The first class of commercial airline pilots trained to carry guns into the cockpit of planes could be armed while flying as early as Sunday.
The somewhat controversial training program has been taking place at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, where the first class of 46 pilots is set to graduate from the program Saturday. Those who pass the course will be sworn in as federal flight deck officers under a program approved by Congress.
It's not known how many of the nation's nearly 90,000 pilots will end up carrying guns. The program is voluntary.
"The idea is to protect the cockpit or flight deck, if you wish, at all costs," one pilot told ABCNEWS. The government has asked that the pilots' names not be revealed for security reasons.
Prepared for Anything
The arming of pilots is one of a number of new airline security programs instituted in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew hijacked planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Many of the pilots chosen for the program are from military or law enforcement backgrounds, though some have no previous experience with guns. The pilots say they hope to never have to use their newly acquired skills, but they are prepared to do whatever they have to in order to stop a terrorist who gets into the cockpit.
The 46 pilots have passed background checks and psychological screening. They have learned not only how to shoot, but also how to stop a hijacker from taking their gun, and how to disarm hijackers who have weapons of their own.
The training has been done in an area comparable to the size of a phone booth, in order to simulate the cockpit's cramped quarters. Some pilots developed blisters on their trigger fingers from shooting thousands of rounds from their pistols for practice.
"We have heavy emphasis on close quarters, combat and close-quarter shooting drills," said John Moran, a security training director for the Transportation Security Administration. "This again goes to the unique specific mission and jurisdiction. And we've built a program to accommodate that environment."
Pilots will only be allowed to use their government-issued .40-caliber handguns in the cockpit. If they leave, even to go to the rest room, the gun must be locked up.
This program has been controversial. Airlines are opposed to the training because they are worried about accidental shootings.
But pilots insist they are the last line of defense, and that air marshals and secure cockpit doors are not enough. "All those systems, while they represent a good safety net, they are not 100 percent," said one pilot.
"There is a certain level of failure in each system," she added.
The pilots' airlines may not know they are training to carry a gun, because failing could affect their job. But once they are sworn in, the pilots are obligated to inform their employers. However, they will not be required to fly with a weapon every time they get in the cockpit.
Capt. Fred Bates, an American Airlines pilot who helped put the program in place, said as many as a third of U.S. pilots, or about 30,000, could be carrying weapons on the flight deck in five years.
The next class is set for July.