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These images show a purported bullet hole in a US Airways jet. The hole is shown in the left third of the top photo and the lower center of the bottom photograph. A gunshot fired from a pistol belonging to the pilot blasted a small hole through the plane's cockpit wall.
By Thomas Frank, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — More than one in 10 of the nation's airline pilots are cleared to carry a handgun while flying, and the number will continue to grow, according to a Transportation Security Administration projection.
The TSA, which has declined to disclose the number of armed pilots, revealed in a recent budget document that 10.8% of airline crewmembers were authorized to carry guns.
The Federal Air Marshal Service, a TSA agency that runs the armed-pilots program, reports that 85,000 to 90,000 pilots and crewmembers flying domestic passenger and cargo planes are eligible to carry a gun. That puts the number of armed pilots at about 9,500 — a figure Air Marshal spokesman Nelson Minerly did not dispute. The marshal service keeps the exact number confidential.
The TSA projects the program to grow to 16.5% of eligible pilots by the year 2011.
Aviation experts were surprised and alarmed that so many pilots are toting guns in the sky.
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"That's a big number compared to what I thought it would be," said aviation-security consultant Rich Roth, who said he had predicted there would be fewer than 1,000 armed pilots. The 5-year-old program trains pilots for one week and arms them with .40-caliber semiautomatic pistols.
"That's a scary number," said Joseph Gutheinz, a former Transportation Department special agent and aviation attorney in Houston. "By allowing so many pilots the opportunity to fly armed, we're giving terrorists opportunity to identify somebody who has a gun and overpower him."
Capt. Bob Hesselbein, head of security for the Air Line Pilots Association, said the number of armed pilots is "a tremendous deterrent" to hijackings. "An organized terrorist team, their challenge is to take control of the cabin, then the flight deck."
Armed pilots have come under scrutiny since March 22 when the gun of a US Airways pilot fired in the cockpit of Flight 1536 as it approached Charlotte from Denver. No one was hurt, and the plane landed safely after the bullet pierced the fuselage.
A report by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said the gun fired while the pilot was stowing it.
The marshal service is investigating. The firing was the first such incident, which indicates that "this isn't a problem with the program," Air Marshal spokesman Greg Alter said.
Hesselbein, whose union lobbied Congress for the program, said armed pilots are on about 15% of domestic flights.
Marcus Flagg, president of the Federal Flight Deck Officers Association, which represents armed pilots, said their numbers could grow more if training facilities expanded.
Pilots train at a federal center in New Mexico. Classes hold 48 people and have been filled or nearly filled for five years, Minerly said.