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US airline pilot pops a cap in cockpit

'Accidental discharge' of terror-busting pistol

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A US airline pilot has the dubious honour of being the first person to fire a weapon issued under a federal programme designed to thwart 9/11-style hijackings after his piece accidentally went off in the cockpit during an internal flight on Saturday.

According to the LA Times, the incident occurred aboard US Airways Flight 1536 from Denver to Charlotte, North Carolina, as the Airbus A319 bearing 124 passengers and five crew was preparing to land. While the Transportation Safety Administration and airline have declined to name the pilot or "provide information about the position of the gun or what the bullet struck", the TSA notes that the pilot was "authorized to be in possession of the weapon and he completed the appropriate training".

Said training is part of the "Federal Flight Deck Officers" programme, under which eligible flight crew members are "authorized by the Transportation Security Administration to use firearms to defend against an act of criminal violence or air piracy attempting to gain control of an aircraft".

TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird described the training as "very rigorous and extensive". He explained that "crew members who completed the program were issued Heckler & Koch .40-caliber semiautomatic handguns" and that "some pilots carry guns that are loaded and ready to go".

Those who do bear arms aloft are required to requalify twice a year. The pilot in question had done so on 7 November, the TSA statement notes.

Bob Hesselbein, chairman of the national security committee of the Air Line Pilots Association, told the LA Times: "Our safety record is superb. This was truly an anomaly. At a minimum, 130,000 flights a month are protected by armed pilots. We are an integral part of the protection of airlines in our sky.

"After 9/11, we became convinced an armed flight deck was the ultimate deterrent to stopping a hijacking plan. From a terrorist standpoint, the hardest thing to do is take control of the cockpit. That's why the deterrent value of this program is just staggering."

The pilot of Flight 1536 is reportedly grounded pending a probe into the discharge. The TSA statement concludes: "TSA and the Federal Air Marshals Service take this matter seriously and an investigation is underway." ®

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