GLYNCO, Ga. – As many as 46 commercial airline pilots could be flying with semiautomatic pistols on their hips beginning this Sunday.
That's if they all manage to make it through a rigorous week of training that ends Saturday at a federal law enforcement training center. Two had already washed out by Thursday. The rest sported bruises, bumps and cuts after intense one-on-one drills in fending off a terrorist.
"They're fighting and shooting," said Capt. Steve Luckey, a retired pilot who chairs the Air Line Pilots Association's national security committee.
Luckey, who successfully lobbied Congress to get guns into the cockpit, came to Glynco's naval air station-turned training center to watch the sweaty, banged-up pilots practice striking and grappling with attackers in close quarters.
He and other pilots say they're delighted with the training the Bush administration developed, despite its earlier objections to arming pilots as potentially dangerous and disruptive. The airlines also opposed weapons on the flight deck for the same reasons.
The Transportation Security Administration, which runs the new training course, won't disclose why the two pilots didn't make the grade. Robert Johnson, TSA spokesman, said pilots could fail to graduate for reasons such as an inability to finish the training or failing psychological tests that indicate whether a pilot would be able to kill another person.
Ivan Kalister, who heads specialized training for the TSA, said the pilots are excellent students. "If we give them the basic tools, they will be able to respond well if they're attacked," he said.
Some of the pilots had blistered trigger fingers after they shot a total of 8,000 rounds from their semiautomatic pistols Wednesday night. Most had at least a cut, bruise or lump from the intense one-on-one exercises.
Many of the pilots chosen for the program are familiar with guns because they had worked in law enforcement or the military. But some had not used weapons before.
The Transportation Security Agency selected men and women of a variety of ages, backgrounds and sizes because the agency wanted to test the new training program on different kinds of people.
"This is the beta version. It won't be pretty but it will get done," Johnson said. He said the course will be modified as officials learn more about how to do it.
One thing the pilots want to change is the way they have to carry their weapons — in a locked case. When they leave the cockpit, even just to use the restroom, they're supposed to stow the gun in a lockbox.
The next class is scheduled for the middle of July. The number of pilots who will ultimately carry guns depends on pilot interest and the amount of money Congress provides for training. The House aviation subcommittee will hold a hearing in May to figure out how much to allocate.
Capt. Fred Bates, an American Airlines pilot who helped put the program in place, said as many as a third of U.S. pilots — about 30,000 — could be carrying weapons on the flight deck in five years.
Their airline may not know they're training to carry a gun because failing could affect their job. Once they're sworn in, they'll have to tell their employers, but they won't be required to fly with a weapon every time they get in the cockpit.