Leffingwell recalls dangers as commercial pilot

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Most of us know Lee Leffingwell as the mayor of Austin. But years before, he was a Navy pilot in Vietnam and then spent 31 years as a commercial pilot for Delta.

He flew some pretty unfriendly skies in both cases and can appreciate the dangers facing commercial pilots today.

Leffingwell knew he was in danger during Vietnam. He sensed danger on Delta routes over some tough territory, passing over India, Afghanistan and the old Soviet Union, including Ukraine.

“I remember feeling a bit uneasy at the time,” he recalls. “It was fresh, a new thing to be flying over. We’re not in a U-2 (high flying, fast military surveillance plane), we’re in an airliner, a Boeing 767 with a whole bunch of people on there. It’s a transition that takes a little getting used to mentally.”

The mayor recognizes there is a new generation of mobile surface-to-air missiles that fly farther, faster and higher than ever, with upgraded radar accuracy.

“Those kinds of weapons in the hands of terrorists, I think would be very scary.”

“We need to find out more about the potential these weapons might have,” he said when asked if the advanced weaponry poses a game-changing threat to commercial jets, including ones not passing over war zones. “I certainly don’t want anyone to go out and cancel their airline tickets today. I think that would be uncalled for.”

Modern commercial airliners now carry the capability to avoid mid-air collisions. Leffingwell believes perhaps it is also time for commercial carriers to consider developing defensive systems that could repel or deceive enemy fire from below.

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