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

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