Senator Smith Calls for Pilots' Right to be Armed

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - If a terrorist takes control of an airliner, it becomes a "weapon of mass destruction," according to Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), and pilots should have the option of being armed to protect themselves and their passengers.

Smith said in a telephone interview Thursday that he plans to introduce the language of his Senate Bill 1463 as an amendment to the Aviation Security Act either Friday, or when Congress returns from the Columbus Day recess Tuesday.

S.B. 1463 provides four levels of protection against the type of "airliner-as-missile" attacks that claimed as many as 7,000 lives on September 11. The bill provides for enhancing passenger screening, reinforcing cockpit doors, placing air marshals on flights and giving flight crews the option to be armed.

Smith says the provision to arm pilots is a last resort to prevent terrorists from commandeering planes to be used as "guided missiles" as was done in the September 11 terrorist attacks. He says that, given the stark prospect of the military shooting down a hijacked airliner to prevent massive civilian casualties, pilots should have the option to fight back against would-be hijackers.

The senator also stresses that his amendment provides just that, an option.

"This doesn't mandate anything," Smith said, criticizing those he says have tried to mischaracterize his proposal as mandating that pilots be armed, willing or not.

The armed pilot provision in S.B. 1463 mirrors the language of a bill introduced by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) in the House just three days after the terrorist strikes. House Resolution 2896 provides that, "no department or agency of the federal government shall prohibit any pilot, copilot, or navigator of an aircraft, or any law enforcement personnel specifically detailed for the protection of that aircraft, from carrying a firearm."

The Smith amendment adds the phrase, "who is not otherwise prohibited by law from possessing a firearm," near the end of the House language.

Capt. Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), International, testified last week that Congress should "train volunteer airline pilots to carry firearms in the cockpit to secure the nerve center of the aircraft and to get the aircraft on the ground safely if faced with a terrorist threat."

ALPA represents 67,000 pilots at 47 airlines in the U.S. and Canada.

Smith also stressed that arming pilots has nothing to do with the broader debate over gun control. Some Democrats have voiced reservations about the proposal.

"This enhances the confidence of people who want to fly," Smith said. "If we don't get people flying, then we're never going to recover the (airline) industry. And if we don't recover the industry, we won't recover the economy."