Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Paris Trip - #12

During the time I was temporarily posted as Sky Marshal (these days, Air Marshal) out of New York I covered flights in teams of two, or three, from JFK to a number of European cities including Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Paris, Lisbon and Rome. Since I had been stationed as a soldier in Germany some years earlier I was relatively familiar with the first four cities on the list, but the place I had visited the most while I was soldier was Paris.

I can trace my original affinity for the City of Lights to two influences. The first was my mother, who being half-French thought the Gauls were superior in all things. The second, and even stronger, influence was the movies. In the early Sixties I was a movie geek who haunted the foreign movie houses in West Los Angeles near UCLA where I was nominally then a student. Those were the years of the New Wave in French cinema. The term in French, “nouvelle vague” is actually more revealing since the plotting in so many of those movies was pretty vague to me.

In spite of all that “cinema,” one of my favorite movies from that period was a piece of Hollywood confetti called Irma La Douce, which takes place in Paris mainly around Les Halles, the historic central produce market shoe horned into one of the most ancient quarters of the city. I loved that frenetic, crowded and pungent madhouse where rattling scooters laden with cases of iced fish would shoot down the narrow cobblestone streets artfully dodging beat up vans hauling beef carcasses, and hand trucks of fresh produce.

I’ve since lost count of the number of times when, during the pre-dawn hours, I sat half-awake at a back table in a grimy worker’s café nursing a bowl of onion soup while waiting for the magic hour of 6AM so I could to check into a hotel without incurring a charge for the previous day. But as Moustache, one of the characters in Irma La Douce, is fond of saying, “that’s another story.”

On this particular flight we landed at the original Orly airport. After clearing French customs the Sky Marshals had to pay a visit to the airport gendarmes and turn in our weapons. Unlike the German polizei, the Flics didn’t trouble us with so much paperwork. They merely took our guns, tossed them in a heavy canvas bag, and gave us each a flimsy carbon of the receipt. “Merci, now scram. And stay out of trouble,” was the gist of their parting words. Since French police carried tiny little automatic pistols that could easily be mistaken for the trick cigarette lighters popular in the 1940’s, I always suspected they fondled our guns as soon as we left.

Since we were not supposed to lodge with airline crews, I had to find another hotel for the night. Still, I was able to catch the crew bus from the airport into the city. During the ride into town I regaled a bunch of the stewardesses with my experiences a half-dozen earlier as a soldier who spent his weekend passes bumming around Paris. In those days New York was what they called a “junior” base for PanAm, and this happened to be the first trip to Paris for many of the girls. In short order, it was arranged that I would squire several of them around the city, and show them some of my old haunts, most especially my favorite pizza place near the Sorbonne University.

The crew bus dropped us all off at the – quite nice – PamAm designated hotel. From there I caught a cab to my – not so nice – hotel in a much less ritzy part of town. Since it was never quite worked out whether Sky Marshals were to be totally undercover, or considered part of the airplane's crew…we ended up being neither. Once on the ground, we were just tourists who happened to be leaving town the next day.

The black Peugeot taxi dropped me off at a nondescript Parisian fleabag. I checked in without even checking out the room, left my gear with the night porter…the less time I spent in my cramped, dingy room the better…and headed back to the crew hotel.

In short order I was back in the lobby of the crew hotel where I located the house phone and dialed up one of the girls. She told me that they just finishing changing out of their uniforms and would be downstairs any minute, which meant I had a good half-hour to kill. The hotel had a bar adjacent to the lobby so I went in, took a chair and ordered a glass the rusty tap water that passes for beer in France. Seated a couple of chairs away were two PamAm flight officers who I recognized as part of the crew I had just flown in with. They were deep in conversation and didn’t seem to notice me so I nursed the sudsy tap water and waited for the girls.

After a few minutes of semi-eavesdropping on their conversion I heard one of them declare something to the effect of, “Hey let’s get a couple of girls and do the town.” At that point, the other one – I think he was the First Officer which is to say co-pilot – turned to face me. He made eye contact and said to his friend while gesturing at me, “That’s a great idea, but HE’S got them all…” Sky Marshals were never all that popular with the boys in the cockpit, who prior to our arrival had considered stewardesses to be their private lovestock.

Eventually, the girls bubbled out of the elevator and into the hotel lobby – all freshly made-up, mini-skirted and smelling great. As I recall each one was better looking than the next. They collected me and we headed out for an evening dans La Cite des Lumieres leaving behind two sullen flight officers. You know, it never occurred to me to ask them to join us.

That evening Paris was at her noisy, crowded, smelly and vibrant best. We ate oven baked pizza with students from the Sorbonne, poked our heads inside the Moulin Rouge, drank café presse at Les Deux Magots, walked a few blocks and caught the end of a session at Le Petit Journal St-Michel, a Jazz “cave” in the Quartier Latin. We finished the night sipping Cointreau in at a bistro on the Place de Montmartre a block or two away from the lighted Sacre Coeur.

However, that was the year they demolished Les Halles, so we had no onion soup.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - New York Subway - #11

After leaving Federal Air Security Officer training I – along with a number of other newly minted Sky Marshals (these days, Air Marshals) – was temporarily posted in New York before being assigned to my permanent base in San Francisco. During the two or so months that I flew out of JFK, I made a number of trips to Europe as well as a few US cities, but none of these trips was as potentially dangerous as my first trip on a New York subway.

I took the subwy ride because on my first flight as a Sky Marshal I had met a lovely Pan Am stewardess. Well, they were all lovely, but this one actually talked to me...

Yes. I said “stewardess,” because that’s what the ladies who flew as flight attendants in 1971 were called before we heard Helen Reddy roar and guys got all metrosexual. Anyway, this lovely stewardess invited me to pay her a visit when we got back to New York city.

After the PanAm flight touched down and I cleared customs, I split the cost of a cab to Manhattan with other members of my team. I had the cab let me off in Times Square where I checked into my hotel and stashed gear into a room about the size of a janitor's closet. A quick shower and some fresh clothes and I was out the door and headed “up-town.” The stewardess I’d met on the flight back from Germany shared an apartment with a pair of other stewardesses, that was located somewhere in the East 70’s…the streets between East 70 and East 79.

As a suburban kid new to the Big City I hadn’t acquired the habit of automatically hailing a cab. I did spent a couple of years stationed in Europe and picked up an affinity for the urban transit in the major cities over there, which was uniformly fast, cheap and safe. It didn’t occur to me that New York City would be any different. So I sought out the nearest subway map. A quick scan revealed that I was a short distance from the Lexington Avenue subway which would take me within a block or two of my destination.

When I got to the subway station it was nearly deserted, which didn’t seem surprising as it was close to 10PM. I bought some tokens from a kiosk and waited for the train. In not time at all the train rumbled into the station. It was 5 or 6 cars long and as the train squealed and ground to a halt I noted that all of the cars were empty of passengers save for the first car with the driver and a Subway cop. I didn’t think much about this as I boarded one of the empty cars, found a seat – there were lots to choose from – and sat down just as the train lurched forward.

I hadn’t been in seated in the car very long when I heard the whoosh of the pneumatic doors that separated the cars from each other. The noise came from the door at the rear end of the car. I turned to look and noted the first of what would be four young men enter the car. He was a lean, dark-skinned, shaggy Hispanic lad wearing a heavy coat, dirty jeans and motorcycle boots. His three pals were similarly attired. All wore there coats open with the hands stuffed in their coat pockets…all except the first kid who appeared to be the leader. His hands hung at his sides.

As guy number one nonchalantly swaggered toward me, it occurred to me that if they meant me any harm I had precious few seconds to “assume a defensive posture”…whatever that might been. The gun tucked in my shoulder holster seemed a mile away underneath my sport jacket and overcoat. I don’t know if you’ve practiced quick-drawing a 4”-barreled pistol out of a shoulder holster, but I had, and it wasn’t pretty. I looked the young man in the eye and he looked back, clearly taking my measure. He had a cool demeanor. His buddies were cool as well. It was all cool. The four of them approached me in a file, one behind the other. making small talk between themselves in Spanish. Their eyes occasionally flicked toward me and away so I assumed that I was the “small” in their talk.

As my mental debate continued raging, guy number walked directly in front of me, not two feet away. Any advantage the pistol provided me had vanished. If they meant me ill, I was going get some ill. But apparently they didn’t. Or, if they did, they changed their minds. Or perhaps the swaggering and smirking was all for show – street theater in the Big Apple.

I looked each of them in the eyes as they passed me by, one by one, shambling on to the next car. The last guy in line nodded at me. I guess I was cool, too, after all. Four whooshes of the pneumatic doors and I was once again alone in the car. When the sound of the final closing or the pneumatic car door faded away, I exhaled the breath that I think I had been holding the entire time.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - The First Flight - #10

Many of the details of my first flight as a United States Customs Security officer, a.k.a. Sky Marshal or (lately) Air Marshals, have evaporated from my brain like the scotch in a forgotten bottle stuck in the back of cupboard. What I do remember was that my first flight was an uneventful hop from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany, and back again with a short layover at Schipol airport in Amsterdam. We stayed in Frankfurt for about 12 hours…just long enough for me to eat, sleep and look up a German gun dealer so I could buy a Walther PPK/S. Several years earlier, I been stationed in Germany and had been to Frankfurt on several occasions so I wasn’t totally verloren in the industrial metropolis. 1971 was years before the German reunification, when it was called West Germany. At that time, it had been occupied by U.S. troops for 26 years and, as a result, most Germans spoke English better than people do in many parts of the U.S. I didn't go to the pistolehaus looking for a souvenir. I needed a back-up gun, and what could be better backup than James Bond’s famous sidearm. The reason I needed a back-up gun had to do with the murky area of International law, or rather the lack of it, which pertained to the authority, legality, and legitimacy of armed Sky Marshals on foreign soil. For example, once we left the plane at any foreign country we were no longer allowed to carry our weapons. So, upon landing at the Frankfurt am Main airport, our first stop was the office of die Flughafenpolizeieinheit. When we got to the airport police unit office we deposited our pistols and ammo and received an official receipt that was at least three pages long and covered with colored stamps and signatures…we were in Germany after all. The only people that made more of fuss about the gun-related paperwork were the Japanese, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In any case, my gun was to remain in German custody until I retrieved it on my way out of the country. During our training at Treasury Air Security Officers School we had been “advised” that once overseas our weapons would be temporarily confiscated by the local constabulary at our destination, and it was “suggested” that at the earliest opportunity we should pick-up a second gun…which we would not – I repeat – would not surrender to the local cops. Or, for that matter, even tell them about its existence. I would have bought a back-up gun in New York but even in those days it was easier to tap dance on the ceiling than to legally buy a gun in Manhattan. By the way, it should be noted that this fatherly advice about the need for a backup gun wasn’t official, and it wasn’t dispensed during our scheduled classes. Rather, we got this tidbit at one the after-hours bull sessions conducted by several of the instructors who enjoyed dispensing useful advice while regaling us with amazing tales of daring-do…as long as we were buying the beers. Buying the Walther in Frankfurt turned out to be quite easy. My Customs badge, a thick sheaf of credentials and a wad of Deutschemarks were all that I needed. However, local regulations prevented the proprietor from letting me take it with me out the door. Or even the box of .380 rounds that I bought. Instead, we arranged to meet in the overseas departure lounge the next day as I was leaving the country. Indeed, he was there as promised and handed me a brown-paper-wrapped package over the railing. In hindsight the scene of him discretely passing me a parcel as I was heading for the boarding gate would have looked pretty suspicious had anyone been paying attention to suspicious behavior. On my way to the gate, I ducked into a bathroom, ditched the box (I can hear some gun collector shrieking…), loaded the clip, stuck rest of the cartridges in my overnight bag, and put the gun in my coat pocket. Later on I would acquire an ankle holster, but I hadn’t thought to inquire of the German gun dealer if he had such a thing. © Stephen Rustad, 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Biting the Big Apple - #9

Along with several other Sky Marshal (these days, Air Marshal) graduates of class #11 at Treasury Air Security Officers School, I departed Washington D.C. the day of our graduation in March of 1971, and arrived at JFK.

As nominal (Customs Security) officers of the United States Customs Service, our first stop was the agency offices buried in the bowels of the airline terminal. Seated inside the shabby, cramped quarters on the ancient, chipped government-issue furniture were a half-dozen veteran Customs agents and port officers who “greeted” us with mild curiosity and undisguised contempt.

With a single exception, we didn’t even rate the sort of hazing that a “real” Customs agent would have endured. Instead we were treated with the sort of disregard visited by battle-scarred combat vets upon new replacement troops who weren’t expected to survive long enough to warrant the veterans learning of the newcomers' names.

The exception to the non-hazing was a story told to several of us by one beefy agent in a worn tweed sport coat about the death of another – unnamed – agent that had been the victim of mugging in Manhattan. He finished the tale with a moral: “If some scumbag demands your wallet at knife or gun-point, give it him…then shoot him as leaves.” The moral or legal ramifications of his advice notwithstanding, he left me with the impression that the Big Apple had more than a few worms.

After meeting with the Agent-in-Charge, I took a bus from Queens to the City and checked into an affordable hotel a couple of blocks off Times Square. The lodgings featured single rooms just large enough so that you could stand next to the bed…assuming it was pushed hard against the opposite wall. At the time I was lugging around a guitar in a case thanks to the misguided notion that knowing 4-5 chords and a strum or two would make me a welcome addition at social gatherings. My crowded flight schedule meant checking in and out of the hotel so often the unwieldy guitar lived in the Bellman's coat closet for the entire time I was posted in New York.

Prior to my first real flight as a newly minted Sky Marshal, I joined the other new Sky Marshals in an introduction to a Boeing 707 that was parked in a cavernous hanger at the TWA maintenance facility. A genial guy in white overalls walked us around and through the plane while rattling off lots of data about fuel load, cruising altitude, passenger capacity and such. Then someone asked the one question that was on everyone's mind, “What happens if a gun is fired during a flight.” A few years earlier the James Bond movie, Goldfinger, had featured a bit about an “explosive decompression” caused by a gunshot fired inside a jet flying at high altitude. The bullet blasted out a window and the sudden exhaust of air sucked Goldfinger out of the airplane to his doom.

The guy in the overalls patiently explained that passenger airliners had redundant pressurization systems capable of maintaining sufficient cabin pressure even with a missing window or two. Should this happen, he continued, anyone seated near the “open” window would find the situation quite drafty and could become windburned, but would likely remain in their seat. Loose items would blow out the window but not people.

I mentioned in an earlier posting that we were issued Super Vel ammo that was significantly more powerful than garden variety 38 caliber rounds. One might think that in an environment as fragile as an airplane cabin, it would be prudent to employ low velocity ammunition. In point of fact, a Super Vel round fired inside the oxygen-rich atmosphere of an airplane would generate not only a significant fire ball, short of hitting a sky-jacker, an unfortunate passenger, member of the crew or critical piece of airplane equipment, it would continue traveling for a mile or so before plummeting to Earth.

Crew members were generally aware of this and would often say that if we were to fire towards the front of the plane, that is to say in the direction of the cockpit, that we should aim to left. Since the lead pilot or Captain of the plane sat in the left-hand cockpit seat, we presumed they were looking for us to create promotional opportunities for the more-junior Co-Pilots and Engineers.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Graduation - #8

The 11th class at the Federal Air Security Officers School, aka Sky Marshals or Air Marshals, graduated in late winter of 1971. On the final day, we were bused from our billet at Fort Belvoir, VA, into DC where I had my one and only visit to the imposing granite Treasury Department building. Once there, we were hustled to a classroom for a short graduation ceremony. Some administrator type people spoke, but honestly I don’t remember who they were or what they said.

The thing that did stand out for me in the ceremony was taking the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. I had done that once before when I joined the Army in 1964 and I’ve done it a few times since then – most recently as school board trustee. I always get a lump in my throat at facing the flag, raising my right, and pledging to defend my country from enemies foreign and domestic. It’s a privilege.

Call me a sap.

But I can tell you that I’m immensely grateful for all the present-day “saps” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in places even less enjoyable who are presently defending our country with skill and determination from other folks who really don’t have America’s best interests at heart.

After the ceremony at Treasury HQ we were kitted out. First came a fist full of credentials – a Treasury Air Security Officer ID card and badge, Special Deputy US Marshal papers, a couple of passports, a card identifying me as an FAA agent, and something to do with Geneva Convention that determined that Air Piracy was naughty. Besides being a fat wad of leather, metal and mostly paper, it was also a kind of juju to ward off bad luck, for example, incarceration in some dank foreign jail.

Frankly, no one responsible for placing us freshly-armed Sky Marshals on international flights was quite sure that doing so was legal, or what another country might decide to do to a US Sky Marshal who shot a would be hijacker while flying in that county’s air space. So they gave us the badge, the credentials, plus all the other stuff, patted us on the head and sent us out the door.

Sure, the Israelis had been using Sky Marshals since Israel first painted the words El Al on the skin of a DC-3. 23 years (by that time) of constant hostilities with their Muslim neighbors had made national survival more important than cow towing to the details of international legality. The US, on the other hand, was just warming up to the idea that once our airplanes left the cozy hearth of US airspace, they became what the security boys call soft targets.

Along with the credentials, we also issued the official Sky Marshal starter kid that included a decoder ring, handcuffs, a real sap (spring-loaded, 10” long, leather bound lead cudgel), bullets and our weapon. In my case, the weapon was the Smith & Wesson 38 caliber Combat Masterpiece Model 15. Yep, I had failed to qualify with the Chief Special – the cherished stainless steel object of my desire and the pursuit of which had gotten me into this situation.

After the leaving Treasury headquarters we headed for the airport for our first assignments. In my case a temporary duty assignment at JFK airport in New York. However, on the way to the airport I looked up a gun store in the Yellow Pages and had the cab driver make a small detour. At the gun store I bought a leather shoulder holster.

The Feds had issued the Model 15 along with a ridiculous plastic clip, which projected from the gun's wooden grip and was supposed to allow you to carry the gun inside of the waistband of your trousers. It tried it once and found that doing so felt like walking around with a pair of bolt cutters in your pants. I think the clip ended up on the floor of the cab.

A number of us who were to be ultimately stationed in San Francisco were told that we were temporarily assigned to New York while the SF facilities were being set up. That was fine with me. Up to that point I had been in New York precisely one time before that: a single frigid day in 1965 before I was to be shipped out to spend the next two years with the Army stationed in Germany.

As I and a passel of other graduates boarded the flight in Dulles Airport bound for JFK it occurred to me that the plane probably carried more Sky Marshals than passengers.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Sky Marshal School - #7

Far from attracting, or creating for that matter, a cadre of highly trained and experienced counter-terrorism professionals, the Federal Sky Marshal (a.k.a. Air Marshal) program that initiated in late 1970 was more like a stealth hiring program for the woefully understaffed U.S. Customs agency.

In addition to a terrifying spate of airplane hijackings, 1970 will also be remembered as year that kicked off an economic recession. Naturally, thanks to the “one-two” punch of the recession and sky-jackings, one of the hardest hit industries was air travel. As a consequence, air carriers were laying-off pilots, co-pilots and engineers* by the battalion.

*Once upon a time, before extensive computerization of an airplane’s electronic and mechanical systems, those systems needed to be constantly monitored throughout the flight. This job fell to the “third officer” in the cockpit – the Engineer. In fact, before NAVSAT, international flights often had a navigator in the cockpit, who charted the plane’s progress by observing the stars through a porthole in the planes roof with a maritime sextant.

Due to their familiarity with airplanes and airline procedure, many of these “furloughed” pilots, co-pilots and engineers had been encouraged to seek employment as Federal Sky Marshals. In my class of 30-some at Treasury Air Security Officer School, about half had been recently employed by major air carriers. And almost all of those had received their initial training as military pilots – many were Viet Nam war vets as well.

As you can imagine, the atmosphere in the dorm, or billet or whatever you want to call the refurbished Army barracks where we were lodged was understandably macho. This, however, had some unexpected consequences for me. Not that I’m not “macho.” Well, honestly, I’m not all that macho. As I’ve noted I can’t shoot all that well. I draw cartoons and, at the time I wore colored underwear which was a source of much consternation among my white boxer-wearing brethren.

Just prior to joining the Sky Marshals, I had been employed as advertising artist at a large Macy’s-like department store. This was during the “peacock revolution” when men were encouraged to abandon their Brook’s Brothers grey in favor of bright prints. Heretofore, I had worn the same type of jockey shorts that mom bought for me as a boy and I liked the stylish “European” tight-fitting t-shirts and “Speedo” style underwear.

This presented no problem while I was fully clothed. But anyone who’s experienced the communal living situations common in frat houses or Army barracks knows that everyone washes, and dresses pretty much in plain sight. One morning while shaving I found myself standing next to a guy who was – shall we say – outraged by my underwear. Turns out that he was a West Point grad, former Army pilot, and a combat veteran. He was also suspicious of any man who didn’t wear boxer shorts. So much so in fact that he openly questioned my sexual preferences.

Before then it never occurred to me that the color of a man’s under garments mitigated his virility. On one hand, women who had the occasion to see me in my colored underwear didn’t seem to feel that my ardor for them was hindered by florid skivvies. On the other hand, this guy was aghast at my underwear. Furthermore, he shared his opinions widely. While he didn’t actually call me names – at least within earshot – he went out of his way to suggest that I failed to meet his personal threshold of masculinity, which led to two particular – and peculiar – events.

The first event occurred in a class for what our instructors called “arrest techniques.” The idea was to learn how to administer a choke hold on a suspect who is resisting arrest. The West Point guy, who I’ll call “Chad,” was selected to the resisting perp, and I was chosen to administer the choke hold. As I wrapped my forearm around Chad’s neck and locked my fists together in front of his Adam’s Apple there was no doubt in his mind, or on his face, that he would easily break the hold and then proceed to make short work of me.

Ten long and grueling minutes later we were both dripping with sweat, gasping for breath and in same exact position as we started – with my arm locked around Chad’s neck. The only difference was that Chad was no longer smiling and his face was beet red. Having demonstrated to the class that that a properly administered headlock was effective in the face of determined resistance, the instructor had me turn him loose. Chad got to his feet and - to his credit - made an attempt to congratulate me for my success.

The Second incident took place a few evenings later at the Fort Belvoir Officer’s Club, where a bunch of us future Sky Marshals went for drinks. As I recall it was a Friday or Saturday night and the place was crowded with Army officers, their spouses and dates. There were also a number of attractive women without escorts, which was the reason we came. Among our group was Chad, who’d eased up on me somewhat since the choke-hold experience.

Upon arrival, the drinking, dancing and flirting began immediately to commence and soon several ladies joined us. After downing a squadron of Mig-15’s – a 50-5o mix of scotch and Drambuie for the uninitiated – Chad fixed his sites on a petite brunette. She appealed to me as well – that is until I found out that her husband was serving in Viet Nam. Please understand that I didn’t (and don’t) expect home front wives to sit home and mope, but still I wasn’t going to put the moves on a soldier's wife no matter how pretty – or lonesome – she seemed to be.

As the evening wore on, and Chad’s pleas for the attention of the pretty Army wife failed to sway her, mostly because – as it turned out – he was married as well, Chad decided that he was going “fix her up” with me. By now it was well after midnight. I was tired and besides I was fed up with his attempt to bully me into doing something I abhorred. So I bid everyone goodbye and got up to leave. Chad was not to be denied. He jumped up, grabbed my arm and proceeded to loudly, if somewhat incoherently, denounce my masculinity, sexual orientation, and other stuff which I forget – all for the sin of not hustling another man’s wife.

So why didn’t I pop him one? To begin with, Chad was stupid drunk and none too stable on his feet. I continued on my way out of the club while dragging him with me. The rest of the guys had also had enough of Chad, so we took turns hauling his butt back to the barracks where we tossed him on his bunk to sleep it off.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Sky Marshal School - #6

After being first seduced by a snub-nosed, 38 special pistol in a Berkeley kitchen in the winter of 1970, two months later I found myself in Sky Marshal (Air Marshal these days) school at Fort Belvoir, VA., learning how to shoot a handgun…in a combat simulation. That is to say, the scenario of a shootout in an airplane cabin at 30,000 feet as presumed by people who had never experienced such a scenario, but were still responsible to establish the Treasury Air Security Officers School.

At the time, the American's didn't have much in-flight combat shoot-out experience to use as a training guideline besides one incident on a flight from LA to San Francisco some years earlier in which an armed courier wounded a would-be hijacker. Of course, the Israelis had been employing sky marshals for some time, though as I noted earlier, their warnings about in-flight terrorism had been largely brushed off bu the US government until a couple American airplanes were incinerated by the PLFP in the summer of 1970.

So as usual (think WW1, WW2, Korea and Viet Nam) the United States was playing catch-up ball. With little experience in practical in-flight counter-terrorism, they rounded up 1,500 or so men – and a few women to keep the Feminists at bay – and ran them through a 4-week Sky Marshal course that mostly emphasized close quarters shooting. Firearms training was held in a spanking new indoor pistol range complete with motorized targets. The range was housed in a nondescript, low-ceilinged, cinderblock structure. As I recall, it was about 75 feet from the firing line to back end of the range where angled steel plates fronted an 8’ high wall of sand that was probably 10 or 12 feet wide.

Training began with the safety rules. To wit, at the firing line weapons were always to be pointed down range; all weapons were presumed to be loaded until proven otherwise; weapons could only be rested on the table at the firing line with the empty cylinder extended, etc. Any serious breach of these and the other rules was grounds for expulsion. Once we started using live ammo, any breach of the safety rules – no matter how minor – was considered serious.

As I’ve mentioned, I had no experience with real handguns. In Army basic training I discovered that I could put rounds on a stationary target if I was lying in a prone position, but as soon as I had to locate a moving target and hit it within a few seconds…as one might in a combat situation...well, let’s just say that I would pose a greater threat to the enemy by bringing ammo to competent riflemen.

So I was more than a little dismayed to discover that earning the right to carry a Chief Special demanded a high degree of marksmanship. To begin with, the Chief has a short, 2” long barrel. That means that, from the time the hammer strikes the primer in the cartridge and ignites a thimble-full of gun powder sending a 110 grain, brass-jacketed, soft-nose lead slug down two inches of grooved pipe at 1000 feet per second, the barrel has but 1/6000th of second with which to influence the trajectory of the projectile so that it will hit the target.

Since our “targets” were presumed to be fanatical terrorists, it was understood that mere flesh wounds were unlikely to deter them. Therefore, hijackers were to be shot within a lethal “strike zone” that extended from the sternum to the belly button and was nipple-to-nipple wide – what they call a “torso shot.” Also, you had to hit them multiple times with the bullet strikes no more than an inch or two apart.

To put this in perspective, if you are shooting at a target just 25 feet away and you jiggle the gun as little as ¼ of inch while pulling the trigger, the round you just fired could stray 3-4 feet from the point of your aim.

As the firearms training proceeded, it became clear that I would be lucky to pass the course with the redoubtable 4-inch barreled Model 15. Still, my determination to qualify with the Chief nearly led to my expulsion from Sky Marshal school.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the firearms training was an exercise that required firing 5 shots from our primary hand – since I’m right-handed, that meant my right hand – then reloading and firing 5 more shots with my “off” or left hand…all in about 15 seconds. To complicate matters the exercise was conducted with the standard issue Super Vel rounds. Thanks to a special, porous, pop-corn shaped powder granule, Super Vel’s were the most powerful 38 caliber round at the time. Discharging one of these produced a 12” fireball that virtually enveloped a snub-nosed gun and the hands holding it.

Fail this test and I would be issued the immently un-concealable Model 15.

As my turn at the firing line approached, my hands were so sweaty that I feared I’d drop the little gun. When I stepped up to the firing line and the Range Master called out “Ready on the right. Ready on the Left. Ready on the firing line…Commence firing!” my hands were white with tension.

I fired the first five rounds in a few seconds which meant I was doing okay. But when I tried to eject the spent cartridges from the gun's cylinder, they wouldn’t budge. No matter how hard I pressed the eject rod with my left thumb the expanded brass shell cases seemed permanently fused to the five chambers in the cylinder. Seconds ticked by. I heard others load and fire their second batch of five rounds…then silence…followed by the command to “Cease fire!” and "Lay down all weapons." Though the Range Master said these words I was nonetheless totally consumed with the task of expelling the spent cases, reloading five more, and firing.

Finally, the stubborn shell cases slid out out of the chambers in the cylinder. They had barely hit the floor at my feet when I’d reloaded, switched hands and fired off my second five rounds.

The sound of my last shot hadn’t finished reverberating through the silent pistol range when I heard the Range Master screaming obscenties…at me. In a flash he was directly behind me. I knew this because he punched me in the back.

“Give me your X#@*! weapon you %#@&?*#!” In a stupor, I turned and handed him the still smoking revolver, knowing that I was a goner.

Then I noticed that the Range Master had stopped swearing was silently staring at the gun I’d just handed him. I looked down at the gun in his hand and saw that the ejector rod and cylinder were covered in blood. Then I looked at my left hand, and discovered that it was also covered in blood. It seems that in my manic determination to empty the cylinders so I could reload and fire, I’d punched a hole with the end of the ejector rod in my thumb.

The Range Master examined my left hand, gave me back the gun and told me to clean it good. Then he walked away in silence.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Sky Marshal School - #5

As a candidate Sky Marshal (these days they're called Air Marshals) in February of 1971 I was yanked from a loose and funky Berkeley to Fort Belvoir, VA, a spit shined, razor creased, buttoned up. starched bastion of tradition, order, training, mission, rank and discipline of the kind where I had served a three-year hitch in the Army some seven years earlier.

I stepped out of the cab on crip winter afternoon at Treasury Air Security Officer School (TASOS) located in a remote corner of the base. In short order I was processed and sent to find my billet in a standard, GI, platoon barracks. It was deja vu all over again. Each floor of the two-story, frame structure featured a long, rectangular room, painted light green with two rows of metal-framed bunks flanking a central aisle. The only concessions to our civilian status were short partitions separating the individual bunk that afforded us a modicom of privacy – more symbolic than actual.

Classes at Sky Marshal school were conducted in nondescript, bare walled, neon-lit rooms identical to those in which I had endured the Army's Basic and Advanced Individual Training. Once I was sitting in the chipped, khaki colored folding chairs I could close my eyes and I was once again Private Rustad, serial number RA 19812722, wearing a blindfold while disassembling the United States Army Rifle Caliber 7.62mm M14. Any mistake was met with curses from an NCO who demanded at least 10 push-up to help you focus on the task.

Returning to firearms indoctrination circa 1971, our instructor was a member of the elite White House security otherwise known as the Executive Protection Service. I was told they were uniformed branch of the Secret Service. The weapon he was reciting his rote speach about was the Smith & Wesson, K-38 Combat Masterpiece Model 15 Military and Police revolver with a four inch long barrel – the standard sidearm of the United States Treasury Service.

S&W K-38 Combat Masterpiece Model 15

The pistol was big and blue and it weighted about as much as bowling ball. With its four inch barrel tipped with a projecting front side it would be as about easy to conceal under a coat as a loaf of French bread. And it bore scant resemblance to Mike’s sleek, silver pistol that I had so coveted in Berkeley three months earlier.


We also had classes on the International Laws banning air piracy (virtually none), bomb identification (pretty much anything can be rigged to explode) and defusing (don’t even think about it), arrest techniques (simple and effective if done correctly, a life and death wrestling match if not) and other stuff that I forget.

This was not the rigorous and formal Treasury School which lasted 6 months and was conducted in a granite edifice located in downtown Washington, DC. We were “4-week wonders” meant to be rushed into service as quickly and cheaply as bureaucratically possible.

The concept of airplane hijacking, or skyjacking as the media called it, wasn’t really new. The first one occurred in 1930, but because it happened in Peru nobody north of the Panama Canal paid it much heed. By 1970 however, the dramatic increase in in-flight incidents (more than 80 in 1969 alone) was startling enough to temporarily distract the government from their focus on pouring scads of blood and treasure into the sinkhole of Viet Nam.

…not that coping with skyjackings got THAT much attention in Washington. The In-flight Anti-Terrorist Air Security policy manual – if such had existed – was short, if not sweet, and was pretty much limited to A) deter the hijacker(s) with threats of death or B) if he or she declines to be deterred, promptly shoot them.

That same winter the media – ever a helpmate – ran an expose on the Sky Marshal program in which some talking head told the American Public that in the event that a skyjacker used a passenger as a shield we were taught to shoot through the passenger to kill the terrorist. I never heard any of our instructors say that. On the other hand there was no course in Passenger Safety either.

As you might guess, the majority of the training was in combat shooting. As noted above, we were taught by the very men who were entrusted with protecting the President. They were better than good with guns. During the introductory class at the pistol range, one of our instructors spelled his initials with closely-spaced bullet holes in a target 45 feet away. His “penmanship” was remarkable.

While passing the other courses at Sky Marshal school was never an issue – I don’t remember if we even had tests – passing the combat shooting course was mandatory. As I noted in an earlier posting my familiarity with firearms was limited to a Crossman pellet gun and the M14, and I barely qualified with the latter weapon. In fact I did so poorly during the “train-fire” portion of basic training that had I not been destined for a medical unit, they would have had me start basic training all over.

As you can guess, I was intimidated. Nonetheless I was determined to get a Chief Special of my own and that meant learning how to shoot a pistol…and of course hit the desired target.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Culture Shock - #4

Shortly after I was hired to be a Federal Sky Marshal in the winter of 1971 (what they call Air Marshals these days) I was ordered to report to newly created branch of Treasury School established just outside of Washington, D.C. at Fort Belvoir, VA to speed-train Air Security Officers. The culture shift from Berkeley in 1971 to at Fort Belvoir, VA., could not have been greater. In fact it was more like cultural whiplash. For starters, Berkeley was a college town with it's head perminently affixed up its ass with respect to the outside world. Whereas, Ft. Belvoir was an active duty base for an Army at war. It was chock full soldiers destined for or returning from battle. Everything was crisp, serious and tinged with an air of more than a little fatalism.

Berkeley was anything but a serious place despite all of the pompous rhetoric and anti-war posturing. The street protests I mentioned earlier were less well organized than high school home-coming rallies – though they shared the same goal of allowing amped-up students to blow off a little steam. Rioters eagerly taunted police who themselves were eagerly seeking such taunts so they could hone their marksmanship by shooting sizzling canisters of tear gas at moving targets. The scene made for thrilling front-page photos and allowed journalists to write lines like “All across our nation once staid college campuses are paralyzed by massive, well-organized, student-lead anti-war protests.”

Photo copyright Hamish Reid

Many of the rioters weren’t students all, just the then-ubiquitous street freaks – unwashed kids from someplace else who’d migrated to Berkeley on a whim in hopes of finding Nivana or at least some free dope. To them a street riot was a fiesta with dangerous party games. Merrymakers with more hutzpah than moxie would often reap the consequence of their frivolity in the form of a skull split by a police baton or a lung full of pepper gas. As a rule they would make their way to the Berkeley Free Clinic where they would be treated and no questions would be asked.

Some years earlier I had been trained as a US Army medical corpsman. One evening after a particularly boisterous anti-war demonstration along Telegraph Avenue I figured that I remembered enough of the training to be of use in treating the local battlefield carnage, and I went over the Free Clinic to offer my services. The Free Clinic was a riot of a different sort. The entrance to the clinic was clogged with dirty, excited refugees from the afternoon’s riotous festivities. I insinuated my way into the throng, approached one of many people frantically shouting orders and asked who was in charge. She didn’t know. And neither did the next person I asked. Or the one after that. Undeterred, I continued to plow through the chaos until I spied an older guy off in a corner tending to a nasty laceration on kid’s shin.

The guy in the corner turned out to be an ex-Navy corpsman. For you to appreciate the signifcance of that, let me put his qualifications in perspective. The Army took 6 months to train me as a medic and that included 3 months in hospital operating room learning what not to touch. The US Navy took the job little more seriously. Corpsmens spent a full year training and, when their training was complete, could treat combat wounds with little more than a Q-tip and tweezers. If you ever have the misfortune of being injured in a gun fight, pray that the person who answers the call “MEDIC!” is a Navy Corpsman. Suffice it to say that he was competent. Though I’d venture to say he was the only one in the clinic who was.

I’d worked my share of medical emergencies, but the choas at the Berkeley Free Clinic was pretty much like everything else in this self-absorbed, self-described progressive Mecca – a caricature of the real life directed by clowns.

The laceration on the kid’s shin was plenty bloody, but not all that deep. After the Corpsman had cleaned the blood away we had a brief discussion about whether or not to suture the wound closed. No doubt the Corpsman had sutured wounds while crouched in crater taking fire from the View Cong, but this wasn’t Viet Nam and the bleeding on the kid’s shin had subsided to the point that we decided to approximate both sides of the wound (match one flap of skin to it’s opposite) and hold them in place with a couple of butterfly bandages. That would do the kid until he could see a real doctor – if he ever chose to. The lad looked like the sort who would welcome a couple of ugly “combat” scars.

The Corpsman and I chatted for a while longer while around us the chaos had subsided into mere confusion. The original trickle of wounded – most of whom had been little more than harshly insulted by the police – had trickled completely out. So I went home.

I was early evening. Stars were faint in the darkening sky. A couple of blocks away the wails of police sirens were punctuated by the sounds of breaking glass and cheering.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - The Top Secret Clearance - #3

So, thanks to my infatuation with the Smith & Wesson Chief Special that my ex-College roommate, Mike, showed me when he returned from Sky Marshal school, I rushed to sign up for training and was hired forthwith.

In 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and few other wannabe international terrorist groups, had made the skies very unfriendly for western air carriers – especially Pan Am and TWA. As a result, Uncle Sam was in a “hair-on-fire” hurry to assemble a cadre of trained Sky Marshals to protect civilian aircraft.

In fact they were in such a hurry that I was headed for Treasury Air Security Officer School, then housed in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, before the proper authorities had even begun the full-field background investigation which I needed to pass with flying colors in order for me to earn the Top Secret clearance required for employment with the Treasury Department.

At that time the US Customs was part of the Treasury Department, along with the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, the Internal Revenue Service and the Executive Protective Service – the uniformed brand of the Secret Service who guarded the White House, Congress and other key Washington facilities.

The other face of Federal law enforcement back in the '70's was the Justice Department under whose umbrella fell the FBI, US Marshal Service, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs which was soon renamed the Drug Enforcement Agency…an oddly ironic name because in those days it didn’t seem as if anyone needed much encouragement, let alone enforcement, to use drugs.

Need I tell you that the rivalry between Treasury and Justice made the enmity between the Army and Navy seem tender by comparison. Naturally the Federal agents who conducted my background investigation while I was in Sky Marshal school came from the FBI.

Of course, I didn’t know this at the time, but my student buddies who were interviewed as part of the investigation into my decidedly vanilla past thought the whole thing was some absurd joke. I was told sometime later that more than one of them – shall we say – “embellished” details about my life in the hopes that their fanciful tales might dissuade the government from hiring me.

The FBI interviews one of my hippie acquaintances

Either the FBI had sense of humor – unheard of before or since – or the fabrications lacked the ring of truth because I was awarded the necessary Top Secret clearance. I did learn of one incident involving a dark-suited Federal agent interviewing a couple of my college chums one of whom was sporting her usually hippie-chick ensemble – clothing chosen to demonstrate that one could be a braless earth mother and a hot babe at the same time.

I’m still in the dark about what secrets I was to have been trusted with. You see, the Sky Marshal program was anything but secret. Almost as soon as the air security program started, it was featured on CBS news with no less that the revered anchorman Walter Cronkite informing the world at large that Sky Marshals sat in seat 7B, which as we will later see, was the aisle seat in the first row of First Class just aft of the foremost cabin door on a typical Pan Am 747.

A cynical person may suspect that 1500 or so Sky Marshals were public relations cannon fodder, and the goal of the Air Security program was not the actual protection of every single airplane but rather positioning armed personnel on enough flights to create the impression that the skyways were no longer so vulnerable to hijackers.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Why Mike Went to Sky Marshal School - #2

In the spring of 1970, Berkeley, California – that is to say, the University part – was a surreal mess for anyone who wanted to go to college, graduate, and get on with his or her life. The brouhaha cooked up the the student-radicals in response to the “invasion” of Cambodia by US troops bent on closing the NVA supply lines caused a craven school administration to cancel all campus academic functions. Those of us who chose to stay in school earned our semester credits working on anti-war propaganda - creating pro-war propaganda was not an option.

The balmy spring days were punctuated with frequent street riots protesting the war which were characterized by wanton vandalism against the “capitalist establishment,” e.g., the local merchants who sold books, clothing and snacks to the students. In response this political theater the campus police, backed by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Tactical Squadron, eagerly suited up in their riot gear, loaded their shotguns with tear gas grenades and blasted smoking cans of tear gas at anything in sight that moved. On more than one occasion that moving target was me as I zig-zagged through Sproul Plaza on my way home from propaganda class.

The University didn’t hold a formal graduation for the Class of 1970. To accommodate the students protesting the war, the University administration cancelled the ceremony. Or maybe the administrators were so preoccupied searching for their missing backbones and they just forgot. As a result, my University Education came to an abrupt, unceremonious end in August. “Your sheepskin is in the mail. Don’t forget to turn off the lights when you leave.”

Lacking any vision for life after college, I waded into the plethora of post-graduate tests including the Federal Service Entrance Exam (FSEE).

Time cover September, 1970

Coincidently, at about the same time – though at the time I didn’t realize how relevant a coincidence it would be – the PFLP (thugs and thug-ettes sponsored by Palestinian Liberation Organization) hijacked a quartet of International airliners and blew them up in the Jordanian desert and the Cairo international airport. Since two of the demolished planes were American carriers, PanAm and TWA, our government's attention was momentarily shifted from the Viet Nam war to what the Israelis had been warning them about for years, namely that commercial aircraft were easy pickings for political terrorists and other cowards in search of easy targets.

Washington responded to the threat by rounding up every Federal and military law officer who wasn’t currently in the middle of a hot pursuit, and put them on as many US International and domestic flights as they agents. Simultaneously, they established what would be commonly called the Federal Sky Marshal program.

Back in 1970 the country also happened to be in the teeth of a recession, one consequence of which was a hiring freeze that left Federal law agencies woefully understaffed. Perhaps the worst effected was the United States Customs Service, then a branch of the Treasury Department. Since Customs principal function is to collect duty on all goods imported into the US, it maintains offices at all international airports as well as seaports and major land border crossings. With a great need for fresh blood, and lots of handy branches throughout the country, it was decided that the newly created Sky Marshal program would fall under the Custom Service.

Having taken and passed the FSEE, I received a telegram offering me a job as Customs Security Officer with no further explanation. At the time I associated Customs only with the bored people pawing through airline passenger's luggage all day long. That sort of job didn’t appeal to me so I passed the telegram to my roommate at the time, Mike. The program was hiring out of LA and Mike wanted a reason to move back down to Southern California where we had both been living prior to moving to Berkeley in the fall of 1969. In short order, Mike was hired, passed his background check and reported to Treasury Air Security Officer School in December of 1970, which I think was then temporarily located at Fort Dix, New Jersey while more permanent facilities were being built outside of Washington. D.C.

On his way to LA following graduation, newly minted Sky Marshal Mike stopped off in Berkeley to collect his stuff. And that’s when I got a look at the gleaming, silver Smith & Wesson Chief's Special they issued him. Determined to get one for myself, - and do my part of course to thwart the predatory intentions of the PFLP - I retrieved the original telegram from Mike, contacted the Feds and in short order flew down to LA for my own interview as a candidate Sky Marshal.

Copyright Stephen Rustad, 2007

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - How It All Started - #1

I suppose it was the gun that brought my personal Sky Marshal story about.

Please bear with me. I realize that most stories that begin with the word “gun” in the first sentence lead the reader to suspect a True Detective-type, noir fiction. Further more, they probably feature a rock-jawed anti-hero and a busty girl in wreathed in an off-the-shoulder cocktail dress. If you’re looking for blood, bullets and broads, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Check out Philip Marlowe who’s writing “This blog for hire.”

The Sky Marshal story initiated by this particular handgun has almost no violence, rock jaws or busty babes…well maybe a few busty babes, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

To begin, we have to go back to Berkeley in the fall of 1970 when my intermitent college roommate, Mike, had just returned from Sky Marshal school. He and I were sitting in a friend’s kitchen maybe three blocks west of Telegraph Avenue when Mike reaches in his coat and takes the gun he’d just been issued by the Treasury Department.

It was love at first sight, at least on my part. I never did find out what the gun thought about me.

I don’t think I ever wanted any one thing as much...before, or since…except for maybe when I was 9 and I coveted the 1949 Berkshire 726 Lionel train set with a smoking locomotive and whistle tender, cattle truck, log wagon, crane and caboose. But, I digress…

Now, please be assured that I’m not talking about just any old six shooter, or five shooter for that matter. I understand that every gun aficionado has his or her favorite Colt, Sturm Ruger or Dan Wesson. The firearm I coveted was the Smith & Wesson Model 60, 38 caliber, snub nose, Chief’s Special stainless steel “Airweight” that was introduced in 1965…about 5 years before Mike handed me his to examine.

Why did I covet this particular gun, or any gun for that matter? It wasn’t that a gun offered me the ability to dispense lethal force, exercise authority, or intimidate miscreants that appealed to me. What got to me about this gun was the artful way it was machined from a block of stainless steel. I adored how the parts insinuated one into another. I was entranced by the trigger-hammer linkage as it rotated the five-chambered cylinder like clockwork…well, maybe the way a big, somewhat clunky, all stainless steel clock would work…but still…smooth.

Before you are tempted to categorize me as some wacko gun nut, you need to know that I’d up until this time, I'd never owned a gun in my life, with the exception of a third-hand Crossman pellet pistol that couldn’t hit anything reliably except the floor.

In fact, until I cradled Mike’s Chief's Special, I’d never realized how much I really, really wanted one just like it. To get my own I'd have to become a Federal Sky Marshal, but at the time that seemed like a small price to pay. I had no idea what lay in store...

Copyright Stephen Rustad, 2007