Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Just the Facts, Ma'am - #33

Fans of Sky Marshal Story (all five of you) may enjoy hearing about a comment I received from “anonymous” who complimented my story telling but questioned my facts.

Specifically, Anonymous said that his research (personal experience or bar chat – he didn’t say which) indicated that it was U.S. Marshals who conducted the preflight passenger screenings back in 71-72 not Sky Marshals or what they call Air Marshals these days. So – ipso facto – my relating that I was part of the crew that conducted pre-flight screenings was untrue.

Wow! I guess that would make me a liar.

I suspect that Anonymous hadn’t read any of the blogs where I mentioned that the exploits I was relating were based on my actual, personal and real life experience, and that – except for the names of many of the individuals – everything described is true to the best of my memory. In point of…fact…the events I’ve related happened over 35 years ago and I don’t claim to have perfect recall. Furthermore, if I knew how to write fiction this would be a much more exciting blog – certainly there would be more sex and gun play.

I don’t know about all other U.S. Airports, but at SFO, where I was based, the Customs Security Officers in uniform conducted pre-flight passenger screenings the entire time that I was in the Customs Service. Initially, it was done with pat-downs and later with the first magnetometers when they showed up.

Anyway, just to assure any of you who might like to see evidence that I really was a Sky Marshal – a.k.a. United States Customs Security Officer – in 1971-72, here is an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in – I believe – October of 1972. I was interviewed by the paper after I had given notice that I was leaving Federal law enforcement to work at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. My departure also prompted a really ugly interview with a Bay Area TV station during which they tried to make it sound like I had been told to shoot stewardesses.

Oh, and by the way, when I was flying a Sky Marshal I also carried the credentials of a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal, an agent of the FAA and a piece of paper describing me as some sort of enforcer of the International Treaty prohibiting air piracy signed in Japan in 1970, all of which I mentioned in an earlier posting.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Shoot to Kill - #32

The circumstance depicted in the cartoon above never happened to me or any other Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) I flew with back in 1971-72, but the possibility that it might was the main reason we were on planes. 37 years ago the rules of engagement were simple: shoot whoever attempts to hijack the plane.

Of course, we were taught “arrest techniques” but the confines of an airplane cabin, the (then) unprotected cockpits, and the awesome possibility that innocent folks would instantly become hostages to armed zealots and/or maniacs demanded that a Sky Marshal take any halfway reasonable shot. By “halfway reasonable” I mean to say any shot that could be made with a 2”-barreled gun in a wildly chaotic situation.

These days it’s routine for the media and public to Monday-morning quarterback every police shooting. With 20-20 hindsight, pundits and community activists will pick-apart all the “possible” scenarios that the officer could have explored before pulling the trigger. Of course, in the actual event, the policeman had a lot on his mind while he was being menaced by the assailant. In a crisis like that your body actually begins to limit audio and visual input so you can focus on the threat. More about that later.

Though Sky Marshals 37 years ago were given a fair amount of firearms training, it was almost all concentrated on hitting a target. Personally, I received no indoctrination to the mental and situational chaos that would likely accompany a hijacking scenario. I’d seen near panic seize the passengers when a plane’s plumbing failed, or when we were stuck in a seeming endless holding pattern while trying to land in the middle of a monsoon, but I’d never been involved in a real-life, face-to-face shootout, so I had no idea what happens to one’s perceptions when someone else is shooting at you.

A couple of years ago I was enlightened…

The local police in Petaluma, California, the town where I’ve lived for the past 14 years used to sponsor and operate a citizen’s “academy,” a 13-week long course whose goal was to inform and sensitize local folks with the complexity, intensity and demands of police work. Over the semester of the program we were exposed to everything from training practices, forensics, SWAT procedure and the K9 program. One of the sessions was conducted at the Police Academy and put each of us in a simulator where we were confronted with video recreations of typical police scenarios.

One by one the members of the class were put in a dark room with a few random objects that resembled stage props in some avant garde theater. There was a partial wall, a block the size of a washing machine and a short column – all of which were painted the same dark grey as the walls of the room. At one end was a floor-to-ceiling screen that received a movie projected from the opposite side of the room. Wired into the screen were sensors that recorded the “bullet strikes” from the high-tech replica pistols each participant was given. You could choose between a replica 9 millimeter Sig Sauer or Berretta.

Once the student was in the simulator, the light dimmed and the screen showed a reenactment of some situation that would warrant a police call, for example, a report of domestic violence. The purpose of these scenarios was to train candidate officers in the proper level of response necessary to gain control of the situation without going overboard or caving in. Behind the scenes a training officer manned a computer with the option of choosing from a number of variations for each scenario. He could make the people on the screen aggressive or compliant as he judged of how effective the student was at dealing with the scenario.

The whole thing was designed to feel real - so much so that some members of my Citizen’s Academy class quickly became overwhelmed by the reenactments. At the end of each person’s turn the training officer would replay the video and point out what could or should have been done.

When it was my turn they handed me the gun and started up the video, which took me into a call at an apartment where some young people had been drinking and carousing. The scenario had me approach a closed door, announce my presence, request entrance, go inside the apartment and attempt to settle the kids down. Once I was inside the apartment, the most aggressive of the kids began to challenge me, and I had to back him down. I guess the training officer thought my manner was sufficiently authoritative because the aggressive kid settled down and the training officer selected a “compliant” conclusion to the scenario. It was nothing more than a few minutes of dialogue but it did indeed feel real.

Then training officer asked me if I’d like a more interesting situation. Like an idiot I said, “Sure,” and before you could say “officer down” I was at a traffic stop on an inner city street. Perceptually I was standing about 20 feet behind a beat up sedan when the driver’s door flew open and man in gang attire leaped out and began to fire at me. I emptied the clip into him – at the end achieving a red dot on the screen which indicated I’d shot him lethally – before I reflexively ducked behind a projecting wall. The whole thing took place in less than a minute. The police officer who was assigned to our class turned to my class members and announced mockingly, “That’s what we call ‘spray and pray.”

After they turned the lights up I got to see the playback on my scenario and that’s when I noticed that not one but two men had gotten out of the car. A second gangbanger had jumped out of the passenger side, run to a tree on the parkway just behind where the stopped car and had been blasting away from behind the tree while I was shooting his buddy. I was so focused on the threat in front me that I didn’t even see the second guy shooting at me. Of course, that was the point of the scenario, and had I gone through such training I would have learned to do it differently.

I came away from the experience, and the Citizen’s Academy, with a renewed appreciation for cops who have to make split-second decisions that will be painstakingly dissected – often with an anti-police bias - for years after, and for the fact that in almost two years as a Federal Sky Marshal I never had to make such a decision.
© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Night Flight to SFO - #31

As a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) assigned to PanAm from early 1971 to the fall of 1972, I conducted most of my in-flight security duties aboard the Boeing 747. At the time, I didn’t realize how revolutionary the 747 was.

The 60’s boom in air travel had created a major traffic jam at the country’s airports as the 707’s and Douglas DC8’s jostled for space at the jet ways. As a remedy, Juan Trippe, Panama’s legendary Founder and President, pushed Boeing to create a plane at least twice the size of the 707. In response Boeing produced the 747-100 or Jumbo Jet. It’s said that PanAm's influence as a “launch customer,” and the company’s hand in the design even before they placed their formal order, allowed Trippe to influence the development of the 747 in ways never seen before or since in the history of commercial aircraft.

PanAm inaugurated 747 Jumbo Jet service in 1970. At 2.5 times the size of a 707, the wide body featured eight-across seating. The cockpit was on an upper deck, behind which was a “lounge,” for lack of a better word. The upped deck was accessed by a circular staircase – really a curved ladder – that looked like it had been yanked out of in artist’s studio in Soho.

The powers-that-were decided to increase the teams of Sky Marshals assigned to 747 to three members, whereas 707’s and other “narrow-body” craft warranted teams of two. Usually two Marshals sat in First Class. The poor sap who drew the short straw sat way in the back of the cabin. Of the two Marshals who got to mingle with the carriage trade in First Class, one was required to sit at the foot of the spiral staircase.

Since there were no assigned seats in the upper deck lounge we couldn’t position ourselves up there without blowing “our cover.” Yet, protocol required that no passenger was to visit the lounge without a Sky Marshal to keep him or her company. Any passenger who was hip to that knew exactly who was following them up the stairs.

Most of flights I guarded over my tour of duty were a half to three-quarters full and – at least in first class – that left ample room to stretch your legs. However, I remember one flight where the increased capacity of the 747 was put to the test.

The flight to SFO lifted off from Haneda Airport in Tokyo sometime after 10PM packed to the gills with men, women, children and babies. The cabin of the plane felt like a subway at rush hour. As a Sky Marshal, I’d never worked a flight where every seat was full. For the first half dozen hours everything was pretty normal. It was late, the cabin lights were dim and most of the passengers were snoozing.

But as the evening dissolved into morning and folks began to stir, they did what most folks to when the first wake up…they went to the bathroom. Had they chosen to space the visits out, the plumbing might have handled the onslaught, but it seemed like everyone went, or wanted to go, all at the same time. In short order, the bathrooms began to fail, one after the other, until two long lines of fidgety passengers packed the two aisles leading to the last functioning bathroom in the back of Coach. It was so congested that the Marshal who had been positioned in the back had to work his way forward to the central galley just so that he could have some freedom of movement.

Though the First Class bathrooms remained functional, airline rules forbade passengers from migrating past the bulkhead that separated the two sections. Then a woman with a sick baby burst through the curtains and headed for one of the First Class bathrooms with such fierce intention that she was virtually dragging in her wake the near-hysterical stewardess who had been trying in vain to explain the rules to her.

Well, the sight of this determined woman breaching the sacred curtain of First Class broke the dam, as it were. Soon the aisles in First Class were also jammed with folks hopping from one to foot to the other. In the beginning, none of the Coach passengers who had stormed the bastion of privilege were aware of the bathroom on the upper deck but I knew it would be only a matter of time.

Since the door to the upper deck bathroom was directly adjacent to the cockpit door, a scrum of passengers clustered in the upper deck lounge presented a security nightmare so I decamped from my seat at the base of the staircase to the lounge where I sacrificed my cover to spend the remainder of the flight standing sentry-like in front of the cockpit door.

Interestingly, not one person that night asked me if I was a Sky Marshal.
© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - TASOS Instructors - #30

I was recruited as a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) in the winter of 1971 and sent to join other recruits in the eleventh class of the Treasury Air Security Officers School (TASOS) that was tucked into a little-used corner of Ft Belvoir, a US Army base in Virginia just outside of DC.

With little in the way of practical experience on which to base the Sky Marshal curriculum, those responsible for creating the course chose provide us with a very pared-down version of Treasury School salted with some odd bits of theory on how to combat a mid-air sky-jack attempt…and a lot of time on the pistol range.

Over a period of four weeks, this jury-rigged course was taught to us by an ad hoc group of Federal law enforcement personnel who had been dragooned to the classroom. Some relished the task, others were less enthusiastic.

Not to say that the teaching wasn’t interesting, highly-professional and even, occasionally, useful. Merely that the classes – unlike traditional government rote teaching – reflected the personalities and experiences of the teachers. Several of the teachers stood out as almost characterizations of their job and even their particular agency:

One class the laws governing our role as Sky Marshals was taught by a charismatic Secret Service agent who always wore sharp suits tailored with the kind of contrasting stitching popular at the Grand Ole Opry. He was reputed to have spent time as a prisoner in a Mexican jail just to befriend and extract information from a particular thug.

After hours he smoked Cuban cigars while he regaled his wide-eyed, slack-jawed, audience with tails of daring-do, raids gone wrong, and the hi-jinks of some of the famous (though never named) folks that he had protected in his career.

The class on Arrest Techniques was taught by a senior agent seconded to TASOS by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) branch of the Treasury Department. He was a tall, lanky, courtly, gentleman who wore elegant grey three-piece suits and always spoke in the measured tones of a Dixie politician. I remember him for his rich command of criminal slang with which he peppered his recollections of busting gun-runners and rooting out stills secreted in Appalachian hollers.

As I’ve noted in earlier blogs, Firearms training was provided the Secret Service’s uniformed branch – the Executive Protection Division. (Don’t quote me on the name – it’s been 36 years.) These guys weren’t just crisply starched – they were chiseled out of granite. I’ll bet they changed shirts 6 times a day. You could shave using the creases of their pants.

Unlike many of the other teachers, we (or, at least, I) never saw the Exec-Protect guys after hours, or out of character. I always imaged that they taught us to shoot in between shifts guarding the White House. Before I met the sergeant in charge of our firearms training I thought the Drill Instructors at Army Basic Training were the scariest folks in the world. Compared to this guy, my boot camp DI was a Den Mother.

Another memorable fellow was a Deputy US Marshal. His clothing was distinguished for its lack of descriptive feature. Everything he wore looked used…not dirty or frayed…just well worn. In fact, he looked well worn. If half the stories he told were true, then he had a right to be.

The price of a few drinks, the well worn Marshal told us tales of shepherding black students past frothing white mobs into the then just-desegregated southern universities. We heard about escorting criminals not just hardened but so tempered prison life that they had to be so heavily shackled from head to foot that they could barely walk…and they were still dangerous.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Stupid Sky Marshal Tricks - #29

When the government suddenly decides it needs a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) program and they hire over 1500 folks to fill the ranks lickety-split, no manner of background field investigations is going to weed out all the possible mischief-makers, fools and the unqualified.

Otherwise, who in their right mind would have hired a near-sighted, Berkeley graduate who’d never fired a pistol, or won a fist fight, to join an elite team of anti-terrorist operatives?

But hire me to be a Sky Marshal they did and while I didn’t apprehend any miscreants or prevent any skyjackings, I didn’t shame the force either. Well, at least, no one told me I did to my face.

Others were not so fortunate. Now, before I proceed, let me assure you that I participated in none of the high jinks I’m about to mention. And since I didn’t personally witness them either, they may well be myths. Well, some might. Others I’m pretty sure happened because the central characters disappeared quite abruptly.

In an earlier blog, I told you about the Sky Marshal who – while unloading his automatic pistol in Heathrow Airport – accidentally cranked off a round into the side of a metal filing cabinet…much to the everlasting joy of the Bobby who told me the story…twice.

However, my favorite “accidental discharge” story has to do with a sky marshal who fired off a round in an airplane bathroom while the plane was cruising at altitude. The story goes that he attempted to sneak back to his seat as if nothing untoward had happened. Unfortunately, even a 38 caliber-sized hole in an airplane’s skin leaks air so ferociously that air masks rained down on all the passengers like balloons dropping at a New Years party.

The source of the leak was quickly determined though no one immediately ‘fessed up. Nonetheless, as but one of only two people on board carrying a gun – not to mention the only one possessing a gun that had recently been fired – our boy was sacked upon landing.

How did it happen? He was reported to have told the investigators that the gun accidentally discharged as he was unbuckling his pants in order to use the toilet. If so, then how did the round exit the bathroom exactly at his waist height and directly to his side? My theory is that he was practicing fast draws in the mirror. Ooops!

I’ve mentioned the ease with which we – as US Customs Officers – could pass through the mandatory Customs luggage screening upon returning from overseas. Just showing the badge was enough to get us whisked through as the other passengers were shaking out their unmentionables. This phenomenon proved to be too tempting for one young man. A surprise inspect of his locker uncovered a suspiciously large number of brand new Rolex watches sans any related Customs declarations. I never found out what happened to him, or the Rolexes.

I also detailed one not-quite incident with a stewardess in an past blog that, despite the best efforts of an outraged In-Flight Purser, didn’t get me fired. Others were not so lucky.

The night porter at one European hotel which regularly housed the plane’s crew during stop-overs was alerted by irate, sleepless guests to the joyous noises emanating from a young stewardesses’ room. The Sky Marshal who answered the insistent knock on her door couldn’t produce a room key in that same, or any other, hotel. Thanks to his undeniable charms, the Sky Marshal was introduced to members of the local constabulary who no doubt envied his way with women as they locked him up for the remainder of the night.

Sadly, upon our boy’s return home, the Agent in Charge didn’t appreciate his brand new arrest record…even if it wasn’t written in English.

That’s enough for now and don’t forget to turn out the light.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Guns Are a Pain - #28

I flew as a Federal Sky Marshal (nowadays, Air Marshal) between the winter of 1971 and the fall of 1972. During my 20-month stint I racked up almost 750,000 miles on countless overseas trips; traveling initially between New York and points west, and later on departing from SFO for the Far East and even further east.

Though the media made a big deal out of the presence of Sky Marshals on US passenger carriers – even going so far as to tell the world and any would be hijackers who happened to be tuning in that we always sat in seat number such-and-such – Sky Marshals were supposed to be operating undercover. That is to say that we wore plain clothes and did our best to travel incognito or in the parlance of the trade, undercover.

Undercover doesn’t just mean just being more or less unobtrusive. For example, the Secret Service guys who wear a holster clipped to a belt and covered by a suit coat jacket have no intention of being invisible. With the sunglasses, flag pins and the talking-into-the wrist, those guys are meant to be obvious to all but the most inattentive observer. Their dark business suits notwithstanding, they damn sure want everyone in the vicinity to know that the President is surrounded by heavily armed bad-asses.

Sky marshals, on the other hand, had to fly long hours in cramped quarters, cheek by jowl with ordinary passengers who weren’t supposed to be aware of our function, which meant keeping one’s gun as inconspicuous as possible while maintaining a cover as an ordinary business or vacation traveler.

As part of my ongoing effort to find a place to keep the gun readily accessible, invisible to the naked eye, and where didn’t feel like a spear in my side, I tried out every possible type of holster, harness and rig I could find, and I’m here to tell that hiding a gun under your clothes is a pain.

It didn’t make any difference whether I was stuffed into a tiny seat in Row 46 just ahead of the furthest aft bulkhead, or savoring the comparative comfort of cushy chair in First Class, the gun always managed to poke, jam or wend its way into my nether areas. On some of the longer flights, half of the time I went to the john was to readjust the holster so as not to develop a bed sore.

In the movies the hero is always able to quickly snatch a gun from under his coat when the scene calls for it. Judging from the smooth lines of their tailored suits, I strongly doubt that they make the actor lug the piece around under his coat when the scene calls for romancing the sexy foreign agent. In police shows of course they show the cops in shirtsleeves wearing belt holsters, which are fine as long as you don’t have to wedge yourself into an airline seat.

At the point where I had more leather in my closet than a dominatrix, I finally hit upon the solution that I used until they phased out the undercover work – something called a “belly band.” This was a strip of elastic-reinforced cotton that closed by means of several sets of bra hooks – though these fastened in the front. Stitched into either side of the band were patches of canvas cut in the shape of a holster. When worn correctly, a belly band allowed the wearer to conceal a small handgun under a shirt, assuming that the shirt wasn’t tailored.

Since I never had reason to use the gun on the job I never found out what it would be like trying to haul the piece out of my shirt while under fire. The number of times that I did practice unbuttoning the shirt and fishing the gun out did not encourage any fantasies that I could achieve a fast draw. Still, the belly band allowed me to carry the Chief's Special and sit as comfortably as was possible on the plane. As an added blessing given the sweaty nature of its in-flight location, the Chief was made mostly from rustproof stainless steel.

(c) Stephen Rustad 2008

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Sky Marshal Bullets - #27

When the government placed over 1,700 Federal Sky Marshals (these days, Air Marshals) on US flag-carrying air craft in late 1970 and early 1971, there was a fair amount of talk in the press about the possibility of a shootout at 36,000 feet. Some in the media speculated that the government must have provided the newly minted Custom Security Officers with special firearms training to prepare them for potential gun battles in the claustrophobic confines of an airplane passenger cabin. Likewise, pundits theorized that the lightweight nature of aircraft construction would necessitate the use of special ammo.

The ammo used by the Sky Marshals was indeed special…some especially hot stuff called Super Vel that first showed up in the ‘60’s. It was invented by a guy named Lee Jurras who had the brainstorm of combining a lighter weight bullet with state-of-the-art gun powder to produce cartridges with about 20% greater velocity. In those days a typical .38 Special traveled at around 950 feet per second. By comparison, a .357 Magnum round reached about 1,350 fps. A .38 caliber super Vel split the difference clocking in at between 1,100 and 1,200 fps…the speed of sound.

The materials used in aircraft construction would be no match for that sort of velocity. A Super Vel round fired in mid-air would cut through all of the planes interior construction and its skin like razor blade through Jello, and then continue on for quite a distance before it expended all of its inertia. First officers, or co-pilots, used to half-jokingly suggest that if we had to fire in the direction of the cockpit, we aim to the left side – where the pilots sat – and in so doing create some openings for promotion.

Super Vels were tipped with a positively-expanding jacketed, 110 grain bullet that was partially encased in copper and capped with a lead donut. I believe the terminology for these sorts of rounds is “jacked hollow point,” or JHP. Since this sucker would both mushroom and splinter on impact it made up for in carnage what it lacked in stopping power.

Another somewhat odd aspect of Super Vels was that the shooter didn’t get off scot-free. When fired, Super Vel rounds generated a fireball that was about a foot in diameter. Since Sky Marshals carried snub-nosed, Smith & Wesson .38 Chief's Special, firing more than one or two Super Vel rounds from a gun with a 2” barrel left third degree burns on your gun hand, or both hands if you were shooting T-man style.

Sky Marshals did receive extensive firearms training which culminated in a live-ammo qualification conducted a mock airplane passenger cabin. Cardboard silhouettes stood, or more correctly, sat in for the passengers arranged in rows of seats between the shooter and the target. The task was to fire five rounds each from three positions: standing and shooting over the heads of the passengers towards a target at the opposite end of the cabin; crouching and shooting down the aisle between the rows of seats, and shooting with the while resting the gun on the seat back in front of you. In case you’re interested, we were allowed to perforate two passenger cutouts and still pass the test.

Once I actually started to fly as an undercover Sky Marshal one aspect of the training seemed to me to be ill-advised. I noted a great number of elegantly coiffed ladies with blue beehive hairdos sitting in the First Class area of the plane. This caused me to reconsider the idea of firing while supporting the gun on the back of a seat. In the event that one of those ladies was seated in front me, imagine the effect of 12-inch diameter fireball exploding only a few inches above her heavily lacquered hair. Poof and in a flash (literally) some upper crust doyen is left with a shiny pate, a third degree burn, and smoking tufts of hair over her ears like Bozo the Clown after he’d been shot from a cannon.

Fortunately, after Sky Marshal school, I never again had the occasion to fire any Super Vels. When I left the program along with my gun, badge, handcuffs, sap and two passports, I returned the bright yellow Super Vel box I had been issued at graduation, minus four of five cartridges that I had given as souvenirs to some Italian cops who had marveled at the nickel-plated cases when I was checking in my pistol at Fiumicelli Airport outside of Rome.
© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Everyone Loves a Man in a Uniform - #26

In the beginning, Federal Air Security Officers, or Sky Marshals as they were popularly known (these days, Air Marshals), guarded US passenger flights dressed as civilians, which everyone knows is called operating “under cover.” This undercover in flight security continued from the instigation of the program in late 1970 to the termination of in-flight efforts around the end of 1972, for me that is. I've heard that the program continued on into 1974 for others. Those Sky Marshals with an eye towards a career in law enforcement dispersed to other Federal agencies, while I and others remained in US Customs as uniformed Customs Security Officers.

Our original 30 days of Sky Marshal training was mainly about shooting and arresting, but mostly about shooting. We had a few classes about the law governing our role as in-flight security personnel and not too much else. I think the idea was to get as many armed guards in the air as fast as possible. I don’t think any of the brains behind the program gave much thought to what Sky Marshals would do once they came out from under cover and had to behave like policemen and women.

After my swan-song flight accompanying Paraguayan Dictator Alfredo Stroessner and his happy crew of sycophants from Panama City to Asuncion, Paraguay, in the Fall of 1972, I was assigned to pre-flight screening and whatever other chores the AIC, or Agent in Charge, could invent to keep us out of trouble.

Our uniform was a white shirt with two flap pockets, a blue tie, blue serge pants and a saucer cap. We were expected to supply our own black shoes and belt. But, hey, if I was going to wear a uniform I wanted it to look sharp, so I had my shirts ironed with three creases and bought real shiny black, basket weave embossed, policeman’s utility belt with holder, bullet and hand cuff pouches and “keepers” – tiny straps that looped around your pants belt – designed to keep the utility belt up around your waist…or drag everything down to your thighs.

I’m sure that cop belt and creases were a little “gung ho” for matter-of-fact Customs guys, but no one said anything to my face. I did get some heat for carrying a Smith & Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnum with Goncalo Alves grips. Except for the larger caliber it was virtually the same as the .38 Cal. Combat Masterpiece they trained us with. On the other hand, regulations stated that we had to carry the gun we were issued. For me this meant the Chief's Special.

I had chosen to swap Chief for the .357 after being assigning to patrol the corridors and jet ways of SFO. No longer confined to the confines of an airline cabin, if – God Forbid – I did have to shoot at someone the chances were good that it would be at a greater distance than across a few rows of airplane seats. And, as wonderful a gun as the Chief was, with only a 2” barrel, it’s accurate only at close range. Still, regs are regs so the shiny, black, basket weave embossed utility belt went into the closet, the cuffs and the Chief went on my pants belt, and that was that.

Our uniformed duties consisted mostly of pre-flight screening of passengers in the boarding areas. Almost exactly the same task as is performed by the Homeland Security folks today, who also happen to wear white shirts and blue pants.

36 years ago, pre-flight screening was still a novelty. The weapon/bomb detection technology of the time magnetometers were pretty crude and every passenger got a thorough bag-search. Back in the early ‘70’s people were far more casual about the contents of their carry-on luggage than we are today. Also, recreational drugs were so pervasive that few to pains to hide their stash. As a result, we discovered a lot of marijuana, which meant arresting the poor sap, or sap-ess, and turning them over to the nearest San Mateo County Sheriff's deputy.

Having graduated from UC Berkeley just prior to becoming a Sky Marshal, I will tell you that I was conflicted. Though never much of a smoker – of tobacco or weed – I was nonetheless accustomed to virtually everyone of my generation more or less casually toking it. It was only later that many of these folks would graduate to cocaine, but then casual drug used seemed pretty benign…especially compared to the terror of in-flight hijacking, the prevention of which I thought was my principle job.

However, as a sworn Federal Officer, my responsibilities included the arrest of anyone caught breaking any of the statutes of the United States Code. Furthermore, allowing the breach of one of these statues in my presence without taking appropriate action was itself a breach of the law and potentially a cause for punishment. So, the Sky Marshals become front line narcotics officers - at least at airports.

At Berkeley, recreational drugs were practically a required extracurricular course. Because the advocates of “tune in, turn on and drop out” always seemed to me to have a creepy agenda that didn’t put much emphasis my personal welfare, I incurred a lot snide mocking for refusing to try the tabs, pills and puffs. But I could still recognize the stuff, which wasn’t true of many of my fellow Custom Security Officers, especially the older guys.

Since the Treasury Department didn’t train any of the CSO’s for our new found role in narcotics enforcement, many of the guys would detain airline passengers over what appeared to them to be suspicious substances or items, but which later proved to be over-the-counter meds, incense, Turkish tobacco, or oregano…really. Some people carry spices. These poor folks not only missed their flight they had to spend a few unpleasant hours in some drab room while Customs Inspectors trashed their luggage, before they ultimately received a perfunctory apology.

This kind of accidental harassment was not my cup of tea, which led to the following... One day as I walking down an airport corridor I heard raised voices at a boarding area. I came over to find a very upset woman squaring off against a CSO over a wrapped package that her non-English speaking father was trying to carrying on board his flight. The CSO had insisted on unwrapping the package. The old guy was beside himself with frustration. He’d bought the item as gift for the folks back home and he wanted to give it to them intact. The man’s American daughter was very close to being arrested for interfering with a Federal Officer. The package in question was clearly one of those wine samplers that they sell to tourists in Napa. Not to mention, that the profile for hijackers then, as well as now, didn't include 90-year-old, stooped men.

Anyone, except perhaps the particular CSO who was conducting the search, could tell this 90-year-old guy was no threat, whereas the daughter was definitely moving into Def-Con 4 territory. So I pulled her aside, calmed her down, and got permission to carefully unwrap the package if I could do so without causing any damage. Under the wrappings was one of those pre-made, snap open boxes with overlapping panels at the bottom. By carefully separating the two panels I could see the bottoms of two wine bottles. In 1972, carrying wine in gift-wrapped boxes was legal.

To placate the other CSO I had the box walked through the magnetometer to prove it wasn’t a bomb or gun, after which we let the old guy board the plane with his gift. I readily admit that this wasn’t great police procedure. On the other hand, no airplanes had been up until then, or for that matter have been since blown up or skyjacked by 90-year old guy armed with a pair of wine bottles. For those paranoid conspiracy addicts, I'll concede that he could have been a mule smuggling Molotov cocktails for a team of terrorists masquerading as nuns.

A few weeks later I got a nice letter from the guy’s daughter thanking me for my consideration. Shortly after that I resigned – much to the relief of the AIC.

Copyright Stephen Rustad, 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Guns: Toys, Tools and Trophies - #25

To be perfectly honest, it was my fascination with handguns that drew me into the Sky Marshal (Air Marshal) program in 1970. Of course, the chance to confront terrorists had a lot of appeal as well. But, as I’ve written in previous episodes, when I first held Mike’s stainless steel Smith & Wesson Chief's Special shortly after he returned from Sky Marshal school I knew that I wanted one of my own.

Okay, so why not just go down a sporting goods store and just buy one you might ask. Frankly, that thought never occurred to me, and that’s because it wasn’t just the gun itself that appealed to me, it was the training, and the authority use that training in a real life situation that gave the gun its aura.

Like others who grew up watching Westerns and guts-and-glory War movies in 40’s and 50’s I developed a naïve, romantic attachment to guns…especially “cowboy” guns like the Colt Peacemaker and Winchester Model 1873. Later on, when I actually got to shoot some guns – in the Boy Scouts, the Army and as a Sky Marshal – the naïve fantasies were replaced by an appreciation for the materials, the machinery of guns and most of all their function. First the Army, and then the Treasury School drilled gun safety into my bone marrow. Nearly forty years later if someone hands me a gun I still reflexively open the cylinder or extract the clip and retract the slide if it’s an automatic to assure myself the gun isn’t loaded.

Few tools have the same mystique or hold their value over the years as do guns. Personally, I used to love Makita hand drills as the apotheosis of drill technology and durability. But as battery technology has improved other brands have challenged the green machine for cordless power drill dominance. However, a well-preserved 1911 Colt will still do the job nearly a century after it was introduced.

Despite an occasional flurry of interest in new types of propellant, or new ways of delivering a projectile – remember the MBA GyroJet rocket pistol that made an appearance a James Bond film? – handguns have remained remarkably similar to their 19th and early 20th century progenitors. Sam Colt would be quite comfortable with the great-great-great-great-grandson of the prototype revolver he whittled while at sea in 1836. While rifles – especially the assault type – are somewhat more evolved, I’m guessing that Daniel Boone or Alvin York would be a fair shot with anything issued by today’s Army of One.

While I love well crafted hand tools of all kinds – a 19th Century naval sextant is incredibly beautiful – I’ve never held anything that gave me a greater thrill than the first time I had to load and fire a Smith and Wesson Combat Masterpiece at the Treasury Air Security Officer School. What’s more, that experience has been repeated each time I had the chance to fire a gun that was new to me: the Walther PPK/S, a Glock, a Sig Sauer, the “Dirty Harry” 44 magnum…

Today, as an old guy musing about his past, guns have become keepsakes and mementos. You could say they went from being toys to tools and finally to trophies. Though I’ve owned a fair number of guns over the years, I don’t have many today. Those I do own are handguns, and mostly stay locked in a safe. Living as I do in an especially liberal county in Northern California I have limited opportunities take them out and shoot.

On those rare occasions when I get to a shooting range, I try to recall the drills I learned in Treasury Air Security Officer School: five shots with my favored hand and five with my off hand in 10 seconds or so. Five cycles of this exercise burns through a box of wad-cutter. Then for old time’s sake, I’ll shoot some full loads of .357 – with the exception of one 9mm automatic all the guns I own are .357 calibre revolvers. Assuming most of those rounds go where I intended I’m usually done in a less than an hour, after which it’s time to take the guns home and clean them. And then there's the fact that despite two types of ear protection my ears ring. And my hands are sore.

I bring the guns home, go into the garage, spread out a cloth and some newspaper and clean them. I don’t just swab them out, but I take them apart – not the inner workings of course. No, I’m not masochist or a clean freak, but I was taught that a gun isn’t clean until you can run a new patch up and down a barrel without picking up a trace of powder. So I unscrew the cylindrical chamber or if it’s an automatic, take off the slide and scour out as much dirt and powder residue as I have time to. Then I pass a hint of oil over the works, put the gun back together and return it to the safe.
Copyright Stephen Rustad, 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Box Cutter Terrorists - #24

On September 11th, 2001, like so many others around the country, I sat stunned in front of my television as first one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then the other collapsed in a horrendous funeral pyre. As word came out that the tragedy was work of Muslim terrorist skyjackers I felt a pang of personal guilt: if only I – once upon a time a trained Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) – had been on one of those flights perhaps things might have been different.

When it was revealed that the terrorists had commandeered the planes using…box cutters…I was indignant. Of course, I wasn’t on any of the planes so I won’t judge those now dead, but I know that no soldier, policeman, fire fighter or anyone else trained to serve the public at their own personal risk would have been daunted by a box cutter – especially if they knew the alternative was not just their own death but that of everyone around them.

Maybe those on board the ill-fated flights thought, or allowed themselves to be convinced, that the terrorists had somewhat less destructive agenda - say kidnapping for ransom - and figured it was best to go along with the program. Perhaps they would have acted differently had they known, as did the passengers of United Flight 93, who took action when they learned the fate of other hijacked planes.

After 9-11, there was a lot of press about the rebirth of the Sky Marshal program, hardening cockpit doors, providing weapons for pilots, not to forget the creation of a chaotic and maddening pre-flight passenger screening process. None of this would have been, or would be, necessary if a potential skyjacker knew for certain that any attempt to commander a public flight would result in his being torn to pieces by the passengers…box cutter or not.

Am I preaching vigilante-ism? Not at all. Wikipedia defines a vigilante is a person who ignores due process of law and enacts his or her own form of justice when they deem the response of the authorities to be insufficient. I’m not talking about justice. What I’m talking about is self-defense! And the law is very clear that we may…legally…take reasonable steps to protect ourselves from harm. I would argue that shredding a fanatical hijacker is a reasonable action.

But the hijackers had…sharp box cutters! Translation: someone could get hurt if we don’t do what they said! First, a lot of people got dead anyway. Second, as one who has occasionally been hasty in cutting up slabs of cardboard for the recycling, I’ve given myself some nasty cuts with box cutters. You betcha they can cut. And, yes those cuts hurt. But even if wielded by a burly graduate of the Al Qaeda School for Mischief who is waving it around like a Benihana chef, a box cutter’s blade still only an inch long. Two or three determined people who are willing to risk a nasty – but in all likelihood non-lethal – laceration could have tackled him – allowing the rest to finish him off.

How brutal is that? After all we’re not animals. We don’t act like that? Evidently all that is quite true, because the brutal animals who hijacked the planes did so brazenly and without apparent hesitation. And when the horrible fates of the other flights became apparent to the passengers of Flight 93, they were able to overcome their civility. They didn’t save themselves, but they prevented an even greater tragedy.

Don’t get me wrong. I love living in a society where one feels comfortable going out on the street without fearing passersby. That’s one of the graces of civilization: that for the most part violence is abnormal. One of the liabilities of civilization is that we become accustomed to personal safety as being the norm, and some of us even go so far to disparage the very concept of force and even heroism. The pacifist attitude being, "what can’t be solved if we’re only willing to sit down and talk?" Or, "Well, even if violence comes, I won't tarnish my karma by taking part."

It’s been over 35 years since I was a Sky Marshal and I still can’t board a flight without scoping out my fellow passengers. However, these days I’m a lot older, my reflexes are slower, and my joints are stiffer. I don’t harbor any fantasies that I’m any more capable than the next individual of single-handedly thwarting an in-flight hijacking, but I can tell you that I’m willing to die trying – especially if I’m going to die anyway. If there were a dozen like me on every flight – ordinary citizens who are unwilling to be intimidated by box cutter-wielding fanatics – we wouldn’t need to fear skyjackings.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Bangkok: Kmart of Sex - #23

After I had been posted as a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) to SFO in the spring of 1971 – the cities I visited most often thereafter were Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Each city was markedly different from the others. Tokyo was crisp, bustling and sooty. Hong Kong survived WWII with its architectural heritage and British traditions intact and operated at a dignified pace – on the surface at least. While Manila and Saigon were as equally exotic as Bangkok to be sure, Bangkok seemed to be part of another universe.

The Far East was (and I’m sure still is) a shoppers dream. Whatever your heart’s desire there was a place where you could buy it. I’m not talking just about duty free consumer goods like watches, jewelry and cameras. I’m referring to the sort of stuff that you don’t put on a Customs declaration: weapons, drugs, trade and military secrets and – most of all – female attention.

It’s true that I was bouncing around the Orient at the height of the Viet Nam War and several of the cities I mentioned above were popular R&R (rest and recreation) destinations for GIs. However the Viet Nam War was no exception, the streamlined merchandising of whoopee to foreigners went back for centuries – perhaps millennia. Of all the peoples and places I saw in the Orient, it was the Thais who had commoditized the sexual shopping card to a degree that I’d not seen anywhere else.

As soldier stationed in Europe and a Sky Marshal, I’d seen Canal Street in Amsterdam, strip clubs in London, sailors’ dives in Lisbon, the Follies Bergere in Paris, GI bars in Hong Kong, not mention attending numerous acid-drenched “be-ins” as a student in Los Angeles and Berkeley. Nonetheless, I still wasn’t prepared for dance halls lined with a hundred numbered young ladies wearing hot pants, halter tops and bored looks, or murky massage parlors with “preview rooms” chock full of bikini-clad masseuses – also identified by number.

I suppose the obvious question to ask is whether I ever sampled the merchandise so amply on display. The truth is that I did not – for several reasons. A big reason was an especially virulent strain of venereal disease rumored to be rampaging through South East Asia. An urban legend, perhaps, but the thought of killer microbes frolicking in my nether parts has always taken the wind out of my sail, as it were.

A second less clinical but equally compelling reason why I never sought professional companionship in Bangkok was that none of the enumerated girls ever looked like they enjoyed their work, or that they found their clientele even remotely appealing. Sure, they would slide up to you, make full body contact to a degree I had never before imagined, and say things like, they loved you, and you looked like movie star, and they would do such-and-such so good that your hair would explode. Though their suggestions were often pretty imaginative, it was clear that I was just another rich American mark to shaken down, wrung out, and hung up to dry. And perhaps contagious.

Fortunately, avoiding Bangkok’s flesh pots left me lots time to sample its restaurants. I quickly found that I had no taste for Thai cuisine, but no matter. There were plenty of European-style eateries. My favorite of these was a place housed in an old walled French Colonial style villa located some miles from the center of town. Parked in a courtyard surrounded by high walls and just inside the main gate were always a clutch of Mercedes, their drivers idly chatting with parking valets who were most likely off-duty police. Their conversation would stop abruptly as you wended your way through the maze if cars, though I always assuming that had far more to do with my date than me.

Yes, I said date? As I’ve mentioned a number times in previous episodes, I flew entirely on PanAm, which had a well-deserved reputation for gorgeous stewardesses, some of whom preferred to be treated to a nice dinner on the town over room service in the hotel.

This particular restaurant drew an international crowd – International diplomats, Chinese bankers, Thai gangsters, Euro-trash, Air America pilots, etc. The entrance featured two massive, carved teak doors. On the other side was a beautiful Eurasian gal who greeted one and all with the cordial but slightly unworldly manner of a Stepford wife. A guy who I presumed was the manager wore a double-breasted white dinner jacket and patent leather shoes. He hovered nearby in case he was needed to lavish compliments on some important guest.
The walls were covered in dark red fabric that would have suited an 1890's New Orleans cat house. The ceiling was generally obscured by a layer of smoke so thick that the chandeliers appeared to float in space. On occasion when the clouds of smoke parted you could see that the ceiling was a collage of business cards, notes, and currency of all kinds held in place by thumb tacks. The ceiling was probably nine feet from the floor and I never saw how that stuff got there. If Richard Blaine, the expat saloon keeper from the movie Casablanca, had opened a place in Bangkok I’ll bet it would have looked like this.

Copyright Stephen Rustad, 2008

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Guarding Alfredo - #22

As the Federal Sky Marshal (lately, Air Marshal) program ambled along through late 1971 and into 1972, we shifted from chock-a-block flights here and there as undercover, in-flight, armed guards to other kinds of jobs. At SFO we initiated pre-flight inspections with Magnetometers – the first carry-on baggage screening apparatus, we ran errands for the local Customs brass, and we provided in-flight escort for assorted dignitaries…which is how I came to meet General Alfredo Stroessner, then the dictator (oops) President of Paraguay.

At the time, Stroessner was about mid-way in a reign that was to span nearly 35 years, beginning with the 1954 military coup that he lead against his mentor Federico Chaves, and lasting until he was overthrown by his own top aide, General Andres Rodriquez, who also happened to be an in-law. However, in 1972 Stroessner was firmly astride Paraguay thanks to an anti-Communist stance that pleased the US Government, and a windfall of graft surrounding the construction of Itaipu dam which was eventually completed in 1985, and benefited few others than the members of Stroessner’s Colorado political party.

Back in 1972, Stroessner and about 70 groupies were traveling to and from Tokyo on what I was told was a trade mission. Since he chose to travel to Japan and back on scheduled PanAm flights, those flights were assigned Sky Marshals for Stroessner’s protection – even though he traveled with his own Chief of Security. More about the COS later.

The trip from Asuncion, Paraguay to Tokyo, and back, was broken up into multiple legs. I and my partner drew the final return leg of the trip from Panama City to Asuncion. We flew to Panama the day before to get a few hours of sleep before joining Stroessner’s party.

I’ve forgotten the departure times and other such details, but I clearly remember the pre-flight briefing that I and my partner attended with Storessner along with his COS, who we’ll call Colonel Boca de Riego, because he was built like a scary, 250 pound fire hydrant…Throughout the briefing, Col. de Riego looked at me with the beady eyes of a Marine drill sergeant contemplating a fresh maggot, that is to say, new recruit for which he had little regard. He didn’t say a word to me that I recall, but I got the sense that if anything happened in-flight he was going to shoot me first.

For the final leg of Stroessner’s journey, PanAm had scheduled a 707. My designated seat was the aisle seat of the first row in First Class – directly behind the cockpit door and across from the 707’s galley. Seated next to me in the first row was Col. de Riego. Directly behind us were seated Stroessner and the groupies who rated First Class seats. The rest of El Presidente’s party had to content themselves with riding in Coach…or so I thought.

Once we reached altitude and the seatbelt lights were turned off, I got up to stretch my legs and was immediately swept up in the tide of sycophants that rushed forward from the back of the plane to curry favor with Stroessner. The scrum around El Presidente was so thick that I spent the rest of 6-hour (at least) flight shoved into the plane’s galley while Col de Riego looked daggers at me.

Eventually, we landed in Asuncion. The plane taxied some distance away from the terminal to accommodate the pomp and circumstance scheduled for Stroessner’s arrival. Arrayed in tight ranks opposite the plane appeared to be the entire Army, Air Force and judging from their uniforms Paraguay’s Navy. Being a land-locked country is no reason to pass up the opportunity to dress like an Admiral.

Stroessner and his party disembarked to the sound of rifle salutes and a marching band. A line of black limousines had drawn up a few feet away from the rolling ladder. At the head of the limousines was an open Mercedes Benz touring car for Stroessner, in which he stood waving to the multitudes as the limousines pulled away from the plane. But before that could happen there were some speeches and more rifle salutes and band playing.

Once Stroessner's entourage departed and the noise finally died down I stuck my head out of the doorway. It was a warm, clear night so I decided to get some air while they refueled the 707. I climbed down the ladder, turned and walked under the fuselage…and ran smack into a Paraguayan sentry who immediately swung around, pointed his rifle at me and began yelling at me in Spanish. From behind me came a short, sharp command and just as suddenly the trooper lowered his weapon and came to rigid attention. I turned to see Col de Riego give me one final glare before he left to catch up with El Presidente.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Saigon - #21

From late spring of 1971 to the fall of 1972 I flew as an undercover Federal Sky (Air) Marshal – technically a United States Customs Security Officer – on Pan American Airlines fights originating in San Francisco and winging as far west as Bangkok. These were the years when General Creighton Abrams was gradually winning the war in Viet Nam, but not as fast a Jane Fonda was losing it stateside.

In 1972 combat troop strength in Viet Nam decreased from about 110,000 to around 30,000 and a fair number of those soldiers and Marines flew back to the “world” courtesy of the big blue ball. Since PanAm flew scheduled (as opposed to chartered) flights in and out of Saigon, many of them were guarded by Sky Marshals like me. Though, I doubt if my – or any other Sky Marshal’s – help would have been necessary should some fool have attempted to skyjack a planeload of combat weary GI’s headed home. In that event, I doubt that there would have been any remains to bury – let alone bring to trial.

PanAm Flights into Saigon landed and took off at Tan Son Nhut air base, originally built by the French in the ‘20’s, and since the early days of the Viet Nam war it functioned as both a military and civilian air facility. Since Saigon is now officially Ho Chi Minh City, they spell the name of the airport in a slightly different way, but I’m using the spelling as I remember it.

Stops in Saigon rarely lasted more than 12 hours – enough time to ride an armored bus with heavily grated windows to and from the city center, rent a room for the night and grab some chow. My visits there were generally pretty unmemorable except for one layover when I got to see a “spooky” at work.

Actually, I don’t know if it was actually a “Spooky,” “Spectre,” “Shadow” or any of the other nicknames for the various types of gunships. I only know that while I was eating dinner in the roof-top restaurant of the Caravelle Hotel, I was treated to a lightshow on the outskirts of Saigon the like of which I doubt I'll ever see again.

It was night (of course) and I was just finishing a solitary dinner when through the window of the rooftop restaurant flashes sparkling on the barely discernable horizon caught my eye. As I was trying to make out what I was seeing, a swath of fire erupted from the black sky and streamed earthward. Just like the words of the famous hymn, “…He loosed his fateful lightning like a terrible swift sword…”

To give you an idea of the sight, I’ve included a photo that I found on the Internet which according the photo’s caption was taken by (then) Sp5 (Specialist Fifth Class*) Tom Zangla right around that period of time. *For those who don’t, a “spec-five” was an enlisted rank in Army with a pay grade of E-5 that was roughly equivalent to “buck,” or three-stripe sergeant.

I had no way of knowing what type of gunship was raining death that night. The Air Force operated a number of planes that could have created the holocaust playing out before my eyes: AC47’s, AC130’s and AC119’s among them. By coincidence, sometime later on I did have an encounter with the latter type of aircraft, a Fairchild AC119 “Flying Boxcar” gunship.

On occasion our stop-overs in Saigon would last only a few hours – time enough to drop of a load of passengers, refuel and tidy up the plane, and take off again. There wasn’t time to time clear customs and go anywhere worth going, so the Sky Marshal team would hang around the terminal or just stay on the plane.

One such time, I elected to stay on the plane. I’d been in the terminal once before and there wasn't much to see. So I chose to hang around the plane, that is until they turned off the air conditioning in the passenger cabin. You know how quickly the comfortable environment of an airplane cabin can change into a steaming aluminum box? About as fast as it takes to read that sentence.

So, there I am, alone on the plane save for the clean-up crew of Viet Namese civilians and their American security minder who was watching them as intently as a Las Vega pit boss eyeball’s a new croupier. I’m standing in the open cabin door to take advantage of what little breeze was available in the stultifying mid-day heat when I looked across the tarmac to see a row of squat, black, AC119 gun ships with nary a soul around them.

I asked the security guy if I could wander over to look. He grunted something that I took to be, “Yah, if you must, butthead, but don’t touch anything,” and I bounced down the ladder and across about 40 yards of blacktop towards the hulking planes.

AC119’s weren’t originally designed be bullet fountains. Like most “gun ships” of the time they were converted from their original and more prosaic functions as cargo or transport planes and an “A” was added to their designation. The AC-119’s were smaller than the AC130’s (which by the way are still use today making life for our enemies in Iraq more than a little uncomfortable) though they packed a similar wallop. I’m no weapons expert, but if my memory serves me the plane that I ran up to sported four 7.62 miniguns and a 20,000 watt Xenon light that could light up an entire football field like it was half-time. If anyone reading this is interested in more info about these planes, I encourage you to go to: http://www.ac-119gunships.com/.

No sooner had I jogged up to the plane and poked my head in the fuselage door when I heard a distinctly Viet Namese voice cursing in my direction. No, I don’t speak Viet Namese so how did I know it was cursing? Trust me. Cursing is always more about tone and volume than it is about content. I turned to face the verbal onslaught and came face-to-face with a squad of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) troops in tiger-striped fatigues – all pointing M-16’s at me.

Fortunately for me, and I’m sure disappointing to the ARVN who looked like they wanted to clear their gun barrels with a few bursts in my direction, not to mention test the sharpness of their bayonets, the PanAm security guy had begun to wonder what mischief I’d gotten into and spied the scene unfolding across the tarmac. He yelled a couple of terse Viet Namese phrases at the ARVN who lowered their weapons. One of them, who I presume was in charge, crocked a thumb in the direction of the 707 and I hot-footed it back to the safety of the plane.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Hong Kong - #20

During 1971 and 1972 I visited Hong Kong many times while flying as a Federal Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) through I rarely spent more than 12 hours on any one stop. On the other hand, I stopped there so often that – now 36-some years later – all of the visits have blended together.

In those years Hong Kong was still nominally part of the British Empire. However, with the Red Chinese breathing heavily just over the horizon, the Brits new their days were numbered. On the other hand, the Hong Kong Chinese – perhaps the most industrious branch of a hyper industrious race of people – just tended to business, raising their kids, revering their elders and fleecing the Yankees. Oh, I don’t mean to imply that they treated Americans any differently than they did the French, Germans, Aussies, or Japanese for the matter. We were all sheep to be sheared…but in a very honest and straight forward manner mind you.

Tourism was one of the things that fueled the Hong Kong economy and the powers-that-were made sure that no one upset the money rickshaw. Keeping a firm rein on goings-on were the ever crisp Hong Kong police, who combined the no-nonsense attitude of a British bobby with the gimlet-eyed cynicism of a 1000-year-old culture. Sky Marshals were just yet another weird western custom they tolerated with implacable indifference. There was little fuss when we checked our guns in after landing at Kai Tak airport. “Just toss ‘em into the canvas bag, Yank. See you in a few hours.”

The stopovers in Hong Kong were generally so short that I had little time for anything but grabbing a snack, catching a few hours of sleep…and buying some shirts. I don’t mean off-the-rack shirts. Kowloon – the part of Hong Kong attached to mainland China – had more tailor shops than tea houses. If you liked to live dangerously, you could have a suit measured and tailored in a single day – though I don’t recommend it unless you’re fond of wearing clothes that look like they belong to another species. On the other hand, if you could give them a couple of days Chinese tailors could work magic.

I’d always prized – but could never afford – custom tailored shirts. Store-bought shirts typically came with about two yards of extra fabric around the middle and I coveted the sleek, tailored shirts that James Bond wore. Since Saville Row was on the other side of the world, Hong Kong was the next best choice. The first time I hit town, I made a beeline for a crowded, narrow street lined with tailor shops. Each store was fronted by a guy who called to you as you passed – just like a midway barker or the doormen in front of strip joints in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Eventually I found a store that looked clean, or perhaps my sales resistance had been worn down after hearing, “Hey GI we’ll make you look like Charles Bronson,” for the 20th time. I poked my head inside and was immediately overwhelmed by bolts of fabric and a couple of Indian salesmen brandishing quart bottles of Singha beer. An hour later, with a mild buzz and minus about $32, I was headed back to the hotel with the promise that my four custom-fitted, button-down, Oxford cloth shirts would be delivered later that evening. And you know what – they were delivered as promised and they fit great. After that, buying a couple of shirts was a Hong Kong ritual.

On only one stopover did I have enough time for any sightseeing. On that occasion I boarded the Star ferry and headed across the harbor for the actual Hong Kong, which I didn’t realize until that point in time is an island. Armed with little more guidance than a tip to visit the venerable China Fleet Club, I left the ferry and took my life into my hands.

The China Fleet Club was safe enough. Founded around 1900 as a canteen for Royal Navy personnel it boasted a storied past including serving at the Japanese Navy HQ during World War II. After the war, the Royal Navy took it back, thank you, and it continued to serve Royal Navy tars into the 1980’s when the club was relocated to England. That was to be a few years after I visited Hong Kong. This was 1971 and Hong Kong was a major R&R (Rest & Recuperation) stop for war weary soldiers. Thanks in no small part to it’s proximity to the Wan Chai neighborhood the CFC was a popular hangout for American GI’s who wanted to tank up before heading out to fall in love.

In case the name Wan Chai doesn’t ring a bell, it was romanticized in a 1960’s chick-flick titled The World of Suzie Wong that starred William Holden. If Holden’s name doesn’t ring bell either, your mom thought he was really cute. Anyway, in those days, the Wan Chai was a noisy, smelly kaleidoscope of neon signs, topless joints and drunken soldiers, sailors, marines. Of course, I had to see it for myself.

One bar was enough. If you’ve been reading this blog you might remember the story about the bar in Lisbon I visited where a delicate flower tried to give me a hernia exam. Well, the girl in Lisbon was positively genteel compared to the Chinese lassies at the Manhattan Bar. No sooner had I parted the beaded curtains at the front door when I was greeted by a chorus of voices, all of which seemed to be saying, “Hi GI. My name is Suzie. I love you. Buy me some champagne and maybe I take you around the world.” The next thing I knew, some beady-eyed madam in her 30’s or maybe her 60’s wearing a silk ao dai was haggling with me about buying “Suzie” for the night. Buy Suzie for the night? I hadn’t decided to buy “Suzie” the warm ginger ale they were pawning off as champagne.

Before you could say, “Who's going to notify Steve’s next of kin?” I had half a dozen people cursing me in Mandarin as I backed up in what I hoped was the direction of the front door. Fortunately as I hit the beaded curtains, in came a scrum of 3 or 4 noisy soldiers bent on making the most of their R&R. As they stumbled into the bar I bobbed and weaved my way out and was half-way down the block before I realized that no one was chasing me.

Aside from the Wan Chai, the only real adventure that I encountered visiting Hong Kong was landing at the infamously famous Kai Tak airport. With a single runway and a perilous location, Kai Tak was considered challenging by the best pilots…and PanAm’s pilots were the best. Depending on the direction of the wind, a landing plane had to pass over the rooftops of Kowloon at an absurdly low altitude. They called it the "checkerboard" approach because the pilot had to fly toward floodlit orange and white checkerboard patterns painted on a hillside and then make a 47-degree right turn to line up with the runway. I was always a little nervous riding in a plane that weighed almost a million pounds that was flying little more than the length of a football field above the rooftops of packed tenements.

On more than one occasion the pilot took almost all the length of the runway to rein in the 747 and had to turn around 180 degrees so we could taxi back up the runway to the terminal.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Bangkok Story - #19

During the period when I was working as a Federal Sky Marshal (nowadays, Air Marshal) guarding PanAm flights in the early 1970’s the majority of my trips did an about-face, as it were, in Bangkok. That is to say, that whatever the interim stopovers, be they Hong Kong, Hawaii, Guam, Manila, Saigon or Tokyo, the farthest west I ever flew was Bangkok. Federal per diem notwithstanding, thanks to the strong dollar in those days I generally managed to stay in fairly nice hotels on my stopovers with but notable exception, and here is that story.

Whether it was by design, or by accident, we were rarely paired with same partners for more than a few patterns. As a result, I flew with a whole spectrum of team-members from retired military, to furloughed airline pilots, to footloose recent college grads like myself. Generally we tolerated each other. The rote nature of the job didn’t demand a high level of coordination. Some took the theoretical protection of American flag-carriers from terrorist threats very seriously while others considered the frequent trans-oceanic trips to be little more than paid sightseeing. I fell somewhere in between.

Occasionally, though, I was paired with another Sky Marshal with an agenda that had little to do with in-flight security or sightseeing. Such was the case with Jeremiah. No, that’s not his real name, nor was he an invisible rabbit. Jerry was a brilliant chess player, passionate conspiracy theorist, and a self-annointed authority on pretty much everything – so much so that nobody who had ever flown with him would agree to do so again. Of course, I knew none of this when I was paired up with him. Also unbeknownst to me before we flew to Bangkok together, Jerry was a major fan of hookers, or as my old dad would say, a whore-chaser.

Usually when a team of Sky Marshals landed, cleared customs, dropped off our weapons with the local constabulary, we headed straight for our hotels. Sometimes we all chose to stay at the same hotel, but mostly we split up to wile away the few hours between flights in our own ways. My hotel of choice in Bangkok was the Intercontinental which, in those days, was affiliated with PanAm. It was elegant, had good food, you could drink the water, and since that was where the PanAm crews stayed, there was generally someone there I knew who I could join for dinner.

On this particular trip however, Jerry was adamant that we both stay at hotel that he would pick, and he would brook no argument. Since I knew by now that he was – to put it nicely – a prickly sort of fellow, and I was stuck with him for the next few days, I figured it best to go with the flow.

It was a decision I immediately regretted when the taxi pulled up in front of a creaky, teak paneled, two-story fleabag. Actually, the term “fleabag” fails to adequately characterize the unique qualities of this flophouse. “Giant Cockroach Motel” comes closer. It boasted all the cozy charm of a budget opium den. Bare bulbs wreathed in bugs half-heartedly illuminated the geckos who skittered along the stained walls. The air-conditioning was the minimal, cold water sprayed over a fan kind that left you hot and damp. Slowly turning fans hanging from ceilings in every room did little to disturb the fetid air. I felt like I’d walked on the set of Demon Queen of Siam.

Jerry and I were assigned adjacent rooms, something else I was later to deeply regret. We parted company and I caught a cab to the Intercontinental where I hoped to at least temporarily bask among more civilized surroundings.

The evening wound down and I dragged myself back to my dark, dingy and dank lodgings. I had no sooner crawled between the thin, damp sheets on my bed when there was a knock on the door. In a place like this they don’t have turn-down service, but I got out of bed and cracked the door open a bit.

Standing outside in the hall was the taxi driver who had brought Jerry and me to this sorry pit along with a sullen, skinny, teenage girl who could have been forty - the light was so bad it was hard to tell. The taxi driver clearly expected me to take this girl for the night and pay him for the privilege.

I said, “no,” and shut the door expecting that that was that. No such luck. In about twenty minutes there was another knock at the door. It was the taxi driver with another forty-year-old teenage girl.

I said “no” again and got a flurry of Thai in reply interspersed with some English words that he’d no doubt picked up from an angry Gunnery Sergeant. It’s worth noting that, at the time, the war in Viet Nam was going full blast and Bangkok was a major R&R destination for servicemen looking for some distraction from the horror of jungle rot, ambushes, and k-rations.

It was about thirty minutes before the taxi driver returned a third time, this time bringing a slim, pretty, pale…boy. Now I was wide awake and more than a little angry my own self. I told him that if he came back again I’d get the FBI after him. Thai taxi drivers had no clue what the US Treasury Department was, but they all knew about the FBI.

By now I’d also realized that Jerry had chosen this hotel because nicer establishments banned pimps and hookers and firmly dissuaded guests from entertaining paid companions in their rooms. My good buddy Jerry had done a deal with the taxi driver to save money by hiring two girls. I had lots of time to puzzle this out because the thumping and squealing that rattled the thin paneling separating Jerry’s room from mine continued well into the wee small hours.

The next morning the same enraged taxi driver told Jerry how I had rejected his multiple offerings of Siamese pulchritude, after which he charged Jerry the full amount. Needless to say Jerry took umbrage at my thoughtless and inconsiderate behavior. Personally, I was dog tired and would have none of it. He was building a head of steam until I interrupted him with a mention that “whore-chaser” wouldn’t look good on his permanent record and I was not only in a position to make that might happen but would surely do so if he didn’t shut up that very minute.

Call me a rat, but Jerry was actually kind of tolerable after that – in an obnoxious sort of way.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Berserkeley - #18

Leigh, the PanAm stewardess whom I’d met in Tokyo while flying as a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal), asked me to join her in a visit to some old friends who lived in Berkeley. Leigh was quite the free spirit – always decorating the hotel rooms where the airline put her up between flights by draping scarves over the lamps and taping psychedelic posters over the windows – so it came as no surprise that her Berkeley friends were pretty left of center.

What was surprising – at least to me – was why Leigh injected an agent of the much loathed “pig” establishment, in my case the Treasury Department, into this cocoon of macrobiotic, progressive virtue. Since Leigh treated men more or less like Ernest Hemmingway did big game I suspect that I was the catch of the day – ultimately destined to have my skin stretched on the wall of some trophy room. Or perhaps she thought she could raise my consciousness, as they used to say, by cleaning out my musty, Neolithic, cerebrum with a blast of revolutionist rhetoric. Let me set the scene…

We were met at the door by a willowy woman in her 40’s wearing a tie-dyed, floor-length peasant dress. Her prematurely graying hair, which was so straight that it had to have been ironed, was captured by a leather barrette from which it flowed down to her waist. In close attendance was a brood of three daughters ranging in age from mid-teen to early “tween.” Her husband – they weren’t all that radical – was a heavy set, bald guy in a baggy dashiki cinched at the waist by a checkered apron. He was off in the kitchen dutifully cooking up the evening’s vegetarian repast – bean sprout and tofu couscous drenched in saffron oil.

The walls of the apartment displayed the standard issue Berkeley collection of motivational artwork: Malcolm X Is Welcome Here, Free Huey, Woodstock, and the Che Guevara icon posters, as well as grainy black and white blow-up photos of Angela Davis, Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising gloved fists on the victory stand at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and a saintly Ho Chi Minh. The air was thick with incense and Ravi Shankar. I knew it was going to be a long night.

Dinner was seasoned with the usual 1970 Berkeley small talk about the-running-dog-capitalist-pig-establishment’s-illegal-war-on-the-downtrodden-Viet-Namese-peasants-blah-blah-blah… I nodded politely or perhaps I was sleeping with my eyes open. In any case, I had little to add. A fly on the wall might come to the conclusion that all of this radical cant was meant to soften up the enemy – I mean guest – for interrogation. I swear to you that the second hand on my watch had stopped moving.

Eventually our hostess tired of reciting verbatim from the editorial page of the Daily Worker, and launched into a serious effort to tune up my political sensitivity with the story of her beautiful black lover. He, along with some fellow felons who called themselves revolutionaries (“felon” and “revolutionary” were often redundant in those days) had recently made the national headlines. While on the lam from robbing a bank in Tucson the three decided to hijack a plane and divert it to Cuba. Their request was challenged by a member of the plane’s crew who incurred death for his insensitivity to their plight. There was no further protest from the crew or passengers and the hijacked plane arrived safely in Havana.

The story made me ill. Maybe it was supposed to. I consoled myself in the knowledge that her radical skyjacker-lover most certainly did not receive the hero’s welcome in Havana that he’d been expecting for his anti-establishment high jinks. Cuban Communists then as now, are a suspicious lot and in all likelihood they promptly took our bank-robbing revolutionary and his two felonious cronies directly from the airport to some hot, dirty, bug infested cane fields for an extended period of intense political education. Cubans have been known to politically educate people to death, so there was a glimmer of the possibility of justice for this murderer.

While mom was regaling me with the tale of her lover her three girls were literally seated at her feet, wide-eyed, soaking up all the drama, while papa was off in the kitchen scrubbing the wok. When she finished her story, this New Age, liberated, progressive woman looked directly at me – her voice choking in empathetic fervor - and asked what I would have done had I been on the plane and confronted this beautiful black victim of a criminally oppressive society who had been merely struggling to throw off the shackles of a racist culture.

I looked her at her girl’s innocent faces, and at her husband doing his best to ignore a story that he’d probably heard countless times. Then I looked at my hostess and contemplated the polite response. In the end, honestly won out. “With all due respect Ma'am, anyone who attempts to hijack a plane I'm guarding can expect to be shot...dead, if at all possible.”

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Monday, February 4, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Sake Story - #17

After about two months of temporary posting as a Customs Security Officer, otherwise known as a Federal Sky Marshal (these days, Air Marshal), covering PamAm flights out of New York and bound for Europe, in March of 1971 I was reassigned to my permanent duty station in San Francisco. From there I, and a couple dozen other Sky Marshals, guarded select routes flown by PamAm and other US carriers to points west – flying as undercover guards far as Bangkok. Capitals further west, such as New Delhi, were covered by Sky Marshals flying out of New York.

For the next 15 or 16 months I would rack about 750,000 miles making short stops in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Saigon, Manila and Bangkok. To and from these destinations I touched down in Anchorage, Hawaii and Guam. Rarely did the Sky Marshals have much of a layover between flights. Uncle Sam wasn’t paying us to broaden our cultural horizons and we didn’t have any “flight rules” governing how much down time was required between flights that I ever heard about. Such free time as we did have between flights was taken up by checking in our weapons upon arrival, clearing the local customs, finding a cab, getting a hotel room, eating some chow, grabbing some shut-eye and then repeating the process in reverse. Often I had as little as 6 hours between flights. Not much time for sightseeing if I wanted to get some sleep.

But what the heck. If I met someone on the flight who wanted to see some sights…well, sleep has always taken a backseat to feminine companionship on my list of priorities. As mentioned a couple of blogs back, PanAm boasted some of the most attractive young ladies aloft. Not all of whom were disinclined to accept and invitation to dinner by the in-flight security personnel…that is to say…me.

Yah, yah, yah. I can hear it now. Fraternization between the security personnel and the flight crew is not to be encouraged lest it create a breakdown in the…whatever. After nearly three months on the job, it was obvious that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had pulled in its horns. Or, at the very least, Yassir’s stooges weren’t casing out airports outside of the Mediterranean. Of course there were splinter groups of wild-eyed wackos seeking martyrdom all over the world. Anyways, I assume there were. You see, I never saw any kind of report, or threat warning, or danger status-condition-orange sort of thing…the whole time I worked as a Sky Marshal. All I ever got was a list of patterns every few weeks of flights that I was supposed to guard. A typical pattern was SFO / Tokyo / Hong Kong / Bangkok / Hong Kong / Tokyo / SFO…all in five days. I guess the presence of hastily trained, ill-informed in-flight Sky Marshals was a sufficient deterrent to terrorists in those days.

So I made friends with the stewardesses, or at least the friendly ones. Stop rolling your eyes. I have no intention of writing a kiss-and-tell blog. And even if I did it wouldn’t be true. As an example, here’s a “didn’t kiss and tell” story…

On a flight to or from Tokyo, I forget which, I met a pretty girl who I’ll call Linda. I’d seen her on a couple of other patterns so when I bumped into her outside the airport waiting for the crew bus I said “hi.” We chatted a bit and before you could say “coffee, tea or sake,” we had set up a date. As usual, PanAm put the crew up in pretty ritzy digs, while those us living on Federal per diem roosted on a much lower perch. Though, with the yen at 280 per dollar, you could still find nice rooms cheap.

After a quick shower at my cheap hotel room I found a cab and I picked up Linda at the Imperial Hotel (I said they were ritzy digs). From there we went out to a tempura restaurant in the Ginza that she liked. We spent the next little while seated on the floor washing down batter-fried octopus nostrils with rounds of sake when Linda says to me, “It’s expensive to drink here. Let’s get some sake and go back to my room.”

Before you could say, “Ready, aim, fire,” we get a cab and head back to the Imperial Hotel. But when we get there, Linda tells me that she doesn’t want to order the sake from room service because it will show up on her bill, so would I please go get some. "Sure, no problem" I said and then I spent the next hour in a cab driven by a driver who spoke no English trying to find the Japanese equivalent of a 7-11 store. Amazingly, I found one, bought some sake, and we returned to the hotel. I gave the driver a good tip and despite the hard-wired Japanese dignity, he couldn’t resist giving me a big smile. Way to go, round eye!

I stuck the bottle under my coat before I walked through the majestic doors of the Imperial Hotel into a lobby that was about the size of an airplane hanger. In short order I found the house phone and called up to Linda’s room fully expecting that she’d gotten tired of waiting for me and gone to sleep. But no, she was all sparkly and told me to come right up.

I found the door her room ajar, and as I opened it she called out for me to heat up the sake in the bathroom sink. So, I did a quick 90 degree turn into the bathroom and ran hot water over the bottle. Eventually, after increasing the sake’s temperature by about one degree, I poured out about two fingers each into two hotel water glasses and walked into the room…

…where I found Linda seated cross-legged on the bed wearing only panties and some virtually transparent, short, peignoir-type top. My sake-addled brain shot right past “every boy’s fantasy fulfilled” to “this is pretty weird.” Still, a full bottle of sake and a pretty girl who seems friendly are not things to be ignored, so I handed her a glass and sat down next to her on the bed.

“I rather you didn’t sit so close,” she said.

Okay. So I moved to the other bed – the room had two double beds. We – mostly Linda – chatted about this and that. When she drained her glass, I offered to get her another drink. “Please,” she says and so I do…returning to find that she had taken off her transparent top. Now it’s just me with an almost naked, really good-looking girl with a flirtatious smile and a mostly full bottle of sake.

After I handed her the glass I moved to touch her hair. She flinched away and said, “Please don’t.”

By now we’re in the smallest of the wee small hours. I’ve had a snoot full of sake and I’m very confused about the rules of engagement. The whole "get away closer" thing is making my head spin so I tell Linda that I’m leaving, at which point she starts to cry. With her sudden rush of tears I’m expecting a private detective with a Speed Graflex camera – flashbulbs popping – to jump out of closet. I said “goodbye” and left.

The next morning as I’m walking on to the PanAm flight that I’m scheduled to guard, who should I see handing out the rolls of steaming towels that were given to all the First Class passengers at the start of a flight but Linda, my sake buddy from the previous evening. She takes one look at me, utters a small shriek, drops the tray of towels, and rushes through the curtains into the large galley that separates the First Class seats from steerage on a 747.

In short order, the flight’s Purser – in this case a senior stewardess – comes out through the curtains like an avenging angel on afterburners, points at me and says, “I’ll see you in the lounge, mister.” I look around to see all the passengers staring at me mouths agape. I follow the Purser up the winding staircase to the 747's upstairs lounge where she reams me out every which way at a volume that the ramp rats standing outside of the plane on the tarmac could hear. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that she was going to file a report with my supervisor in SFO.

Which she most certainly did, and I was duly called before Agent in Charge who asked me what had happened. I told him the whole story, after which he sat silent for a long time. Finally, he pulled open some drawers in his desk until he found what he was looking for – a copy of the Federal regulations and policies – from which he read something along these lines. The exact words escape me but it went something like this:

“Federal agents are specifically prohibited from discharging a weapon unless presented with a clear and unobstructed target.”

Since it was clear that I had followed Federal regulations to the letter, he closed the book and told me to get out of his office.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Hail to the Chief - #16

My temporary posting to JFK immediately following graduation from Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) school lasted about two months. During that time I flew – mostly in teams of two – to a half-dozen European cities while crisscrossing the Atlantic more than a dozen times. On some "patterns," e.g., series of flights between cities, the stops included US cities other than New York.

On one pattern, we touched down in Boston and over-nighted in Detroit. You might remember that Detroit in the early ‘70’s simmered – to say the least – with a lot of racial tension. Not a place for a naïve kid raised in the suburbs to wander around in unescorted. After landing I and my team member checked in with the local U.S. Customs office and were immediately taken under the wing of an avuncular senior agent whose local tour advice boiled down to: "Stay in your hotel. Take cabs to and from the airport."

Since Detroit didn’t have any local sites that I hankered to see, I asked about finding a firing range. An odd request perhaps, but I had a reason. If you’ve been following the story, you’ll remember that I’d failed to qualify with the small and easy-to-conceal Smith & Wesson Chief's Special – the desire for which had led me into the job of Sky Marshal. The fallback weapon issued to Sky Marshals was the much larger, S&W Combat Masterpiece – the standard issue sidearm for uniformed agents in the Treasury Department in those days.

Sky Marshals were supposed to be undercover, or anonymous, when travelling offering clandestine protection for airliners against anyone bent on hijacking the flight. As such, concealing your weapon was highly desirable goal, and mostly impossible with a "hog leg." Okay…the term "hog leg" generally refers to a Colt revolver that generally had a 6" barrel and the Combat Masterpiece I was issued had a 4" barrel.

Quibbles aside over my choice of metaphor, the Combat Masterpiece was about as easy to hide about one’s person as was a drafting t-square. I carried mine in a shoulder holster. When I buttoned my coat, anyone with passable vision might assume that I had had a breast implant, but only on my left side. Or perhaps they might entertain the thought that I was carrying a brick in my inside coat pocket.

I feared any that any would-be skyjacker scoping out the passengers would take note of the obvious Sky Marshal. I might as well have been wearing a uniform. After a couple of flights where passengers said things to me like, "Oh, you must be the Sky Marshal. I’ll feel much safer sitting next to you," I decided to remedy the situation by buying my own Chief's Special.

"Wait," I heard someone say. How can I carry a gun that I hadn’t qualified to use? Buying my own weapon meant that I was going against regulations, breaking the rules, and defying authority. Well, maybe… However, the way I looked at it, any chance of me doing my job depended on not wearing a sign that said "Sky Marshal." If the main tool for the job made being undercover problematic, I needed a new tool. So, over one weekend, I flew back to California and bought myself a gun that I could conceal.

After some experimentation – I tried an upside down holster like the one Steve McQueen wore in Bullet – I bought girdle like thing called a "belly band," a 6" or 8" strip of cloth that was worn under your shirt. The belly band was shot through with elastic and had a couple of pistol-shaped pockets sewn into it so that you could holster a small gun on either hip. It worked pretty well as along as the wearer harbored no fantasies about a quick draw. Still, it was better than carrying your gun in a briefcase, which some guys did, and was it was handier than the Walther PPK in my ankle holster that I wasn’t supposed to have anyway.

The trip that included the Detroit stop was the first I’d flown since I’d bought my own "Chief" and I wanted some practice time. It turned out that the Treasury building in downtown Detroit did indeed have its own indoor pistol range, which the friendly Customs agent made available to us. He gave us each a couple boxes of wad-cutter from their stock and left us to blast away.

Amazingly, I shot the gun pretty well. I did my best to recreate the timed-fire exercise that had nearly gotten me expelled from Sky Marshal school and managed to put 10 rounds in the black within the required time. Since the Chief's Special is a five-round gun, that meant ejecting the spent rounds and reloading in about 15 seconds. It also required shooting from both the right and left hand. One thing that helped was that I wasn’t shooting the juiced-up SuperVel rounds that we’d been issued…for a reason. When you fired SuperVels, the muzzle blast created a fireball that enveloped the entire gun. You always knew when someone had been shooting SuperVels because the backs of their hands were bright red.

Purists out there will be glad to know that shortly after transferring to from the temporary posting in New York to my permanent base in SF, I did officially qualify the small gun and Customs issued me my very own shiny, silver Chief's Special – though by that time I had been carrying one for a couple of months. Oh yes, in case you’re interested, I also took to time to train with the Walther. That is to say, I could shoot a and replace a clip while putting all the rounds on target at our defined combat distance which – if I remember correctly – was about 15’ to 20’. Not exactly sniper material I know, but airline cabins are tight places.

One quick vignette about concealment…

I flew as Sky Marshal entirely on PanAm and, as a result, got to know a number of the personnel pretty well. On one flight shortly after I’d switched from the clunky Combat Masterpiece to the petite Chief's Special, a stewardess that I’d flown with on several patterns spotted me, rushed up and gave me a hug. When she realized that I wasn’t wearing a shoulder holster she looked puzzled and asked me, "Where do you keep it?"

"In the usual place," I replied.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008