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Published: Tuesday, 3/25/2008

Pilot's gun discharges midflight; no one hurt


DENVER - A gun belonging to the pilot of a US Airways plane went off as the aircraft was on approach to land in North Carolina over the weekend, the first time a weapon issued under a federal program to arm pilots was fired, authorities said yesterday.

The "accidental discharge" Saturday aboard Flight 1536 from Denver to Charlotte did not endanger the aircraft or the 124 passengers, two pilots, and three flight attendants aboard, said Greg Alter of the Federal Air Marshal Service.

"We know that there was never any danger to the aircraft or to the occupants on board," Mr. Alter said.

It is the first time a pilot's weapon has been fired on a plane under a program created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to allow pilots and others to use a firearm to defend against any act of air piracy or criminal violence, he said.

The Transportation Security Administration is investigating how the gun discharged and is being assisted by the Air Marshal Service, Mr. Alter said.

The service declined to release additional details.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus said his agency is investigating to make sure the plane is safe.

The Airbus A319 has been removed from service, the airline said.

The TSA initially opposed the Flight Deck Officer program to arm and train cockpit personnel. Agency officials worried that introducing a weapon to commercial flights was dangerous and that other security improvements made it unnecessary. Congress and pilots backed the program.

Pilots must volunteer, take a psychological test, and complete a weeklong firearms training program run by the government to keep a gun in the cockpit.

"TSA and the Federal Air Marshals Service take this matter seriously and an investigation is under way," TSA officials said. "The pilot was authorized to be in possession of the weapon and he completed the appropriate training."

Citing the investigation, officials of both the TSA and US Airways declined to identify the pilot or provide information about the position of the gun or what the bullet struck.

According to the TSA, passengers were not aware of the weapon's discharge.

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