Armed Sussex Police officers will board planes at Gatwick as sky marshals to combat terrorism.

Specialist firearms officers have volunteered to join flights to destinations round the world.

They can be called upon at a moment's notice to board flights which intelligence services fear may be carrying security suspects or potential hijackers.

Dressed in plain clothes and carrying concealed weapons, the sky marshals will be indistinguishable from other passengers.

The officers have been given extra training in case they need to discharge weapons in pressurised cabins at high altitude.

A force spokesman said: "There are a number of officers trained nationally to act as sky marshals who would respond to requests from the Home Office.

"They have been taken from specialist armed units. They include Sussex officers."

Details of the scheme, including how many Sussex officers have been enlisted and when they will be deployed, have not been revealed.

John Dunkling, Sussex Police's chief inspector of operations at Gatwick, said: "Firearms officers around the country have been given the additional training and they can be called upon to join flights at any UK airport.

"If the officers find themselves travelling long distances and have to spend time abroad they will receive the usual overtime and subsistence payments.

"All of the officers are volunteers and there have been no recruitment problems."

Armed officers regularly patrol Gatwick and all other UK airports. Supporters say the marshals will act as a deterrent and reassure passengers and crew but critics believe they are inappropriate.

The British Air Line Pilots Association (Balpa) recently held talks with US counterparts and later expressed frustration at being kept in the dark about security initiatives.

The association said marshals had long been flying with US airlines and were operating on September 11, 2001.

A spokesman said: "Sky marshals did not prevent that tragedy, whereas enhanced ground security at US airports probably would have.

"We said we did not believe deploying marshals was the best solution."

The spokesman said once Balpa had secured a protocol from the Government on how armed guards would be deployed, marshals could fly on British aircraft.

The idea of armed officers on board planes was worrying. The US government has asked to place American security officers at airports in the UK and in six other countries.

Thursday March 25, 2004