captain has command of a ship," said Frederick Dubinsky, head of the pilots' union, the Air Line Pilots Association, at United. "He is in command, period. If a passenger doesn't listen, he will go to jail. We will not tolerate the loose behavior of the past."

Union officials said that American and United had recently tried to roll back the captain's authority to the time he releases the brakes, rather than when he signs in for duty.

FedEx pilots recently succeeded in getting the Federal Aviation Administration to overturn a company policy that made them subject to discipline for exercising their right to bar certain employees from riding in the cockpit jump seat.

But Norman A. Patterson, a Miami pilot who is chairman of the Pilot Authority Committee of the pilots' union at American Airlines, said that "since Sept. 11, there seems to be a resurgence on the part of the company to lean on the captain's authority."

In interviews around the country Tuesday, many pilots echoed Butterfield's hesitation about carrying weapons on board. They worried that many pilots lack firearms training, that firing a gun at 35,000 feet could damage equipment and be disastrous, and that potential hijackers could grab the guns either in the cockpit or in airport terminals, past the security checkpoints.