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

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