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 9mm Parabellum 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.

Upon returning to US soil all of us Sky Marshals were required to go through Customs along with the other passengers as part of maintaining our “cover.” As US Customs agents, we made sure that our credentials were plainly visible and were scooted through without any fuss, often to the consternation of folks whose suitcases were being eviscerated by the baggage inspectors. The ease we experienced on clearing Customs proved to be too much temptation for several of the lads, who had the bright idea of augmenting their GS-5 pay with the clandestine importation of black market cameras and watches. The may have imported pharmaceuticals as well. I don’t know.

When I was going through Customs following my very first flight as a Sky Marshal I didn’t formally declare the Walther, but I didn’t hide it either. When I unzipped my bag for the Customs inspector it was there in plain sight next to the badge.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

No comments: