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