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

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