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

1 comment:

nbrooks said...

Has it really been that long?

I went through one of the last TASOS schools in January 1972 after returning from Vietnam. Was a CSO in Honolulu, later a CPO and SA retiring in 2001.

I've still got the class schedule for my training class and that red Air Security Manual lying around somewhere.

Remember "THE HOOK" - Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid!!!!