WASHINGTON--The next perpetrators of terrorism in America probably are already here, perhaps planning more hijackings. Post-Sept. 11 airport security measures may have made hijackings slightly more difficult, but the fact that these are America's most visible anti-terrorist measures vastly increases the terrorists' payoff in proving the measures incapable of keeping terrorists off airplanes.
Recently this column presented, without endorsement, the views of three commercial airline pilots who oppose guns in cockpits. Today's column presents, and endorses, the views of three other commercial airline pilots--two trained as fighter pilots, one civilian-trained--who refute the other pilots' principal contentions, which were:
Proper policy regarding suicidal hijackers is to land as quickly as possible, which can be as quick as 10 minutes. So priority should be given to making cockpits impenetrable. Armed pilots might be tempted to imprudent bravery--particularly ``renegade'' pilots with fighter-pilot mentalities, who would leave the cockpit to battle terrorists in the main cabin. And arming pilots serves the pilots unions' objective of requiring a third pilot in each cockpit.
The three pilots who favor allowing pilots to choose whether to carry guns respond:
Passengers already entrust their lives to pilots' judgments. Landing a hijacked plane is indeed the first priority, but pilots need to be alive to do that. A cockpit impenetrably sealed from terrorists is an impossibility, in part because planes cannot be landed as quickly as the other three pilots say. An ignoble fear--of lawyers; of liability--explains why the airlines oppose arming pilots. But legislation could immunize airlines from liability resulting from harms suffered by passengers as a result of pilots resisting terrorists.
Landing a plane from 30,000 feet requires (BEG ITAL)at least 20 minutes, never just 10. A training flight, simulating a fire emergency on a flight just 4,000 feet up and 15 miles from Philadelphia's airport, takes about 12 minutes to land when done perfectly. Trans-Atlantic flights can be three hours from a suitable airport. Such airports are not abundant west of Iowa. Which means on most flights, terrorists would have time to penetrate the cockpit.
Bulletproof doors are not the answer: the Sept. 11 terrorists had no bullets. Well-trained terrorists can blow even a much-reinforced cockpit door off its hinges using a thin thread of malleable explosive that can pass undetected through passenger screening procedures when carried on a person rather than in luggage. Here is what else can be undetected by security screeners busy confiscating grandmothers' knitting needles:
The knife with the six-inch serrated blade that a passenger found, in a post-Sept. 11 flight, secreted under her seat. Two semiautomatic pistols that recently passed unnoticed through metal detectors and were discovered only when the owner's bags were selected for a random search at the gate. A mostly plastic .22-caliber gun that looks like a cell phone. An entirely plastic and razor-sharp knife. A ``bloodsucker''--it looks like a fountain pen but has a cylindrical blade that can inflict a neck wound that will not stop bleeding.
The idea that arming pilots is a means of justifying a third pilot is derisory: re-engineering cockpits for that would be impossibly complex. Equally implausible is the idea that a Taser (electric stun gun) is a satisfactory aid when locked in a plane, seven miles up, with a team of trained terrorists.
A pilot's gun would never leave the cockpit because the pilot never would. And shooting a terrorist standing in the cockpit door frame would not require a Marine sniper's skill. The powerful pressurization controls, as well as the location and redundancy of aircraft electronic, hydraulic and other systems, vastly reduces the probability that even multiple wayward gun shots--even of bullets that are not frangible--would cripple an aircraft.
About fear of ``fighter pilot mentality'': The military assiduously schools and screens pilot candidates to eliminate unstable or undisciplined candidates. Airlines, too, administer severe selection procedures for pilots, who are constantly scrutinized. Captains have two physical examinations a year (first officers, one) with psychological components. Everything said in the cockpit is recorded.
Besides, many (BEG ITAL)passengers fly armed--county sheriffs, FBI and Secret Service agents, postal inspectors, foreign bodyguards of foreign dignitaries. Why, then, must the people on whom all passengers' lives depend--pilots--be unarmed? Especially considering that the prudent law enforcement doctrine is that lethal force is warranted when menaced by more than one trained and armed opponent.
To thicken the layers of deterrence and security, in the air as well as on the ground, Congress should promptly enact legislation to empower pilots to choose to carry guns. Time flies. So do hijackers. And the next ones probably are already among us.