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