Cargo pilots begin packing for flights
Many welcome guns in cockpit, but critics fault training
10:15 PM CDT on Wednesday, May 5, 2004
By MICHAEL GRABELL / The Dallas Morning News
ARTESIA, N.M. ? This week, cargo pilots are armed for the first time ? carrying handguns to ward off hijackers and terrorist attacks.
The change was largely prompted when a man mailed himself in a crate from New York to Dallas last fall, easily passing through several airports and traveling on two cargo planes.
The unnerving story sharpened a growing realization among lawmakers: Cargo security remains weak. Hijacked cargo planes can be used as missiles, perhaps even more easily than jets carrying passengers who are well aware of the dangers of a World Trade Center-style attack.
Transportation Security Administration officials say great strides are being made to make the skies safe, as the first group of cargo pilots is joining thousands of armed passenger-plane pilots.
Critics say the program doesn't go far enough, and a bill introduced to Congress this month could bring about sweeping changes. Those include a proposal to eliminate the extra background checks and psychological tests required for pilots to carry guns.
"There's no reason why every single pilot has not been certified at this time," said former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., an outspoken proponent of pilot gun training. "There is still a vast majority of pilots who have not been able to get the training, and part of that is the roadblocks the TSA puts up."
TSA officials say that while they were reluctant to embrace allowing pilots to be armed, they're now on board and feel the program is off to a strong start.
"We are very proud of where we are," said John Moran, head of the TSA's firearms training program. "The administration's position was that arming pilots was not necessarily the right thing to do. Once we got that law to carry out, we looked at it as a welcome opportunity."
Trained near Roswell
All TSA training for pilots who carry weapons takes place in Artesia, a southwest outpost of dried-up water wells 45 minutes south of Roswell, N.M.
Beyond an endless stretch of bobbing oil drills and past the towering smokestacks of the Navajo refinery on the edge of town, three Boeing 727s sit parked in the middle of the brushy flatlands. It's a scene artist Salvador Dali might have dreamed if he lived to see the Department of Homeland Security.
It's the site of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, where pilots have gone not only for target practice, but also to learn when and why to shoot and how to keep guns out of hijackers' hands.
In a dark classroom trailer, an instructor plays a video as if he were an old football coach playing game reels on a projector. The picture comes into focus.
A passenger riding in a jump seat gets up to use the bathroom. Harmless. But then he reaches down, grabs a tomahawk and, with three wild slashes, takes out a woman and two pilots to hijack a cargo plane.
The attacker kills the woman but is gunned down by a cargo pilot, now armed with a .40-caliber pistol.
Darkness. "Why did you shoot?" the pilot instructor asks.
It's the same scenario seen by dozens of cargo pilots in the prototype class, and similar instruction is used for pilots of passenger planes. Classes include 56 hours of physical and mental training over six days.
In a padded workout room, the pilots pair off to wrestle fake guns out of each other's grip. Pilots must also withstand an interrogation designed to help them justify their actions against defense lawyers' questions. And later, inside the jetliners, the pilots practice again, this time in the cramped space of a cockpit.
Officials decline to discuss numbers. Pilots who complete the training are prohibited from disclosing their name, age, hometown or the airline they work for. The TSA says such information could indicate to terrorists the likelihood that the pilot of a specific flight is armed.
That secrecy hasn't helped the TSA's case. Some pilots say the TSA, which originally opposed arming pilots, is purposely setting up roadblocks to eventually eliminate the program.
"The problem now is that the Federal Flight Deck Officer program is being so poorly managed and so poorly implemented by the TSA that of the 40,000 volunteer pilots we originally had interested in the program, 35,000 have literally changed their minds and now refuse to fly armed because of the excessive requirements," said David Mackett of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance.
The TSA says that the numbers are exaggerated and the criticisms overblown.
"The 40,000 number is somebody's estimate that came about shortly after 9-11, when emotions were high," Mr. Moran said.
He said the TSA is meeting the demand, and armed pilots are now flying more than 10,000 flights a month. The agency has made several changes to encourage more pilots to apply, he said. In January, it added a second weekly class, and later this year it will add a third.
The agency will soon begin charter flights from major hubs into Roswell. Pilots now must fly into El Paso or Albuquerque, N.M., and then take a four-hour bus ride.
TSA officials disagree with many proposals outlined in the Cockpit Security Technical Corrections and Improvement Act, introduced April 1 by Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.
It would allow pilots to carry guns rather than putting them in lockboxes when they're not in the cockpit. A gun was lost this year after a pilot stowed it underneath the plane while commuting to another airport.
Perhaps the most controversial proposal is a measure that would get rid of extra background checks and psychological tests. Those checks have turned away about 4 percent of pilots who've applied, the TSA said.
The Airline Pilots Security Alliance, formed after 9-11 to push for security changes, said the screening has disqualified former police officers, Air Force pilots and federal agents. The Federal Aviation Administration already performs thorough checks, and flying a plane could cause more catastrophe than holding a gun, the group said.
"If somebody is psychologically unfit, the question comes to mind, what in heaven's name is the government doing certifying them to fly an airplane?" Mr. Barr said.
The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots' union, which represents 64,000 of the nation's about 100,000 pilots, sides with the TSA on psychological tests. The TSA says that flying a plane and firing a gun are two very different things.
"To take a gun out and kill somebody and then sit back in the cockpit and land the plane, we need to make sure somebody is able to" do that, said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.
Regardless of the outcome, cargo security is a serious weakness, said Rafi Ron, an aviation security consultant and former security director for the Israeli Airport Authority.
Only a fraction of air freight is screened, many cargo planes don't have cockpit doors, none have air marshals, and the shipping areas of airports are much easier to access than the tarmac where passenger planes are kept, he said.
But the industry says it is secure.
"It doesn't mean you can't make it better," said Steve Altermann, head of the Cargo Airline Association, representing such carriers as FedEx and United Parcel Service. "[But] there shouldn't be any great concern over cargo security."
it's a goddamned outrage that two years after the arming of pilots was decided, TSA has only managed to process 1,500 out of 100,000; that they add useless psych testing on top of EXISTING pilot psych reviews; that they require the pilots to burn their own vacation time to attend the course; that they put the training center IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE instead of at multiple hub airport facilities.
TSA searches grannies and toddlers, FAA / TSA give FINES to airlines that stop more than two arab males per flight, and hassles 80yr-old Medal of Honor recipients for 'carrying them pointy metal things'.
FUBAR, and it will see more terrorist attempts against commercial airliners before it's fixed.
rayra: Moneta, the TSA head is an ardent hardcore anti-gunner. So these policies reflect his philosophy.