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 na├»ve 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

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