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

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Lisbon - #15

Immediately following from Treasury Air Security Officer’s School in late winter of 1970, I was temporarily posted as a Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) flying out of New York for a couple of months until U.S. Customs set up facilities in San Francisco, which was to be my permanent base. While I was stationed in NYC, I flew a number of patterns to European capitals including Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Lisbon, London, Paris and Rome – all guarding PanAm flights. The last of these patterns was a five-day jaunt from JFK to Rome with layovers in London and Lisbon. On the two legs between Lisbon and Rome we did a brief touch-down in Nice.

We laid over in Lisbon to and from Rome. The first time in town I went to dinner with the crew. We ate lots of chicken and drank flagons of that green Portuguese wine…at least for some of the folks. I needed a clear head in the morning so I cut myself off while I could still walk. The second time in Lisbon I was treated to guided tour of the town’s underbelly by a particularly worldly PanAm co-pilot. He squired me to a series of sailors’ bars near the wharves that were virtually interchangeable with “GI bars” common to cities all over the world.

I don’t think the names of these bars ever registered on my consciousness. I doubt that I’ll ever get back in Lisbon, but if I do return I’ll probably investigate entirely different aspects of the local culture. The places we visited that night were populated by single-minded young women in mini-skirts, old bartenders with dead eyes, and a simian bouncer or two. Then, of course, there were the…“prey.” At least that’s the way I felt when we entered a darkened bar that was lit inside mostly by neon beer signs and small, glittering strobe lights. The only place where you could read your watch was the small pool of light next to the cash register.

Outside the bar it was a clear, brisk, winter afternoon. Inside the bar it was midnight in one of Dante’s inner circles of Hell. The place was sparsely populated. Those women not frisking the few male patrons for loose cash and valuables were clustered near the door. As soon as we walked in, 2 or 3 immediately headed for us like sharks to chum.

One “girl” of 17 or 47 – it was hard to tell in the dim, flickering light – cozied up to me as I was standing at the bar. Actually, the experience was more like having a perfumed tick crawling around my clothes looking to burrow into a bare patch of skin. In Portuguese-flavored English she murmured sweet nothings and suggested that buying her some “champagne” might incline her to be even more amorous. As I noted above, “GI bars” are the same from San Antonio, Texas, to Singapore. The girls are there to separate a fool from his money in the shortest possible time. I imagined that these girls competed amongst themselves like rodeo calf ropers to see who could hog-tie their victim in the shortest possible time.

My tour guide was apparently a regular in this place because the two girls who attached themselves like moray eels to his body knew his name. He told me that it would be an enormous cultural gaffe if I didn’t buy my Lolita some champagne – I mean, a strongly worded complaint would be lodged with the American attaché in Lisbon if I failed to observe the local customs – so I ponied up $3.50 for the bubbly. Remember, this was 1971, so that was probably ten bucks for what was most certainly ginger ale! I’d hoped that the drink would at least occupy one of her hands – up to that point both of which had been checking to see if I had a hernia – but she never touched the drink. At least, diplomatic relations between Portugal and the U.S. were preserved.

We topped off the night at a cavernous, though virtually empty, dance hall. The bandstand looked like the prow of a ship which had somehow crashed through the wall about 15 feet above the dance floor. As we parted the front doors, the doorman greeted my companion and they exchanged several whispered comments clearly not intended for my ears. As we took seats at a small, bare, round table – we were virtually the only patrons being entertained by the weary musicians – I noticed a petite young woman heading towards us from the other side of the room.

At least from distance she resembled a young woman in a mini-skirt with long, straight hair. However the closer she came to us, the older she appeared. It was like time-lapse photography. By the time she stood next to our table she had aged about 30 years. My tour guide introduced us. Her name was also Lolita and she immediately gave me a big, lusty hug. Since she grabbed me before I could stand up it meant that she jammed my face between two breasts reeking with cheap perfume and old sweat. When she finally released her grip I felt like I’d been tear-gassed.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Stewardesses - #14

The fear of mid-air hijackings of U.S. flag airliners spurred the government to create the Federal Air Security Officer – a.k.a. Sky Marshal (lately, Air Marshal) – program in the fall of 1970. That, and my infatuation with a Smith & Wesson Chief''s Special, landed me on International flights, first out of New York, and later departing from San Francisco.

I, along with about 1,500 other Sky Marshals, provided more or less undercover in-flight security from the winter of 1971 through the fall of 1972 when they concluded the program and converted the Customs Security Officers – our formal job title – to other jobs within U.S. Customs. Some moved to other branches of Federal law enforcement.

During the nearly two years I worked as a Sky Marshal, I had almost no encounters with anyone even remotely resembling a skyjacker but I had extensive contact with airline personnel – mostly stewardesses.


Even with my consciousness “raised” by countless feminist rants, how can I still be so…chauvinistic…as to use such an archaic term? In the first place, the term, stewardess, was what female flight attendants were called in the 1970’s and, the second place, at that time it wasn’t a derogatory term. In those – some might say – sexist days, stewardesses were avatars of feminine appeal. They ranked up there with Playboy bunnies and movie starlets. For quite a few young women, working as stewardess was a very desirable job and getting hired was literally like winning a beauty contest. As a result, competition for stewardess jobs was high, at least it was for the major and/or international airlines.

Sitting at the top of the list for prestigious global airlines was Pan American World Airways…later shortened to PanAm. Started in 1927 to fly shuttles from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba, PanAm pioneered trans-oceanic and international air travel. Its fleet of Clippers first lumbered out of San Francisco in the 1930’s destined for what in those days were some of the most exotic destinations on the planet. In the late 1960’s, PanAm debuted the “Jumbo” jet – the Boeing 747 – which was to play a big role in my personal Sky Marshal experience.

By the 1970’s, PanAm had achieved a level of prestige that was virtually unequalled among airlines. Its blue-striped planes were still called “clippers” and bore individual names like ocean liners. Flights of long duration could be staffed by a Purser who would often chart the progress of the flight on a world map that was taped to the First Class bulkhead.

Two of PanAms regularly scheduled flights, #s 001 & 002, circumnavigated the globe each day – one chasing the sun and the other heading the opposite way. To serve its sophisticated international clientele, PanAm’s stewardesses came from all over the world and, from what I could tell, were some of the most attractive and chic of any airline. PanAm’s Scandinavian-born stewardesses were legendary. If you have to ask why, go ask your father. You’re not old enough to be reading this.

In part due to the prestige of international flying and PanAm, itself, the PanAm stewardesses that I met were very proud of their jobs. Since PanAm was barred from carrying passengers between U.S. cities, a PanAm “stew” was guaranteed many opportunities to buy lingerie in Paris, luggage in Spain, shoes in Italy, cameras in Japan, gold in Hong Kong and gems in Bangkok. Almost all were college grads, or planned to finish college after a few years as a stewardess. Quite a few were bilingual and for many, English was a second language.

Best of all, for us guys who were unmarried at the time, every one of those gorgeous gals was single thanks to airline regulations which stipulated that a young woman couldn’t work as a stewardess and be married. Of course, single didn’t always mean available – to the likes of me, at least. Girls as good-looking as your average PanAm stewardess generally had boyfriends, fiancees and/or wealthy sugar-daddies. Some even had fan clubs. For those girls who were still unattached there was furious competition beginning with the pilots, co-pilots and navigators. With each Clipper staffed with by bevy of beauties the cockpit was aptly named.

Still, if you washed behind yours ears, trimmed your nails, could articulate a complete sentence without stammering, and didn’t drag your knuckles when you walked – all of which applied to me – you stood a small chance of asking one of these gorgeous gals out and not having her laugh in your face.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Heathrow Airport - #13

During the winter of 1971 I flew as a Sky Marshal (lately, Air Marshal) out of New York to and from Europe. I’ve forgotten the number of trips back and forth, but the destinations are pretty clear: Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, Lisbon, Rome, and London.

Since skyjacking was a pretty new phenomenon in those days, international law on the subject was fuzzy and, in almost any case, foreign governments didn’t recognize the authority of U.S. law enforcement personnel outside of American territory. As a result, every time we exited a plane in a foreign airport, we had to leave our weapons with the local authorities. During the disarmament ritual, most of the police officers were cordial, but a few treated us with a mixture of awe and contempt. The awe part had mostly to do the prevailing sense in Europe that Americans in general were wildly overpaid, and especially so with respect to their abilities. They held us in contempt for exactly the same reason. This was no truer than with the Bobbies who provided preflight security at Heathrow airport.

Upon arriving at Heathrow, the Sky Marshals were quickly culled from the flood of disembarking passengers and hustled away through a warren of cubbies to the Airport Police Constable’s Office. Once there – and before turning in our weapons – we were ushered to a special shrine set up by the Bobbies that was dedicated to Yankee Incompetence. This memorial consisted of a bucket of sand tucked up next to a gray metal filing cabinet that featured, about a foot above the bucket, a major dent. The paint around the dent had been fractured leaving just the bare steel. Placed above the dent was a handmade sign that said, “Make sure there isn’t one still up the spout.”

In the clipped tones of a constable talking to the Magistrate about a particularly obnoxious drunk he had just arrested, the Bobbie related to us the story of an American Sky Marshal who had accidentally discharged his automatic pistol into the filing cabinet while in the process of unloading it. The Bobbie could barely contain his glee at his chance to tell some smarty pants Yanks how incompetent they really were. I went through Heathrow two more times after that and got the same lecture each trip.

After this cautionary tale we were allowed to turn in our revolvers. The Walther PPK/S stayed in my boot. I had practiced safely unloading it to the point where I could do it blindfolded. Moreover, the whole point of having a backup gun was to not surrender it to anyone. The other guys in my team turned in their stainless steel Chief Specials while I handed over my 4 inch-barreled, blue steel, Model 15. Ironically, it was my hulking Combat Masterpiece that attracted more admiration over the tiny Chiefs. The Bobbies also adored our “silver bullets,” e.g., the chrome-cased SuperVel ammunition we were issued. Apparently old episodes of the Lone Ranger were popular in England. After that, I always carried extras so I could hand them out as souvenirs…I mean beyond the extras I carried in the unlikely event that there would be a firefight.

From the airport I went to the hotel, ate a nondescript dinner and spent six hours trying to sleep while my mind thought it was time to be awake. The next morning I ate an even more forgettable breakfast and I was shortly back at Heathrow for the trip home.

After check in and such, passengers at Heathrow had to be individually searched by the police prior to boarding the plane. Since I was wearing a shoulder holster, the routine was for me to have my credentials hanging out of my left inside coat pocket so that when I opened my coat for inspection whomever was searching me would see the badge at about the same time they saw the gun.

It so happened that the officer who was searching the boarding passengers that morning was our friend from the day before, Police Constable Snarky. Now, the whole point of having the Sky Marshals dress in civilian clothes and board with the other passengers was to maintain some semblance of anonymity, but as I approached the Bobbie he broke out in this huge grin. Perhaps he was grateful for the silver bullet. When I approached him and my turn came to be inspected I opened my coat for the “search.” At that point, the Bobbie gave me this huge wink and said in stage whisper that could be heard in the last row of the balcony, “Oy mate. We’ll make this look good so no one’s the wiser.”

The flight home took about 14 hours during which time almost everyone seated in first class was eyeing me curiously.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008